Madeleine Albright Tells Her Story

Aug 01, 2004

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright discussed her recently published memoir, Madam Secretary, at a July 20 Director's Forum. The book chronicles her journey from Czechoslovakia-—having fled her war-torn homeland as a child-—to becoming the highest-ranking woman in the U.S. government.

Albright said she wrote this book to pen a historical record. "I loved being secretary of state and at the United Nations and, with that great honor, also came an obligation to write about what I'd seen and participated in." She said the book also tells an important woman's story. Albright recently attended her 45th reunion at Wellesley College and recounted how her class graduated at a time when women were unsure how to combine career development and family life. Yet she climbed to the top of her field, that of national security policy, which remains a male-dominated field.

In the memoir, Albright shares her insights on the central role the United States can and must play in world affairs. "I believe very fully in American engagement," she said. While secretary, she repeatedly would call the United States indispensable. "Unless the U.S. gets things started or got people together...nothing happens. But I never said indispensable meant alone." To fulfill its lead role, she said the United States must utilize and strengthen existing international institutions. She underscored, "It is very important for the United States to assume its global responsibility, but we're stronger with our allies."

Albright devotes much of her book to foreign policy, a lifelong passion that came to fruition during her work at the United Nations and in the Clinton administration. In one section, she describes her recollections and experiences while serving as U.S. permanent representative to the UN. She discusses improving peacekeeping efforts, the need for reform and more funding, and both the successes and failures during her time there.

Another section recalls her four years as secretary of state. She traveled far and wide as secretary in an effort to demonstrate U.S. interest in and commitment to countries around the globe. Albright said she invented the telephone conference call on diplomacy—talking often with NATO and working to keep its members together. She recounted one of her proudest moments in the job was witnessing the first round of NATO expansion, when her native Czechoslovakia, along with Poland and Hungary, joined the security alliance.

Albright devotes an entire section of the book to foreign policy. She extensively covers the war in Kosovo, NATO's first full-scale war, noting that the planning, fighting, and post-conflict work all happened with the alliance remaining intact. She also delves into the harrowing ordeal of trying to forge a Middle East peace and the disappointment of coming so close to reaching a deal. She recalled the dreadful moods during Camp David 2000. After convincing Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to attend, he reluctantly came in a foul mood only exceeded by then-Israeli President Ehud Barak's bad mood after having just barely survived a no-confidence vote at home. She said many people mistakenly assert that President Clinton pressed for the meeting to create a legacy but rather Barak had urged Clinton to press for a comprehensive peace settlement. Later, answering a question on the subject, she criticized the current administration for not paying enough attention to the Israel-Palestinian issue. She said, "The road map is barely out of the glove compartment."

The memoir opens with Albright's immigrant story. In 1948, she and her family fled communist Czechoslovakia and came to the United States. She was raised in a diplomatic household in which foreign policy constantly was discussed. Her father had been Czech ambassador to Yugoslavia and later became a professor; in fact, one of his students had been Condoleezza Rice.

Albright reiterated her admiration for Woodrow Wilson throughout the speech. She was a Woodrow Wilson Center fellow from 1982-1983. President Wilson had inspired much of pre-communist Czechoslovakia's development, particularly his views on self-determination and his famous 14 Points. When discussing foreign policy, she said, "Human rights, democracy and freedom should be offered, not imposed. The U.S. is most secure when it follows the principles that Wilson laid out."

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