By Nicholas Kralev
The Financial Times
October 28, 2000
Madeleine Albright is almost shouting. She can’t hear me any more, she says. The noise on her aircraft has, indeed, become more deafening; but she also seems to be deliberately avoiding my question, and with good reason. This very moment is probably her happiest as secretary of state because of “the most important thing that has happened” during her nearly four-year tenure.
She has just received news about the Belgrade revolution and the ousting of Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, and here I am, asking how she feels about having to leave office in three months. We’ve just spent a 30-hour day, having saved six hours by flying east-west from Egypt to Washington, and she says that’s exactly what she intends to continue doing for the rest of her term — “working every minute and extending the days”.
This is a woman who, since her appointment in January 1997, has visited 90 countries and flown more than 850,000 miles. It’s obvious that she loves being America’s top diplomat — and the first woman in the job — and will no doubt miss it immensely when the end of the Clinton administration comes in January. “It’s so much fun, and very energising,” she says, “and I think I’ve had a pretty good run. But we all occupy these jobs temporarily.”
We are talking in her flight cabin, on the last leg of a week-long trip that was supposed to have ended two days earlier, after visits to Iceland, France and Germany. But the worst violence in the Middle East since 1996 had prompted emergency meetings in Paris and Sharm el-Sheikh, the Egyptian Red Sea resort, with Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. On October 4, more than 12 hours of bilateral and trilateral talks with Barak and Arafat, held at the residence of the US ambassador, across the street from the Elysée Palace, had failed to reach a ceasefire agreement. The bloodletting has continued, in spite of a truce brokered by Clinton on October 17. By last Sunday, it had claimed 128 lives on the West Bank and Gaza.
The problems in the Middle East, and the obdurate presence of Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, cannot be left out of any final reckoning of Albright’s — and Clinton’s — legacy. But, as she flew from Reykjavik to Bordeaux (to open a new US post), to Paris (for a US-EU ministerial meeting) and to Dresden (for the 10th anniversary of Germany’s reunification), then back to Paris and on to Egypt, nothing in her manner hinted that she will soon have “former” in front of her title. Aides say she knows time is running out and sees the finishing line, but the realisation seems to make her work even harder.
With Milosevic out of power, and the cold war ice in Korea finally thawing after her visit this week to Pyongyang, Albright’s handover will be much easier, friends say. Foreign policy experts, whatever their opinion of Kosovo — dubbed “Madeleine’s war” by US media — generally agree that NATO’s intervention accelerated Milosevic’s removal. A senior state department official has even described her achievements as “making the world safer, making our alliances stronger, and establishing a platform for the diplomacy of the 21st century”.
Albright says that foreign policy-making, post-cold war, has been a much bigger challenge than during the period of east-west confrontation, when a single enemy and fear of a “basic evil” helped to create and maintain alliances. “Now foreign policy has additional complexity that includes subjects that were never before part of the foreign policy agenda,” she says. “Political Science 101 [a US term for first-grade] basically tells you that the goal of foreign policy is to protect your territory, your people and your way of life. In terms of territory, the US is still in the same place. But because borders are now very porous, the issues have to do with immigration, travel, health and environment, which were not considered classic foreign policy issues.”
Critics say that these non-traditional issues are too “soft” and don’t deserve as much attention as more traditional security matters, such as national missile defence. Some even accuse her of confusing vital US national interests with more peripheral ones, citing the Clinton administration’s heavy humanitarian agenda.
Albright dismisses the authors of such charges as incapable of understanding the realities of the new international order. “I believe the US national interest is to try to have a world in which the United States feels comfortable promoting our ideals of democracy and free markets,” she says. “I think that certain geographic areas are very important to us because of their resource base, or their effect on our economy, or some of our larger strategic interests. But I also believe fully that we have humanitarian interests that rise to the level of national interests.”
She is a notorious advocate of threatening, and using, force against dictators and other repressive regimes, and her way of referring to the US as “the indispensable nation” often provokes resentment at American hegemony abroad. But she says that she believes in “the goodness” of American power, “mainly because I’ve seen what a difference it can actually make. I also totally believe in the beacon of American democracy, and I don’t buy into the claim that democracy is only a western value — it’s a universal value”.
Albright’s strong moral positions, which justified her support of western involvement in Bosnia and Kosovo, have shaped her image as smart, tough and determined to carry out her goals. In some cases, the policies she helped to create and articulate have had an impact much bigger than on the particular region or issue that propelled those policies, such as the role of the conflicts in the Balkans in defining NATO’s new mission and strategy. But, while they recognise Albright’s undisputed place, some observers have suggested that Clinton’s real foreign policy director is the less visible, and far more circumspect, national security adviser, Samuel (Sandy) Berger.
