Madeleine Korbel Albright garnered more attention in her first four weeks as secretary of state than Warren Christopher did in four years on the job. Not only did she charm foreign leaders during her recent whirlwind tour of Europe and Asia, she impressed much of the world's press with her toughness and confidence.
Albright is taking a no-nonsense stance toward other nations. Her 11-day trip to Europe and Asia was no mere meet-and-greet. Albright discussed NATO expansion with the Russians, talked tough about North Korea while inspecting fortified outposts on the border and made plain her attention to human rights while in Beijing.
Albright has also been making her presence known domestically with visit to a kindergarten in Texas and a speech at Rice University on banning chemical weapons and increasing foreign aid. Historically, times of general international peace have caused Americans to lose interest in their foreign policy, and Albright wants to ensure that America does not forget about the rest of the world.
Albright does not let things faze her easily. When the Iraqis referred to Albright as a snake she took to wearing a gold snake pin; when they referred to her as a witch she proudly brandished a miniature broom.
Albright says what she thinks and often lets traditional diplomatic speech slide when she needs to make a point. During the standoff with the Haitian coup leaders in 1994 she said, "They are riding a tiger that may ultimately devour them."
And no profile of Albright will ever again be complete without mention of her colorful response to the Cuban military's shoot-down of unarmed civilian planes in February 1996. As the United States ambassador to the United Nations, Albright condemned the Cuban pilots, who had used the Spanish word for testicles on their radios to congratulate themselves. "Frankly, this is not cojones," she said. "This is cowardice."
Though some criticize Albright for "sound-bite diplomacy," many find her no-nonsense demeanor refreshing. The woman who taught the ambassador from Botswana the Macarena inside a U.N. Security Council meeting and handed out cookies on Valentine's Day is also known for speaking five languages, staying cool under fire and expressing her views with clarity and passion.
The Czech-born Albright was twice forced to flee her native land with her mother and diplomat father, first to escape the Nazis and later the Communists. She arrived in the United States in 1948 at age 11 and later graduated from Wellesley College. She married publishing heir Joseph Albright, whose family owned the New York Daily News and Newsday at the time. She put her career plans on hold but continued her education and earned a doctorate in Russian history.
When the Albrights moved to Washington, D.C., in 1968, Albright became involved with Edmund Muskie's presidential campaign and then joined his Senate staff. A stint at the National Security Council and a reputation as a hostess of Georgetown dinners heavy on policy talk helped further Albright's career even as her marriage crumbled in the 1980s.
Albright taught at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service until Clinton named her United Nations ambassador in 1993. Albright knew the Clintons from foreign affairs seminars that she had hosted in the 1980s for rising Democratic Party stars. Albright was later responsible for Clinton's being named a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Albright has long been outspoken on the subject of human rights and believes in American assertiveness internationally. "My mind-set is Munich; most of my generation's is Vietnam," Albright told The New York Times Magazine. Fleeing the Nazis and the Communists gave Albright a different frame of reference in international affairs. Like Albright, much of the World War II generation tended to be wary of appeasement while the Vietnam era taught caution in the use of military force.
Albright coined the term "assertive multilateralism" to describe the Clinton Administration's practice of joining U.S. forces with United Nations troops and describes herself as a "pragmatic idealist."
While criticized in the U.N. last year for spearheading the movement to oust Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Albright won kudos from Clinton. She managed the difficult job of working with the U.N. at a time when the United States was openly displeased with Boutros-Ghali and the U.N. upset that the U.S. was $1.5 billion behind in membership payments.
Albright's nomination won quick praise from Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), who's been a nemesis to a generation of State Department nominees. He called Albright a "tough and courageous lady."
Though the revelations that Albright's grandparents were Jews killed in the Holocaust threatened to eclipse the substance of the secretary's first tour, Albright managed to keep the attention focused on her message rather than her background. Michael Dobbs of The Washington Post uncovered evidence in Czechoslovakia that indicated a Jewish heritage of which Albright was apparently unaware.
When Albright was nominated as the first female secretary of state of the United States, she joked that she hoped her heels could fill Warren Christopher's shoes. As soon as she was sworn in on Jan. 23, Albright assumed responsibility for many of the thorny internal issues facing the State Department, including a greatly reduced budget and the U.S. presence in presence in Bosnia (where Albright advocated involvement). Her success may be measured as much by how well she handles these issues and moves the department forward as by how she walks on the world stage.
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