By Kristin Ahlberg and Tiffany Cabrera
As the 64th U.S. secretary of state and the first woman to hold the position, Madeleine Albright faced the unprecedented global challenges of the post-Cold War era. In her initial remarks to Department of State employees as secretary, Jan. 27, 1997, Albright claimed that the hardest question she faced in interviews before starting the job was how she felt about being a female secretary of state.
“I’ve never been secretary of state before,” said Albright. “I have been a woman for almost sixty years, so we’re now going to see how you put the two together. I do think that my nomination does show that the president of the United States is a deep believer that this country is a place where there is opportunity for all. I believe in diversity; I think we all benefit from it; it enriches the workplace and improves the work product. It is also central to what America is all about.”
As then-President Bill Clinton’s second-term secretary of state, Albright embraced the role of chief diplomatic messenger. She encouraged domestic audiences to think about the realities of post-Cold War foreign policy and the strength of American democracy. She explained how U.S. foreign policy manifested core values widely shared among the American people. Facing uneven public interest in international relations after the end of the Cold War and the consequences of deep foreign affairs spending cuts during Clinton’s first term, Albright strove to convey how the mounting complexity of the international system offered new opportunities and posed new challenges to the United States. She described how events far from home, such as democratic transitions and humanitarian crises, connected to the lives and dreams of ordinary Americans, and articulated her faith in the importance of democratic institutions and effective diplomacy to deliver results for them. Albright believed that the United States was the “indispensable nation,” and she returned to this message again and again throughout her tenure as secretary.
Albright used her confirmation hearings to articulate her vision of U.S. leadership in the time after the Cold War. It was “no accident,” she told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, that “American institutions and ideals are a model for those who have, or who aspire to, freedom.” But she cautioned that it was “by no means inevitable” that the United States would continue to serve as a model for people abroad.
“Democratic progress must be sustained as it was built—by American leadership. And our leadership must be sustained if our interests are to be protected around the world,” she said.
For Albright, leadership involved a combination of force and diplomacy. This reflected lessons she learned as the U.S. representative to the United Nations during Clinton’s first term. Years of increasing ethnic violence in the Balkans despite extensive diplomatic engagement tested her faith in multilateral institutions and led her to become one of the Clinton administration’s most forceful advocates for employing American military power to end the war in Bosnia.
At her confirmation hearings, Albright also clarified the link between force and diplomacy.
“Force, and the credible possibility of its use are essential to defend our vital interests,” she argued. “Force and diplomacy must complement and reinforce each other.” For there will be many occasions, in many places, where we will rely on diplomacy to protect our interests, and we will expect our diplomats to defend those interests with skill, knowledge, and spine.”
Albright also believed the United States should not go it alone in the world and placed key alliances and relationships at the center of the U.S. foreign policy framework.
“When we are able to act cooperatively with the other leading nations, we create a dynamic web of principle, power, and purpose that elevates standards and propels progress around the globe,” she said.
After her confirmation, Albright continued to explain the link between pursuing U.S. interests and promoting U.S. values to the American public. In her October 1997 congressional testimony, for example, she argued that the enlargement of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) served U.S. strategic interests by deterring aggression, making NATO “stronger and more cohesive,” and incentivizing problem-solving amongst European nations.
A larger NATO, Albright contended, “will make America safer, NATO stronger, and Europe more peaceful and united… But I would be disingenuous if I did not tell you that I see a moral imperative as well. For this is a policy that should appeal to our hearts as well as to our heads, to our sense of what is right as well as to our sense of what is smart.”
Similarly, in 1999, Albright publicly justified the intervention in Kosovo on both humanitarian and strategic grounds.
Albright also promoted her vision of U.S. global leadership to explain significant institutional reforms that she implemented as secretary. Her most lasting—and perhaps most controversial—institutional legacy was consolidating several foreign affairs agencies into the Department, most significantly the United States Information Agency and the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. She prioritized reinventing the Department because she said it was “hard to lead with institutions designed for the 1950s” and consolidation “reflect[ed] the fact that arms control, public diplomacy, and international development belong at the heart of American foreign policy.”
Moreover, Albright championed the importance of U.S. engagement in increasingly complex diplomatic tradecraft centered on global issues. She acknowledged that the expansive nature of 21st century diplomacy meant that she needed to spend time on everything from the war against AIDS, and the nation’s position on biotechnology, to efforts aimed at combatting human trafficking.
“Our nation’s interests and responsibilities and reach are truly global,” she argued. “Problems abroad, if left unaddressed, will all too often come home to America.”
Ultimately, Albright warned that if America did not lead, someone else would.
“The world is shaped not by those who merely inherit but by those who act. And if we discard the cloak of leadership, others who may not share our interests or values will surely pick it up,” she said at the University of Maine in October 1999.
After her time as secretary, Albright continued to advocate for U.S. global leadership. She warned about the rise of authoritarianism and opined that “it would be a grave error for the United States to waver in its commitment to democracy.”
Shortly before her death in March 2022, Albright predicted that Russia’s looming invasion of Ukraine would ensure President Vladimir Putin’s infamy by “leaving his country diplomatically isolated, economically crippled, and strategically vulnerable in the face of a stronger, more united Western alliance.”
Albright closed her memoir, “Madam Secretary,” by explaining how she wanted to be remembered.
“When the day comes, I hope people will say that I did the best with what I was given, tried to make my parents proud, served my country with all the energy I had, and took a strong stand on the side of freedom.”
At her memorial service at the National Cathedral, April 27, President Joe Biden fulfilled the former secretary’s final wish when he noted, “in the 20th and 21st century, freedom had no greater champion than Madeleine Korbel Albright.”
Kristin Ahlberg is the assistant to the general editor in the Office of the Historian.
Tiffany Cabrera is a historian in the Special Projects Division in the Office of the Historian.