Albright's State Deportment | The Nation


Albright's State Deportment

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Flirtatious and ferocious at the same time, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright stamps the world stage over Kosovo, threatening fire from heaven if Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic does not agree to peace terms. Just as over Bosnia, she may even believe what she says. Unfortunately, the Serb leader is much better informed. He knows that whatever the public differences, Belgrade and Washington are united in wanting to avoid NATO airstrikes (even if they come to pass). Albright's grandstanding is a necessary part of the charade in which the United States acts scary and the Serbs act scared.

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Ian Williams
Ian Williams is The Nation's UN correspondent. In addition to his work for the magazine, he frequently comments on...

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With her ability to be stridently parochial, and insular as well, in six different languages, Madeleine Albright has been the perfect Secretary of State for this Administration. Never one to let substance interfere with a good soundbite, she has reinvented herself whenever it has been advantageous to her ambitions.

But does she really merit a biography on the scale of Seasons of Her Life? As Ann Blackman frames the problem, "What makes her, among all the other brilliant men and women in America, stand out?" Almost inadvertently, emerging from Blackman's hard work is a portrait of Albright that shows she would be outstanding mainly by dint of her mediocrity in any such gathering (thus well meriting the nickname Madeleine Halfbright, which State Department staff members gave her after her appointment as US ambassador to the UN).

However, she would also stand out for her burning ambition--and for her intensive cultivation of social and political connections of the kind available to someone of substantial wealth. (Madame Secretary benefited from a generous divorce settlement after what she has described as a "Cinderella marriage" to a millionaire.) Blackman actually writes that "Albright's greatest appeal is that she is just like us, only wealthier"! This has perhaps unwitting overtones of Hemingway's putdown of F. Scott Fitzgerald's remark about the rich--"They are different from you and me": "Yes, they have more money." But it really sums up the secret of Albright's success more aptly than any neofeminist reading of progress from the log cabin of Kinder, Küche, Kirche to political glory.

In becoming the first woman to head the State Department, Albright achieved cult status in some superficially minded quarters. People Blackman terms the golden girls--Democrats like Barbara Mikulski, Barbara Kennelly and Anne Wexler--spoke out prominently in her favor, for example. But many of us who followed the careers of Golda Meir, Margaret Thatcher and Indira Gandhi need convincing that the absence of cojones in itself guarantees wisdom, virtue or empathetic statesmanship. Even so, those redoubtable women, political warts and all, were elected despite their sex. Blackman's account makes it clear that Albright was appointed to public office by a symbol-sensitive White House because she was a woman. "Frankly, [President Clinton] wanted another woman in the cabinet," Blackman quotes a wisely anonymous but assumedly knowledgeable source as saying. In fact, cojones did help Albright directly, since her use of the word at the United Nations over Castro's downing of a flight of Cuban exiles helped lock her in the media eye as a staunch anticommunist--and an electoral asset for the President in Florida.

Blackman's bibliography cites Albright's PhD dissertation, her MA submission for Columbia, one from Wellesley and a mere quartet of memorable public speeches, significant for their carefully crafted soundbites rather than their insights. Certainly no male so thinly qualified would have even been on the short list to head State--nor would a better-qualified woman lacking Albright's social connections. Among her predecessors, Warren Christopher may not have played to the gallery, but he had a long record of public service and had been Deputy Secretary of State prior to his Cabinet appointment. Cyrus Vance had been Deputy Secretary of State as well (and LBJ's emissary to North Vietnam) before he was elevated.

Blackman's journalistic integrity rescues this book from the hagiographic gushing that it occasionally approaches. However, that creates a constant dissonance between biographical intent and delivery of the content. For example, she asserts that Albright has made sure that "women's rights are a central priority of US foreign policy" but then goes on to report that there has been no great leap forward in the number of female ambassadors on her watch. She quotes a close friend of Albright as saying, "Gender didn't hit her in any real way until she got to the United Nations. Feminism wasn't an important cause for her until recently."

Even at that, it appears mainly to be a stepping stone. For example, Blackman reports that while Albright was nominally in charge of the US delegation to the International Women's Conference in Beijing, she disdained actual attendance, except insofar as she could share Hillary Clinton's plane for the one-day fly-in visit. Significantly, the book is as silent as Albright was herself about the sexually adventurous Clinton's sacking of Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders (another, more neglected female first) for her statement at the UN that masturbation did not carry a risk of AIDS. In a more political vein, Albright's first move on arrival at the UN was to push out April Glaspie, the former chargé d'affaires in Iraq who carried the can for the Bush Administration in its confused signals to Baghdad before the start of the Gulf War. Glaspie had been serving her penance at the US Mission to the UN. In short, sisterhood may have been a force in getting Albright appointed, but it is not a concept she has put into practice much herself.

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