Albright’s confidants say that it is her ability to focus on an issue she deems important, and to keep people working even when they want to quit, that makes her an appealing diplomatic partner. She can raise her voice if necessary, but she can also be very agreeable and even exhibit a self-deprecating sense of humour, if she finds it appropriate.
As controversial as Albright’s legacy may be, the one skill that hardly anyone refutes is her excellence as a communicator. Her explosive and right-to-the-point sound bites have made headlines around the world, and she has mastered the ability to translate complicated foreign policy issues into the everyday language of the average American.
Albright was married to a journalist and understands media politics and the role of “spin” in explaining policy. “I know how hard it is to get on the front page or to get a minute on TV,” she says, “but the issues are serious and need to be explained longer.” She acknowledges the benefit of constant global information which 24-hour news provides, but complains that “it makes you have to respond much faster than it might be prudent, because you don’t have time to put the facts into context”.
Most reporters genuinely like her, and tell stories about what a good dinner companion she is. She also enjoys these dinners with reporters, but says that they are still “the hard part” of her job: “My former husband told me a reporter is always a reporter.”
Similarly, her personal relationships with foreign leaders — “personal diplomacy”, she calls it — have significantly influenced her style of conducting foreign policy. She gets on well with Robin Cook, the British foreign secretary, and with foreign minister Joschka Fischer of Germany, but best of all with her French counterpart, Hubert Vedrine. Their professional friendship has “helped us get through a lot”, she says, referring to the frictions between president Jacques Chirac and prime minister Lionel Jospin which often affect France’s positions on foreign policy — Paris’s willingness to trade with Iraq, for example. “Vedrine is a fascinating person and very interesting to talk to,” Albright says, “but we don’t agree on everything, and Iraq is a perfect example.”
During and after Kosovo, the permanent refrain of NATO leaders was how united their alliance had been. But recent revelations have seriously questioned the true commitment of some US allies to the bombing. In a recent cover piece in the Weekend FT (September 30/October 1), James Rubin, Albright’s former spokesman and confidant, wrote that at the 1999 Rambouillet peace conference, “the French and the Italians acted in a way that could have derailed the [Clinton] administration’s effort to unite Nato against the Belgrade regime”. Rubin also accused Italian foreign minister Lamberto Dini of “sharing document drafts with Serbian president [Milan] Milutinovich”, and of carrying “water for Milosevic so blatantly”.
Albright says that Rubin’s account, which had appeared two days before the October 2 US-EU ministerial meeting, where she shared a table with some of the people depicted in the article, put her in a “rather awkward position”: “Dini had already written me a letter, so, when I saw him, I said that I had nothing to do with its writing or coming out.” (Dini also wrote to the FT, describing part of Rubin’s account as “utterly untrue”.) While acknowledging the “bad timing” of the article’s publication, a senior US official said that, “had we not been in the middle of another crisis”, the Europeans “probably would have been more irritated”. Close aids insist that Albright and Rubin are still good friends.
Even before becoming secretary of state, Albright had a star power that few of the foreign policy establishment command. As UN ambassador during the first Clinton administration, she had cleverly used journalists’ highly visible “stakeout” microphones outside the Security Council chamber to express US policies to the rest of the world — and to raise her own profile.
She had been a Czech-born girl whose family escaped both Nazism and communism and immigrated to the US. There, she followed in the steps of her diplomat father, but more than surpassed him by becoming the embodiment of American might for millions across the globe. Born Marie Jana Korbelova on May 15, 1937, in Prague, Albright spent the second world war years in Britain, where her family had fled shortly before Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia in March 1939, and later went to boarding school in Switzerland. (Her pet name was Madlenka, which at school became Madeleine.) After the 1948 communist putsch in Prague, Josef, her father, a former ambassador to Yugoslavia, decided to use his new appointment — to the UN Kashmir commission in New York — to defect.
In 1949, her father was offered a teaching post at the University of Denver, so the family started their new life in the American West. Madeleine had conscientiously lost her British accent, so awkward to American children, and was fast becoming a typical American. She went to the most exclusive private high school in Denver, the Kent School for Girls, and in 1955 won a scholarship to the prestigious Wellesley College in Massachusetts, where Hillary Rodham would enrol a decade later.
International affairs were the most frequently discussed topic in her family. “Most people at dinner talk about sports,” Albright says, “and we talked about foreign policy. I grew up with it.” She was a diligent student, with obvious potential to succeed. But her future was unclear — in fact, she put on hold her career plans for more than 15 years.
In 1959, three days after her college graduation, Madeleine married Joseph Medill Patterson Albright, scion of a prominent American publishing family. The couple had three daughters, and Joe worked as an investigative reporter, so her life revolved around the children and her husband’s career, which took them, at different stages, to Chicago, New York and Washington. She learned Russian, and eventually received a PhD in political science from Columbia University.
