U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright shakes hands with soldiers during her visit to Air Base Eagle in Bosnia in 1998. Albright’s expertise on foreign policy was unparalleled.
The arc of Madeleine Albright’s life spans disruption and mass slaughter in Eastern Europe in the 20th century and disruption and mass slaughter in Eastern Europe in the 21st century.
In the years separating World War II from the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February, Albright embarked on a career devoted to diplomacy and foreign policies designed to prevent and stop such wars, and ensure a more stable world.
Albright, who died last week at 84, made history in 1997 when President Bill Clinton named her this country’s first female secretary of state. She was in the vanguard of the first generation of women who occupied the highest and most visible diplomatic and security posts in the U.S. government.
Albright not only brought to her position a deep, scholarly knowledge of world affairs, and the tumultuous politics that ensnares them, she also brought real-life experience.
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Albright’s and her family’s experiences were shaped by the upheaval, dislocation and violence of World War II. Her understanding of the threat of murderous autocracies and the promise of democracy defined Albright’s life and work. Nazism and communism drove her family from Czechoslovakia.
Albright was born in Prague in 1937, the daughter of a diplomat. Raised as a Catholic, Albright wouldn’t learn until she was 59 that she was Jewish, both of her parents having been born and raised in Jewish families. Her parents converted to Catholicism out of fear of anti-Jewish persecution.
Albright would also learn that several members of her family, including three of her grandparents, were murdered in the Holocaust. When Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia in 1939, Albright’s father, as a high-ranking government official, was targeted for execution. He took his family to London, and Albright would never forget hiding under metal tables as German bombs fell during the London Blitz in 1940 and 1941.
After the war, the family returned to Czechoslovakia, but when the Communist Party took over the government in 1948, they fled again, this time to the United States.
During Clinton’s first term, he appointed Albright as ambassador to the United Nations, only the second woman to hold that position, following Jeane Kirkpatrick who served under President Ronald Reagan. When Albright was named secretary of state, she became fourth in line to the presidency, making her, at the time, the highest-ranking woman in government in the nation’s history.
It’s also worth noting that since the glass ceiling-breaking ascensions of Kirkpatrick and Albright, it’s now routine for the positions of U.N. ambassador and secretary of state to be held by women.
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In 2012, President Barack Obama awarded Albright the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
On Feb. 23, one month before she died, Albright wrote an op-ed about Russian President Vladimir Putin. Published in the New York Times, it was titled “Putin is Making a Historic Mistake.” As she watched him amass troops on the Ukrainian border, Albright recalled meeting him for the first time in 2000 and noting, “Putin is embarrassed by what happened to his country and determined to restore its greatness.”
She ended her essay by writing, “Ukraine is entitled to its sovereignty, no matter who its neighbors happen to be. In the modern era, great countries accept that, and so must Mr. Putin. That is the message undergirding recent Western diplomacy. It defines the difference between a world governed by the rule of law and one answerable to no rules at all.”
The next day, Putin invaded Ukraine.
Albright dedicated her life to building a more humane world governed by the rule of law in which nations are entitled to sovereignty. That work is perpetual and far from complete, but Albright left a legacy of helping to make such a world possible.