Wednesday, September 27

Madeleine Albright: successes, regrets and secrets of a pioneer

Madeleine Albright escaped first from Hitler and then from Stalin. She later escaped from the life that seemed reserved for women of her generation and she reached the pinnacle of power in a country that she, until she was 20, had not even been her own. The only thing she couldn’t escape from her was some regrets, the truths that her own family had kept from her and of the cancer that has killed her at the age of 84.

Albright will be remembered as the first woman to become the US secretary of state, its foreign minister, but her story could have been very different. She was born as Marie Jana Korbelova in 1937, in Prague, and the normal thing is that he would have grown up there or in one of the places where his father worked as a Czechoslovakian diplomat. However, the Nazi invasion the following year forced her family to seek refuge in London.

It was a wise decision: in the following years, three of the grandparents of the then Marie Jana would die in Nazi camps, although no one told her. In 1941 her parents had baptized her Catholic, concealing from her for decades both her Jewish origins and the fate of her relatives who had remained behind her. Only half a century later, when she was appointed Secretary of State, learned the truth through a journalist.

What Madeleine Albright did remember was what came after the war. The family returned to Czechoslovakia after the Soviet liberation in 1945, although the “liberation” was short-lived. While living in Yugoslavia, where her father was an ambassador, the communists seized power in their country through a USSR-backed coup. Fearing for their lives once more, the Korbels once again went into exile: this time, to the USA.

An unusual path

Madeleine’s family settled in Colorado, where her father found work as a university professor. Her academic brilliance earned her a scholarship to study at Wellesley University, an elite center for women, where she excelled intellectually. However, like so many other young women of the 1950s, she married a few days after graduating and dedicated herself mainly to her family.

Albright’s husband was the heir to a family of newspaper tycoons, and she soon moved skillfully into Washington high society, but while raising her three daughters she continued to broaden her education: she spoke English and Czech, too. Russian, French and Polish. Her abilities caught the attention of one of the professors in her Ph.D. program at Columbia University, who was the one who first introduced her to government.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, another diplomat’s son who had also come to the US as a refugee from Eastern Europe, had just become President Carter’s National Security Adviser. He gave Albright a spot on her team, where there was only one other woman besides her. With that appointment she began a meteoric career that she only accelerated when her husband left her for another woman in 1982.

That promotion, as she explained, was not easy: “As I climbed the ladder, I had to deal with the different vocabularies used to describe similar characteristics in men (confident, proactive, committed) and women ( bossy, aggressive, emotional).” However, he was gaining a lot of influence in the Democratic Party that would materialize with the arrival at the White House of Bill Clinton.

Hits and misses

Madeleine Albright rose to the pinnacle of power at a particularly sweet time for American diplomacy. In 1992 the Cold War had ended victoriously, no one in the world seriously disputed US leadership and the blow of the 9/11 attacks had not yet arrived. There were crises to face, but the terror of a nuclear holocaust had dissipated and international problems seemed somewhat more manageable.

Ahead of her first term, Clinton commissioned Albright to select her diplomatic team and then appointed her US ambassador to the UN. From the beginning, she made clear her communication skills and her ability to communicate clearly: when the US troops were preparing to enter Haiti and return to power a president overthrown by a military coupissued this warning to his leaders: “You may leave soon and voluntarily…or soon and involuntarily.”

With the USSR gone, a large part of international emergencies were humanitarian crises. Albright fought almost daily with the Secretary General of the United Nations, who demanded that the US send soldiers to solve some of them, but from behind he pressured his own government to stop the abuses of the Serbs in Bosnia or the genocide in Rwanda. .

It is precisely this massacre that led to perhaps his worst internal confrontation. Clinton was horrified by the outcome of the military operation in Somalia in 1993, when TVs around the world showed the downed US helicopters and the torture of some of its soldiers. When the following year the genocide took place in Rwanda, he did not want to know anything.

Albright directly challenged Colin Powell, then chief of staff: “What’s the point of having this superb army we’re always talking about if we can’t use it later?” In the end the US did not intervene and about 800,000 people died. Both in his memoirs and in the interview he gave to the New York Times to write his obituary, spoke of it as “the deepest regret I have from my years of public service.” To his knowledge, he did not express the same guilt for his 1996 statement that he even if the sanctions against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq would have killed half a million children, “it’s worth it”.

Where he was most successful in convincing Clinton to intervene was in the former Yugoslavia, a region he knew well as he had lived in Belgrade when his father was ambassador, before fleeing to the US. The president was reluctant to get involved, but after the Srebrenica massacre in the summer of 1995, Clinton authorized a series of airstrikes that slowed the Serbs in Bosnia and helped lead to the signing of the Bosnian Serb peace accords two months later. Dayton.

Already after assuming the leadership of US diplomacy in 1997, Albright again insisted on the use of bombing to stop the Serbian offensive on Kosovo, but probably his most important achievement was one that is now very topical: the expansion of NATO. to the countries of the former Soviet orbit. His words from the early 2000s sound almost more interesting now: “From my position I was able to help the newly democratic countries of Central and Eastern Europe, including my homeland of Czechoslovakia, become full members of the free world.” His popularity in the area was such that the Czech president proposed her as his successor.

His last article, published in the New York Times a month before his death, had a very resounding title: “Putin is making a historic mistake”. Signed before the Russian tanks entered Ukraine, it contains a series of forecasts of what would happen if there was an invasion that have been fulfilled: fierce resistance, sanctions, NATO reinforcing positions in Eastern Europe… It also added one last warning: “It will not be like the annexation of Crimea in 2014, but like the disgraceful Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.” For now, you have to admit, he was right.