She also hosted dinner parties and volunteered at fundraisers and other events, as many housewives do. But for Albright, her period as a socialite was a time of relentless networking that gave her access to the inner sanctums of the Democratic party and US foreign policy. She landed her first political job in 1976, as chief legislative assistant to Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine. After Jimmy Carter won the presidency, she was hired by his national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Albright’s professor and mentor at Columbia, to run congressional relations for the National Security Council. The experience at the White House taught her one of the most important skills she would need 20 years later: how to handle Congress.
During the Reagan and Bush administrations, Albright was president of the Centre for National Policy and taught at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Washington, where she was named “best professor” three years in row. But then, in 1982, after more than 22 years of marriage, Joe announced that he was in love with another woman and wanted a divorce. Under the settlement, Madeleine got their Georgetown house, a 370-acre farm near Dulles International Airport in northern Virginia, and a stock portfolio that would be worth $3.5m by the time she returned to government in 1993. She has never remarried.
With more time for herself, and now financially secure, Albright returned to politics. Still teaching, she gave advice on foreign policy to the 1984 Democratic vice-presidential candidate, Geraldine Ferraro, and, in 1988, became senior adviser to presidential candidate Michael Dukakis. During that campaign, she met Bill Clinton.
After Clinton’s election victory in 1992, Albright learned from television about her appointment as US ambassador to the UN. Four years later, it was far different. She knew there was now a good chance that she could replace Warren Christopher. On the morning of December 4, 1996, her phone rang. It was Clinton, asking her to be his secretary of state.
The press, which had, for the most part, liked the outspoken and daring ambassador at the UN, was thrilled to see her get the top state department job, although there were reservations in more conservative circles. The media also went along with her claim that she didn’t know of her Jewish background, which had been uncovered by a Washington Post reporter soon after she assumed office. Having been raised Catholic, she had converted to Episcopalianism at the time of her marriage, and had never been told by her parents about having lost three grandparents and other relatives in concentration camps. The press respected her reluctance to discuss the subject, “for which”, she told a Holocaust conference in 1998, “I have not yet found, and may never find, exactly the right words”.
But after her first year in office, the honeymoon seemed over. She was now accused of not turning her bold vision into action; others denied there was a vision at all. Some male foreign policy heavyweights even began to doubt whether a woman was tough enough for the job.
“That’s why I probably work as hard as I do, to prove otherwise,” Albright says on the flight back to Washington. “Men tolerate each other talking a long time, but not women, so I’ve tried to make my arguments as succinct as possible. It’s hard to sit in a principals’ meeting, with some of the men wearing uniforms and all that junk they have on — it’s very off-putting.”
Albright challenges the popular notion that the clothes and Stetson hats she wears are an important part of her “personal diplomacy”. She says: “I was never a clothes-horse in my life. I always had what was known as a scholarship personality, and never had enough clothes. So when I went to the UN, Jeanne Kirkpatrick [Reagan’s UN ambassador] — with whom everybody thinks I don’t get along but I do — said to me: ‘Don’t get stuck the way I did, with people making fun of me for looking like an old professor in my clothes’. So I went and got clothes for that job.” As for her signature brooches, that all started when Saddam Hussein called her a snake: “I thought it would be fun to wear a snake-pin, and the more people pick on that, the more I do it. When they ask what the pins mean, I usually make it up on the spot.”
Albright has a peculiar connection with Condoleezza Rice, the senior foreign policy adviser to Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush, who may very well be the world’s next most powerful woman. Rice, 45, was a student of Albright’s father, both in college and while doing her PhD, and says that he “took a personal interest” in her. “I know and like Madeleine very much,” Rice had told me in an interview in January. “You can have the same intellectual father and different outcomes, but there are some powerful core values that we share. On issues of how you use power, we probably don’t agree.”
(Albright remembers the interview: “I laughed about the fact that we have the same father.” A week ago, Rice announced that, if elected, Bush would end US participation in peacekeeping in the Balkans, a plan Albright describes as “a very dangerous signal”.)
Albright won’t reveal what she intends to do next — but insists that she’s not considering the Czech presidency, in spite of encouragement from the incumbent, Vaclav Havel. Some insiders suggest that she might return to scholarly work (like Reagan’s secretary of state, George Shultz, and Clinton’s first secretary of defence, William Perry, both of whom are now at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution). Others speculate that she might decide in favour of the path Henry Kissinger chose, in consulting. She may also be called upon by a Gore administration, or even the UN, as a special envoy in trouble spots. While Albright hasn’t started writing her memoirs yet, she has noted that “there is a lot to say”.
Summing up her years as secretary of state, she says that the hardest part of her job has been “working with some of the men — I’ve had an easier time with the foreign men I deal with than the Americans because, for the foreigners, I am the United States.
“We all have a hard time getting used to somebody we’ve known for 25 years having a high-title job. People didn’t expect me to be secretary of state. I didn’t expect it, either. I truly did not. And there are people who couldn’t get over it.”