"Madam Secretary," the "West Wing"-style CBS series about geo- (and office) politics at the U.S. State Department, depicts fictional foreign crises facing the secretary of state. It's relatively compelling, even if it mystifies Foggy Bottom even more than most portrayals of the State Department.

But it begs the question: Why not just watch the news instead? After all, no script could match the drama currently playing out on the world stage.

Take it from the original Madam Secretary — Madeleine Albright, who will be in Minneapolis on Thursday for an evening event open to the public that will help support scholarships at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. (On Friday, she'll co-teach a class at Humphrey).

"The Mideast is stunningly complicated," said Albright, secretary of state from 1997-2001, in an interview. But her candid confirmation of how hard it is to understand the upheaval wasn't limited to the region. The diplomatic disquiet is global, which Albright said was a condition of a post-Soviet world.

"We are still trying to sort out the post-Cold War era. In many ways, what is weird is that we all thought that the Cold War was the most dangerous thing ever, and there was a powerful country with missiles pointed at us. But the bottom line is there were rules, and there was a rational player."

Rules and rationality are relics in much of the world today. "There are real questions about the validity of the nation-state," Albright said. "It has not gone away, but what has happened is the rise of nonstate actors." Albright mentioned the immediate menace of terrorists, as well as potential forces for good like nongovernmental organizations, multinational corporations and powerful individuals.

And beyond those transnational factors, there are nonconflict destabilizers like climate change, as well as economic contagions and viruses like Ebola.

"As a political-science professor, it is very hard to describe where the system is at the moment," Albright said. "It is all in flux, and trying to figure out who has the power and what environment does it comes out of and what tools does a country or a group have to influence another one."

The flux features what Albright calls three "game-changers" — Russian aggression in Ukraine (by cleaving Crimea "they have broken the rules; there's just no other way to describe it"); cascading chaos in the Mideast (where a series of "competing and parallel debates between Sunnis and Shias, Arabs and Persians, and haves and have-nots result in a very unsettled environment"), and the rise of China. Two "megatrends" — globalization and technology — are contributing factors, Albright added.

Globalization "is clearly a great way of bringing people together and it shows our interdependence. But it has also created its own contradiction. And that is that it's very faceless in many ways. So people feel completely lost within that context, and so they've begun to group within their own kind in ethnic or religious or whatever groupings. Which is fine — everybody should be proud of their identity. But when it depends on hating other people, it creates the tension we are seeing in a variety of places."

The grouping — and the hatred — can be accelerated by technology, the second "megatrend" mentioned by Albright. Digital devices, for instance, "have connected everybody and made it possible for somebody in Africa to use their mobile phones to pay their bills and find out where to get fertilizer. But at the same time, what it has done is completely disaggregate voices. So everybody has their own way of talking, and where they get their information. And so what's happened is there is no faith in institutions, whether international or national."

And yet international institutions, including the State Department, are needed more than ever to defuse crises. Albright said that in her Georgetown University course on the "national security toolbox," diplomacy undergirds all other coercive measures, such as economic tools like trade, aid and sanctions; the threat (or actuality) of use of force; law enforcement, and intelligence.

Because diplomacy remains central, so too will diplomats, including the secretary state — from past (Albright and presumed presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton) to present (John Kerry) and even the fictional (Elizabeth McCord, played by Tea Leoni).

"You are the nation's chief diplomat," Albright said. "The bottom line is I do think the job of secretary of state and diplomacy continues and will always be central, but it also has to operate in the context of operating in the other parts of the government."

And despite the disruptive technology Albright mentions, she said diplomacy is still highly personal. "Traveling is still very much a part of it — it's still human.

John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.