Madeleine Albright, the first female US secretary of state and one of the most influential stateswomen of her generation, has died of cancer at age 84, her family announced Wednesday.
In a statement, Albright's family said she died "surrounded by family and friends," and paid tribute to "a loving mother, grandmother, sister and friend" as well as a "tireless champion of democracy and human rights."
Appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1996, halfway through his two-term presidency, Albright became the highest-ranking woman in US government at the time. As the United States' top diplomat, she called for the use of force as the conflict in Kosovo descended into ethnic cleansing. That was consistent with the hard line she had pressed during the Bosnian War, when she was Clinton’s ambassador to the United Nations.
She later described the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and the failure to achieve a Mideast peace accord as among her biggest regrets.
“Madeleine’s courage and toughness helped bring peace to the Balkans and paved the way for progress in some of the most unstable corners of the world,” then-US president Barack Obama said upon awarding Albright the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States' highest civilian honour, in 2012.
Responding to news of her death, US State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters, “The impact that she has had on this building is felt every single day. She was a trailblazer as the first female secretary of state and quite literally opened doors for a large element of our workforce.“
"I know there are many people in this building who are grieving and who will be grieving today," he added.
At 4 feet, 10 inches (1.5 metres) tall, Albright was famous for well-tailored suits adorned with pins or brooches, ranging from balloons to carnivorous animals and chosen to reflect a mood or an opinion. After learning that the Russians had bugged a conference room near her office at the US State Department, for example, she wore a pin shaped like a huge bug.
Albright’s stature and style belied a commanding negotiating skill. When Yasser Arafat walked out of Paris talks in 2000, Albright told guards at the US ambassador’s residence to “Shut the gates!” As UN ambassador, she responded to Cuba’s 1996 downing of two unarmed Cessna aircraft: “This is cowardice.”
An emigrant who fled Czechoslovakia at the dawn of World War II only to discover her own Jewish heritage more than a half-century later, Albright witnessed firsthand the displacement of those deemed undesirable.
“In the end, no-one who lived through the years of 1937 to 1948 was a stranger to profound sadness,” Albright wrote in Prague Winter, her personal account of the period. “Millions of innocents did not survive, and their deaths must never be forgotten.”
Exile and ancestry
Albright was born Marie Jana Korbel on May 15, 1937, in Prague, one of three children of Josef Korbel, a diplomat, and the former Anna Spieglova. (The family statement on her death gave her surname at birth as Korbelova.) When the German Army arrived in 1939, the family went into exile in London.
At war’s end, they returned to Prague, relocating several months later to Belgrade where her father served as ambassador. At the age of 10, Albright was sent to boarding school in Switzerland.
When the Communist Party took control in Czechoslovakia in 1948, her father accepted a post on a UN commission on Kashmir. The Korbels stayed in New York. By then, Albright spoke four languages: Czech, Serbo-Croatian, English and French.
Gaining political asylum in 1949, they moved to Denver, where her father became a professor at the University of Denver. She met her future husband, Joseph Medill Patterson Albright, during a summer job at the Denver Post. They married in 1959, the same year she earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from Wellesley College in Massachusetts. They had three daughters – Anne, Alice and Katharine – before the marriage ended in divorce.
A Catholic who became an Episcopalian in marriage, Albright learned of her Jewish ancestry – along with the death of more than a dozen relatives, including three grandparents in the Holocaust – in 1997 at age 59.
In her 2003 autobiography, Madam Secretary, she said of her own parents, “My guess is that they associated our heritage with suffering and wanted to protect us. They had come to America to start a new life.”
Albright obtained a PhD in public law and government from Columbia University where she studied under Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter’s future national security adviser. She also earned a certificate in Russian studies.
In 1976, Albright became the chief legislative aide to Democratic US senator Ed Muskie of Maine. Two years later, Brzezinski recruited his former student as the National Security Council’s congressional liaison.
When Republicans came to power, she taught at Georgetown University and advised Democrats on foreign policy, including presidential candidates Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis. In 1989, she became president of the public policy thinktank Center for National Policy.
With Clinton’s victory in 1992, she became US permanent representative to the United Nations. In 1995, when as many as 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were slaughtered in Srebrenica at the hands of Bosnian Serbs, Albright presented evidence of mass graves to the UN Security Council. With the lessons of Rwanda fresh in mind, she argued for the use of force. Following the shelling of a Sarajevo market in August, the largest North Atlantic Treaty Organisation mission ever got under way, leading to the Dayton Accords that ended the war.
When Warren Christopher, Clinton’s first secretary of state, announced his plan to return to the private sector, Albright was nominated as his successor. The US Senate unanimously confirmed her appointment.
Albright sought the use of force again in Kosovo, where in 1998 a civil war had ensued. Dubbed “Madeleine’s War,” NATO engaged in combat for the second time in its history, launching airstrikes in March 1999 without the approval of the Security Council.
“Madeleine Albright is somebody who grew up learning the lessons of Munich, the danger of appeasing dictators, and she feels we need this more-assertive foreign policy not to back down in the face of people like Milosevic,” historian Walter Isaacson told CNN in a May 1999 interview.
By June, Slobodan Milosevic’s troops began to withdraw from Kosovo.
Her efforts toward an Israel-Palestinian peace weren’t as successful. “People ask about my greatest disappointment as secretary. This was it,” she said in her memoir.
Albright also supported the expansion of NATO and pressured Iraq to end its blockade of UN weapons inspectors. When Iraq didn’t comply, the US and Britain launched a series of airstrikes known as Operation Desert Fox.
In October 2000, she became the highest-ranking US representative ever to make an official visit to North Korea, meeting with President Kim Jong Il. “I am sad to say that the Bush administration didn’t pick up the hand of cards that we left on the table there,” Albright said on MSNBC in 2013.
Following her government career, Albright returned to Georgetown as a professor. In 2005, she founded emerging markets investment adviser Albright Capital Management LLC within her Albright Group consultancy. She combined the firm with Stonebridge International in 2009 to form the Washington-based Albright Stonebridge Group, a global business strategy firm.
In addition to her autobiography and Prague Winter, Albright wrote best-selling books, including 2009’s Read My Pins: Stories From a Diplomat’s Jewel Box.
Warns of fascism
Even into her 80s, Albright’s defence of the ideals of democracy remained strong. The ascendency of authoritarian leaders was “a more serious threat now than at any time since the end of World War II,” she wrote in a 2018 essay in The New York Times that coincided with the publication of her book Fascism: A Warning.
She added: “The possibility that fascism will be accorded a fresh chance to strut around the world stage is enhanced by the volatile presidency of Donald Trump.”
She led the non-governmental organisation National Democratic Institute for International Affairs and the Pew Global Attitudes Project. She also served on the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board and the boards of the Aspen Institute, Center for American Progress and the Council on Foreign Relations.
Albright never lost sight of the way her career broke through glass ceilings and made a point of promoting the careers of women throughout her professional life. In fact, she made famous a mantra: “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.”