Madeleine Albright, America’s First Female Secretary of State, Dies

A lifelong foe of autocrats who declared, “I do wear my patriotism on my sleeve.”

By , a senior correspondent at Foreign Policy.
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is interviewed on May 5, 2008. David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images

Madeleine Albright, the United States’ first female secretary of state, has died at age 84. During her long career, she distinguished herself by her unapologetic assertion of U.S. power for the purpose of keeping the peace as well as several significant diplomatic breakthroughs.

The daughter of Josef Korbel, a Czech refugee from Nazism and diplomat in his own right, Albright was forthright in saying that her life story had shaped her diplomatic doctrine. “You have to understand, for me, Americans liberated Europe,” Albright told me in an interview in 1999, just before she helped orchestrate the U.S. military intervention in Kosovo to save Kosovar Muslims from then-Serbian autocrat Slobodan Milosevic. “I mean, I come out of a Europe where I felt great wrong had been done because good people waited too long to try to figure out what to do. … I do believe in American power. That is my political philosophy and my foreign-policy views, added to my own personality, which is that I have always been an activist.” 

Yet her hawkish views at times got her into trouble, both in the media and with her colleagues in then-U.S. President Bill Clinton’s administration. An early advocate of using U.S. military force in Bosnia, Albright once upbraided Colin Powell, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “‘What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?’” Powell wrote Albright as saying in his memoir, My American Journey. “‘I thought I would have an aneurysm.’” 

Madeleine Albright, the United States’ first female secretary of state, has died at age 84. During her long career, she distinguished herself by her unapologetic assertion of U.S. power for the purpose of keeping the peace as well as several significant diplomatic breakthroughs.

The daughter of Josef Korbel, a Czech refugee from Nazism and diplomat in his own right, Albright was forthright in saying that her life story had shaped her diplomatic doctrine. “You have to understand, for me, Americans liberated Europe,” Albright told me in an interview in 1999, just before she helped orchestrate the U.S. military intervention in Kosovo to save Kosovar Muslims from then-Serbian autocrat Slobodan Milosevic. “I mean, I come out of a Europe where I felt great wrong had been done because good people waited too long to try to figure out what to do. … I do believe in American power. That is my political philosophy and my foreign-policy views, added to my own personality, which is that I have always been an activist.” 

Yet her hawkish views at times got her into trouble, both in the media and with her colleagues in then-U.S. President Bill Clinton’s administration. An early advocate of using U.S. military force in Bosnia, Albright once upbraided Colin Powell, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “‘What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?’” Powell wrote Albright as saying in his memoir, My American Journey. “‘I thought I would have an aneurysm.’” 

Though she stood under 5 feet tall, Albright always cut an imposing figure, often entering a room with her signature Stetson hat pulled low over her eyes. During her tenure as secretary of state, Albright drew criticism for calling the United States “the indispensable nation.” (Under criticism, Albright later retreated from using the phrase, which was actually aimed as much at a domestic audience as at a foreign one since Albright feared a U.S. retreat into post-Cold War isolationism, her former spokesperson James Rubin once said.)

Albright was also instrumental in pressing for NATO expansion into the Czech Republic, Poland, and Hungary—beginning the controversial advance of the Western alliance into former Soviet states. At the ceremony for those three first NATO additions in 1999, Albright reminisced about her own father’s flight from Munich when she was a toddler and wiped away tears. She ended her speech exclaiming, “Hallelujah!”

Albright achieved other diplomatic breakthroughs as well. She became the most senior U.S. official to meet on North Korean soil with the country’s then-dictator, Kim Jong Il, in 2000. That same year, Albright orchestrated an early forerunner of what would become U.S. President Joe Biden’s Summit for Democracy: the 2000 Community of Democracies conference in Poland. Until that point, some critics—in particular, her longtime rival Richard Holbrooke, who lost the secretary of state job to her in Clinton’s second term after Warren Christopher retired—occasionally questioned Albright’s strategic ability. A few even derided Albright as a “half-bright” behind her back, saying she didn’t project a coherent vision of where and when the United States should get involved around the world.

But Albright was clearly ahead of the curve in seeing that the battle between democracy and authoritarianism would continue to define the 21st century. “I do wear my patriotism on my sleeve,” she told me in a 2000 interview not long before she left office. “But, like any normal human being, I also think I learn what is the best way to frame things. I happen to think the United States is the indispensable nation; I see it every day. But if [that phrase] is something that rubs people the wrong way, then there’s no point in using it.”

Biden, himself, praised her for the same phrase after her death, saying, “Hers were the hands that turned the tide of history. … When I think of Madeleine, I will always remember her fervent faith that ‘America is the indispensable nation.’”

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a leading Democrat, said Albright would be remembered mainly for using diplomacy “to advance American interests, protect human rights, and promote democracy around the world.” In a statement, CIA director William Burns called Albright “a remarkable public servant, a wonderful role model for generations, and an eloquent voice in our national discourse.”

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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