Madeleine Albright’s mea-s-ure as secretary of state (1997-2001) could be taken by comparing her to Warren Christopher, her predecessor, and Colin Powell, her successor. Christopher was the passive instrument of the Clinton administration’s first-term aversion to foreign affairs. On his watch, Bosnia festered and Rwanda blew up in a genocidal rage. Colin Powell has become the accommodating instrument of the Bush administration’s plunge into a war during which he has witnessed the violation of every cautionary principle he pressed on the Clinton administration as head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. (During the Bosnia crisis, Albright famously asked Powell, “What are you saving this superb military for, Colin, if we can’t use it?”) Christopher and Powell, for all of their intelligence and integrity, are likely to be counted poor stewards of U.S. foreign policy. Not so Madeleine Albright, who was an effective advocate of the activist policy she reshaped to the challenges of the post-cold-war world. She had the good fortune to head the State Department in Bill Clinton’s second term when foreign policy could no longer be set aside (and Colin Powell had retired). In Kosovo, assisted by Richard Holbrooke, she pursued diplomacy with Slobodan Milosevic; and when that failed, assisted by General Wesley Clark, she supported war-diplomacy by other means, as she says, with Clausewitz. She fostered peace agreements between the Palestinians and Israelis, first working with the right-wing Benjamin Netanyahu and then the left-wing Ehud Barak. She began an initiative to normalize relations with Iran, and took North Korea seriously as a diplomatic player in Asia. Attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 gave her a full sense of terrorism’s reach: she flew round-trip over two days to stand in mourning with her ambassadors, and was back in Washington in time to support the president’s attack on terrorists’ camps in Afghanistan. She was both diplomat-in-chief and public educator, pursuing the national interest while tutoring the U.S. public on its responsibilities as “the indispensable nation.” Her energy and peripatetic style did not impede either her instinct for the appropriate gesture (the flight to Africa to support her ambassadors) or capacity for hard work (she was back in her office a few hours after her return). Thomas W. Lippman, diplomatic correspondent for the Washington Post, reports in a recent book (see sidebar, page 26) that shortly after taking office, in a week when Albania was falling apart, the Middle East in turmoil, and the Russian foreign minister due in Washington, Albright took an hour to visit a D.C. public school. It was important to her, a spokesman explained, “to create an awareness even at an early age of the connection of the United States to the larger world.” She also made peace along the way with Senator Jesse Helms (R.-N.C.), a persistent critic of the United Nations who had made her tenure as UN ambassador problematic. (It was hard to promote a vigorous policy when the United States refused to pay its dues.) Under a charm assault from Albright, Helms finally agreed to pay up on the UN’s peacekeeping operations and to increase funds for the State Department. lbright was a born diplomat. In her four years as ambassador to the UN and four at the State Department, she exercised her native talent and hard-won knowledge on behalf of her adopted country. Madeleine Korbel Albright was a “first” from the beginning-first-born in Prague on May 15, 1937, of Joseph and Anna Korbel. Pater Korbel was a Czechoslovak patriot and democrat, a diplomat in the foreign ministry under President Tomas Masaryk. An ardent supporter of Czech independence, Korbel fled the Nazis in 1939 and the Communists in 1948. Granted U.S. asylum, the family landed in Denver where the senior Korbel taught international relations at the University of Denver (in later years, Condoleezza Rice was one of his students). Albright admits that she was her father’s willing student. “To understand me, you must understand my father. To understand him, you must understand that my parents grew up in what they thought was a golden place”-Czechoslovakia in the interwar years. Embedded in this tutelage and deeply shaping the daughter’s foreign-policy outlook were his own experiences-the Munich agreement that turned Czechoslovakia over to the Nazis and the Yalta accords that conceded Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. Her father’s posts in England and Yugoslavia gave the young Madeleine a taste for the diplomatic life, which she resumed with relish during the Clinton administration. The freedom and opportunity offered her family and other displaced persons after World War II have been frequent themes in her speeches and reference points for her policies. (The Cuban exile community in Florida loved her, and she them!) What may have sounded like corny patriotism to native-born Americans was heart-felt gratitude in Albright. She actually believes in the American dream because she has lived it. If she was by nature and nurture disposed to a keen interest in world affairs, Albright also made herself a knowledgeable advisor by pursuing (while a wife and mother of three) a PhD in international relations at Columbia (1976). Her 1959 marriage to Joseph Albright, journalist and an heir to the Chicago Tribune fortune, brought her to Washington in 1968 and ultimately to the presidential campaigns of Edmund Muskie and Michael Dukakis. Financially well off after Joe Albright left her in 1982, she worked first as a congressional aide to Muskie and later in the Carter White House at the National Security Council (NSC) with her former Columbia professor, Zbigniew Brzezinski. Albright is right to say that Madame Secretary is not a history of the Clinton administration’s foreign policy, but it will be indispensable to writing it. Read with Richard Holbrooke’s To End a War (an account of the Dayton Accords) and Wesley Clark’s Waging Modern War (about Kosovo), it establishes the Clinton administration’s impressive and still underappreciated record on foreign affairs. Albright’s memoir is packed with details of policymaking and politicking, one-liners and retorts along with all the autobiographical details that have made her a singular secretary of state. It gives a vivid account of how she carried out U.S. foreign policy when a coherent view and forceful execution were sorely needed. (Diplomacy could be war by other means; she and Clark worked in tandem-diplomat and soldier-to hold NATO together during the war in Kosovo.) Being first may be great, but it is not easy. “First women” have a mixed history. Margaret Thatcher and Indira Gandhi are (in)famous for their strong-arm governance. The failed health-care initiative of Hillary Rodham Clinton, an Albright friend, was ascribed by many to a fatal combination of arrogance and insecurity. These were not Albright’s problems (of course, she was not head of government nor married to the man who was). Her great strength lay in mastery of her chosen arena, and she was well schooled in the diplomatic dance. The book has a remarkable account of the American maneuvers that led to Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s exit as UN secretary general after his first term, and the election of the far better qualified Kofi Annan. Sensitive to feminist issues, she displays few of the feminist tics. Most notably she has a sense of humor: Albright is funny and irreverent about her weight, her hats (the Stetson was good for bad hair days), and her jewelry, and she is frank about the freedom she deployed as a woman to act outside the box. She was willing to compete with men. When Holbrooke was her chief competitor for secretary of state, rumors circulated that Islamic nations would not accept her; she called on her UN Arab colleagues to speak with the media of her ability to work with them. She also knew when she was being treated badly, though she refused to ascribe motives. Anthony Lake, head of the NSC in the Clinton administration, would drum his fingers on the table when she spoke. “I wasn’t sure gender played any role,” she comments, “but I did resent being treated as though I were one of his students.” There will never again be a “first” woman to the top post in the State Department. Nor, barring a Wesley Clark or Hillary Clinton presidency, is Madeleine Albright likely to so ably serve her country again. “I hope,” she concludes, “people will say I did the best with what I was given.... Perhaps some will also say that I helped teach a generation of older women to stand tall and young women not to be afraid to interrupt.” Great advice, especially for those who are as knowledgeable and astute as she is, and would interrupt to such good effect.

Margaret O’Brien Steinfels is a former editor of Commonweal. 

Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Published in the 2004-02-13 issue: View Contents
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.