UP EXPERT OPINION: US’s first female top diplomat Madeleine Albright not all she was cut out to be

Posted on April 04, 2022

Professor Adekeye Adebajo, senior research fellow at the Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship, reflects on the legacy of United States diplomat Madeline Albright following her passing in late March 2022.  


Former secretary of state misread the Rwandan genocide and supported numerous wars and invasions

While I was completing a short biography of the first African and first Arab UN secretary-general, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, word came through of the death of his nemesis: the then US ambassador at the UN under Bill Clinton, Madeleine Albright, who single-handedly led the campaign that ousted the Egyptian from office in December 1996.

Albright recently died of cancer at the age of 84.

Boutros-Ghali’s undisguised disdain for Albright’s diplomatic skills would prove fatal. He noted that: “She seemed to assume that the mere assertion of a US policy should be sufficient to achieve the support of other nations.”

Boutros also complained that Albright was trying to instruct him on which countries to visit, which special representatives to appoint, and what to say. He complained prophetically that he felt like a man condemned to execution.

Albright boosted her own chances of winning bipartisan support for her successful bid to become the first female American secretary of state (1997-2000), by acting as Clinton’s willing executioner: Washington stood alone among the 15 Security Council members in vetoing the Egyptian’s reappointment in December 1996.

Marie — Madeleine in French — Korbelova was born in Prague on May 15 1937 as the eldest child of a Czech diplomat, Josef Korbel, and his wife Anna. Madeleine attended high school in Geneva, before fleeing with her parents and two siblings to London as Hitler seized the Czech Sudetenland in 1939. Her father was posted to Belgrade as ambassador after World War 2. As Soviet-backed communists took over the Czech government in 1948, the family successfully sought asylum in the US, where Josef secured a professorship at the University of Denver.

Madeleine’s Jewish parents had converted to Catholicism in London to protect the family, which lost 26 members, including three of Madeleine’s grandparents, to the Nazi Holocaust. The lifelong feminist studied political science at the elite women’s liberal arts Wellesley College in Massachusetts, describing the institution as a place where young women were empowered and groomed for leadership roles. She also developed a strong sense of public service. The college would later name its Institute for Global Affairs after Albright.

After graduating from Wellesley, Madeleine married Joseph Albright, the wealthy scion of a newspaper empire, in 1959. They had three daughters as the family shuttled between Washington DC and New York. Her ambition to become a journalist was frustrated, and she instead completed masters and doctorate degrees at New York’s Columbia University.

Her professor at Columbia, Zbigniew Brzezinski — a fellow émigré whose diplomatic family had similarly fled persecution from Poland — then headhunted Madeleine to become a congressional liaison officer in the Jimmy Carter administration (1977-1980), after himself having become national security adviser. Albright got divorced in 1983, and taught as a professor at Georgetown University between stints in government.

As secretary of state, she drove Nato’s expansion into her native Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary in 1999. She pushed hard for the use of force against Serbian warlord Slobodan Milosevic, and was “hawkish” on preventing Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein from obtaining weapons of mass destruction. But Albright was sometimes gaffe-prone.

As UN ambassador in 1994 she totally misread the Rwandan genocide, in which 800,000 people perished, seeking to use this incident as a machoistic test case for a new, restrictive American policy of avoiding UN interventions after the killing of 18 American troops in Somalia six months earlier. She later described this incident as “her deepest regret”.

In the Balkans she assumed that Milosevic’s Kosovo slaughter would quickly crumble in the face of US bombing. She insensitively noted that the death of 500,000 Iraqi children due to UN sanctions was “a price worth paying”. Acknowledging Albright’s historic legacy, president Barack Obama awarded her the prestigious Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012.


Adekeye Adebajo is professor and senior research fellow at the University of Pretoria’s Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship.

This article first appeared in Business Day on 3 April 2022. 

- Author Professor Adekeye Adebajo

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