September 26, 2022

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Madeleine Albright, the first Madam Secretary

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MADELEINE ALBRIGHT, who died on March 23rd, aged 84, wore her jewellery as a form of diplomatic telegram. She was the first woman to serve as America’s secretary of state, and her adornments stood out in the sea of dark suits. A brooch with balloons or flowers indicated optimism; crabs or turtles meant frustration. A favourite was a snake, a reference to Saddam Hussein, the villainous late dictator of Iraq who once called her an “unparalleled serpent”.

These and other stories are recounted in “Read My Pins: Stories from a Diplomat’s Jewel Box”, one of several books that Mrs Albright wrote before and after her eight years in the diplomatic service of President Bill Clinton. Born in the former Czechoslovakia, Mrs Albright was appointed as ambassador to the United Nations in 1993 and then appointed as secretary of state from 1997 to 2001.

These years were a somewhat becalmed period in international affairs, between the end of the cold war and the start of the “global war on terror” provoked by al-Qaeda’s attacks on America on September 11th 2001. It was a time when America was supreme—a “hyperpower”, the ever-suspicious French then called it—but not yet confident, or overconfident, in the aggressively unilateral use of its power.

Mrs Albright preferred “the indispensable nation”, a term meant to encapsulate the idea that America’s participation in multilateralism was essential to make it work. But sometimes such language was also the rationale for threatening military action, as in 1998, when Saddam was engaged in a perpetual arm-wrestle with the UN over weapons inspections and sanctions. “If we have to use force, it is because we are America; we are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future, and we see the danger here to all of us,” Mrs Albright declared. She could be tough-talking to the point of callousness. Once, in the years of wrangling with Iraq, she was asked about reports that harsh international sanctions had resulted in the death of half a million children. “We think the price is worth it,” she replied.

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On her watch, the West tested notions of liberal intervention with much uncertainty. In December 1992, in his last weeks in office, George H.W. Bush sent American troops to Somalia as part of a wider peacekeeping effort to stop civil war and famine. The following year, after the Clinton administration took over, this mission turned into the debacle later chronicled in a book and a film, “Black Hawk Down”, when an operation to capture a warlord resulted in the death of 18 American servicemen. Soon thereafter Mr Clinton withdrew the forces.

The experience partly explained America’s reluctance, in 1994, to intervene to stop the genocide of hundreds of thousands of Rwandans, mostly ethnic Tutsis, by Hutu zealots. Years later Mrs Albright would apologise: “My deepest regret from my years in public service is the failure of the United States and the international community to act sooner to halt these crimes.”

In the wars resulting from the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, she pushed a reluctant administration to respond more forcefully against Serb nationalists in Bosnia engaged in the shelling of Sarajevo and the ethnic cleansing of Muslims. In 1993 she clashed with the then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Colin Powell, who later recalled the encounter in his memoirs. “My constant, unwelcome message at all the meetings on Bosnia was simply that we could not commit military forces until we had a clear political objective,” Mr Powell recounted. Mrs Albright, he noted, asked: “‘What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?’ I thought I would have an aneurysm.’”

The incident amounted to a clash of political cultures. Mr Powell, whose formative experience had been the disaster of the Vietnam War, would not have American soldiers engaged again in what he called “half-hearted warfare for half-baked reasons”. Mrs Albright, born to Jewish parents who converted the family to Catholicism and twice fled persecution, by the Nazis and then by the Soviets, favoured muscular internationalism. She eventually got her way in the Balkans, but not before the genocidal massacre of some 8,000 Muslims by Bosnian Serbs at Srebrenica. NATO’s air campaign compelled the Serbs to agree to the Dayton peace accords that ended the war later that year. Her “proudest moment” came four years later, in Kosovo, when NATO intervened in the Balkans again, this time to stop Serbian forces in Kosovo, in an operation that would eventually lead to the territory’s independence (which is not universally recognised). “There’s a whole generation of little girls whose first name is Madeleine,” she recalled.

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Like others before and after her, Mrs Albright tried her hand at mediating peace between Israel and the Palestinians. But the effort collapsed with the outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising, or intifada, in September 2000. Days later Mrs Albright convened Israel’s prime minister, Ehud Barak, and the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, for talks at the American embassy in Paris to end the bloodletting. Mr Arafat stormed out but the secretary of state, running after him in her heels, ordered the Marine guards to “Shut the gates!” to prevent him from driving away. She got Mr Arafat back into the room, but never found the key to peace.

Out of office, Mrs Albright inspired a generation of women looking for greater advancement. She supported Hillary Clinton, who served as another “Madam Secretary” under Barack Obama, in her bid for the presidency. She urged female Democrats to support her rather than Bernie Sanders with words that would land her in some trouble: “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.”

She was a critic of George W. Bush’s unilateral intervention in Iraq, which she said was “the greatest disaster in American foreign policy”, even worse than Vietnam in terms of the damage done to America’s standing in the world. She thought the idea of imposing democracy by force was “an oxymoron”.

Later, as populism infected Western democracies, she sounded the alarm in her last book, “Fascism: A Warning”, published in 2018. Donald Trump was “the first anti-democratic president in modern US history”, she declared—long before his followers assaulted the Capitol in January 2021.

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On his way to Europe on March 23rd for a succession of emergency summits on the war in Ukraine, President Joe Biden said in tribute: “Hers were the hands that turned the tide of history.”

Born Marie Jana Korbelova in Prague on May 15th 1937, she was the oldest of three children of Josef and Anna Korbel. Her father, a diplomat, fled to London in 1939 when Germany occupied Czechoslovakia. They converted to Catholicism in 1941, had their children baptised and even made up stories of Christian memories to help protect them. As a girl, Mrs Albright recalled, she had been “a very serious Catholic” who loved the Virgin Mary. She only learnt about her Jewish origins when the Washington Post dug them up, after she became secretary of state. Following the war, her father served as Czechoslovakia’s ambassador to Belgrade, but sent his daughter to a private school in Switzerland. When the communists seized power in Prague, he moved to London and then on to America, where he taught international studies at the University of Denver. In addition to English, Mrs Albright spoke Czech, French, Polish and Russian.

One of her last articles was an opinion piece for the New York Times in February about the looming war in Ukraine. She had been the first American official to meet Vladimir Putin after his appointment as acting president in 2000. “Putin is small and pale,” she noted in her diary, “so cold as to be almost reptilian.” What brooch, one wonders, would she have worn had she lived to meet him again.

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