Opinion

The enduring legacy of Madeleine Albright

First woman to serve as the US Secretary of State shaped Europe after the end of Cold War


Published : 28 Mar 2022 08:41 PM

There are events unfolding now where east and west meet in Europe that could do with the experience and assiduous ability of Madeleine Albright, the first female US secretary of state who helped steer Western foreign policy in the aftermath of the Cold War.

She died on Wednesday at the age of 84 from cancer, her family said in a statement. For the best part of a decade she was the calm, effective force that shaped Europe and beyond at a time when the world seemed larger, more hopeful, collaborative.

For eight years she was a central figure in the administration of President Bill Clinton, serving as the US ambassador to the United Nations in New York, then becoming his top diplomat during his second term.

Indeed, it was she who effectively championed the eastern expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation into the territories occupied by the former satellite republics of the Soviet Union. Now, with her passing, the events unfolding in Ukraine and elsewhere are perhaps a result of her effectiveness. This is the pushback to her work — but none of us knew that then.

A force of goodness

President Joe Biden paid tribute to Albright on Wednesday, calling her a “force”. Back in the day, when he was a senator from Delaware, working on the Foreign Relations Committee, their paths cross frequently — so too their ideals and common goals.

“When I think of Madeleine,” the President said, “I will always remember her fervent faith that ‘America is the indispensable nation’.” He ordered flags at the White House and all federal buildings to be flown at half-staff in Albright’s honour.

For former president Clinton, the tributes were equally heartfelt. “Few leaders have been so perfectly suited for the times in which they served,” he wrote in a statement.

“As a child in war-torn Europe, Madeleine and her family were twice forced to flee their home. When the end of the Cold War ushered in a new era of global interdependence, she became America’s voice at the UN, then took the helm at the State Department, where she was a passionate force for freedom, democracy, and human rights.”

For many who recall the period between the end of the Cold War and the terror attacks of 9/11, the matronly figure of Albright — a wide smile at the ready, so too a stern, raised eyebrow — represented an optimism that diplomacy could indeed get results.

According to her family, Albright died surrounded by her close family.

“We have lost a loving mother, grandmother, sister, aunt and friend,” the family’s statement said, adding that she was a “tireless champion of democracy and human rights.”

But there was always a decency to her too, one that seemed to rise above politics and be well suited to the very serious business of statehood. Clinton named Albright the US ambassador to the UN within days of his inauguration in 1993, and nominated her as Secretary of State three years later. The confirmation vote in the Senate was unanimous, making her then the highest-ranking woman in the history of the America.

But she was also determined and forthright, actively championing military action in Kosovo against Serbia at a time when the Balkan states were still raw from war.

Clinton last spoke to Albright two weeks ago as her battle with cancer entered its final stages.

“She never lost her great sense of humour or her determination to go out ... in its fight to preserve freedom and democracy,” Clinton said.

Hillary Clinton, who became the country’s third female secretary of state — Condoleezza Rice was the second — said she and her husband would “always be deeply grateful for the wonderful friendship” they shared with Albright and “the unfailingly wise counsel she gave us over so many years.”

In effect, Albright was born into the world of diplomacy. She was born in May, 1937 in Prague where he father was a diplomat. She was barely two when they fled Czechoslovakia as it fell to the storm troopers of Adolf Hitler.

The family made it to England initially, then on to the US where they finally settle in Denver in 1948. She became a naturalised American citizen in 1957, and graduated from Wellesley College. She later earned her doctorate in public law and government at Columbia University.

In the mid 1970s, in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, she went to work as a legislative assistant to Democratic Senator Edmund Muskie — he would later go on to be the Secretary of State for President Jimmy Carter — and joined the staff of the National Security Council during his one-term administration.

For all of the background checks that one might expect in positions at the National Security Council, the revelation in 1997 that in fact she was of Jewish descent came as a complete surprise.

She had been raised Roman Catholic, and was “stunned” when reporter Michael Dobbs’ research showed that “three of my grandparents and numerous other family members had died in the Holocaust,” Albright told Politico in 2012.

“I was shocked and, to be honest, embarrassed to discover that I had not known my family history better,” she wrote in her book “Prague Winter.”

After leaving public office, Albright went on to teach at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and became a prolific author, writing seven New York Times best-sellers.

In 2012, then-President Barack Obama awarded Albright the Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honour. On Wednesday, he praised Albright’s “trailblazing career,”, adding that she “paved the way for progress in some of the most unstable areas of the world.”

But throughout, Albright remained modest, quiet and unassuming.

“I never thought that I would have the kind of life I’ve had,” Albright told a magazine in a 2020 interview. Asked about her best job experience, she said: “Being Secretary of State and sitting behind the sign that said the United States, especially since I wasn’t born here, and I am a very grateful American.”


Mick O’Reilly is Foreign Correspondent at Gulf News. Source: Gulf News