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Madeleine Albright: A force in US foreign policy

March 23, 2022

The first female US secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, has died at the age of 84. Born in what was then Czechoslovakia, Albright never shied away from speaking her mind.

A black-and-white close-up of Madeleine Albright's faace, an earring on her right ear
Albright remained active in international affairs for two decades after her term endedImage: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP

Madeleine Korbel Albright, the first woman to become US secretary of state, died Wednesday, her family said in a statement. She was 84 years old.

She died of cancer, her family said, adding that she was "surrounded by family and friends" at the time.

In 1997, following Bill Clinton's reelection as US president, Albright was sworn in as the country's first female secretary of state. By then Albright, a political science professor, had already made a name for herself as a foreign policy adviser to several Democratic presidential candidates — including Clinton. In 1993, during his first term in office, Clinton had made Albright the US ambassador to the UN.

Albright had three daughters. She divorced her husband, Joseph Albright, in 1982. Albright died on Wednesday at the age of 84.

During her first year as the top US diplomat, Albright — who spoke Czech, English, French, Russian, Serbian and Polish — set a record for foreign visits, with 98, only beaten by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2012, with 102. Most Europeans welcomed her nomination, expecting her to show a special interest in the countries of central and eastern Europe as well as former Soviet republics.

Madeleine Albright with a brooch and a winter coat in the Prague Botanical Garden
Albright led the way for future Secretarys of State Condoleezza Rice and Hillary ClintonImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"Back then, hardly anyone thought a woman could do this job," Albright said of the mood when she took office. As a supporter of Hillary Clinton's failed bid for the presidency in 2016, Albright said there was "a special place in hell for women who don't help each other." And, despite different political worldviews, she was friends with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who served under President George W. Bush.

'Fascinating political figure'

During her tenure, Albright focused on advancing the Middle East peace process, improving ties with China and Russia, and promoting NATO's eastern enlargement. She also upheld America's tough stance via-a-vis Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic. In 1999, she pushed for a NATO intervention in the Kosovo conflict against Serbia to end massacres against the Albanian minority — even without UN backing. It was during this time that she met and ultimately befriended Germany's then-Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, who later called her a "fascinating political figure and close personal friend."

Madeleine Albright dies: Carolina Chimoy

Albright was famous for practicing "jewelry-box diplomacy." She even wrote a book, "Read My Pins," about her fondness for using pins to convey subtle, or not so subtle, political messages. In 1994, Albright was called a serpent by the Iraqi press. In her meeting with Iraqi officials later that same year, she proudly wore a golden snake pin. In later years, the secretary of state would wear cheerful butterfly, balloon or flower brooches when in an optimistic mood. By the same token, she would sometimes wear pins expressing a more somber or combative outlook — such as when she donned a wasp brooch upon meeting late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. After leaving office, she once recalled an encounter with Russian President Putin, who inquired about her three monkey pin, which is associated with the proverbial saying "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil." Albright said she then lambasted Putin for Russia's stance on the war in Chechnya.

The secretary of state's tenure ended when President Clinton was succeeded by George W. Bush in 2001 election. Albright was adamant that, despite leaving the administration, she would remain involved in foreign affairs, calling the United States an "indispensable nation."

Havel Funeral Held in Prague

Albright's post-secretary career

Indeed, Albright did just that when she urged her successor, Colin Powell, to put down the phone and travel to the Middle East to promote regional peace talks. She similarly didn't mince when words when she said the Iraq war was "going to go down in history as the greatest disaster in American foreign policy because we have lost the element of the goodness of American power and we have lost our moral authority." She said the Abu Ghraib torture scandal and George W. Bush's policies had tarnished America's standing.

Albright was also critical of President Donald Trump.

"I'm very, very troubled by his unpredictability and his swinging back and forth on what he says," Albright said in April 2020. "In fact, it's important to deliver a message if you're president of the United States, one that makes some sense, and he's not doing that."

Albright, who was raised Catholic and had wanted to become a priest as a little girl, only learned of her Jewish roots at age 59 — and that many of her relatives were killed in the Holocaust. She told her family history in "Prague Winter," her 2012 memoir. Born in the Bohemian capital on May 15, 1937, Albright and her family moved to London just before Nazi Germany invaded what was then Czechoslovakia. After the war, the family returned to Prague. Upon the Communist takeover, the family fled once more — this time to the United States. Albright became a US citizen in 1957.

Later in life, Albright served as foreign policy adviser to US President Barack Obama, established the Albright Stonebridge Group consulting agency and taught at Georgetown University. In 2012, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Obama. The medal is traditionally awarded for "an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors."

This article was originally written in German.

Sarah Steffen Sarah works as radio host and producer, reporter and editor.