What Madeleine Albright Taught Me

Albright embodied the good America stood for in the 1990s among my generation of Bosnians.

By , an associate professor at the University of Sarajevo’s Faculty of Political Sciences.
Albright and Weston sit side by side at a long table with their right hands raised to vote.
Albright and Weston sit side by side at a long table with their right hands raised to vote.
U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Madeleine Albright (right) and British ambassador George Weston vote in favor of a U.N. resolution calling on the Bosnian Serbs to allow humanitarian agencies into regions recently overrun by Serb forces on Aug. 10, 1995. JON LEVY/AFP via Getty Images

I was 10 years old when the war in Bosnia broke out in 1992. My family fled and made it to Malaysia, where I grew up watching news about the war ravaging my home country. Top U.S. officials involved in crafting the country’s response to the war soon became familiar names in our household and the broader Bosnian expatriate community in faraway Southeast Asia.

One of these names was Madeleine Albright. As then-U.S. President Bill Clinton’s ambassador to the United Nations, her forcefulness, demeanor, and eloquence captured our imaginations as we all hoped for a U.S. intervention in Bosnia.

Albright was one of the most hawkish members of the Clinton administration, and she pushed hard for more assertive U.S. involvement in Bosnia. As a Central European immigrant to the United States—her family fled communist Czechoslovakia when she was young—Albright knew more about the Balkans and understood the region better than then-U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher. As a child, she even spent time living in Belgrade, then part of Yugoslavia, while her diplomat father served as the Czech ambassador to the country.

I was 10 years old when the war in Bosnia broke out in 1992. My family fled and made it to Malaysia, where I grew up watching news about the war ravaging my home country. Top U.S. officials involved in crafting the country’s response to the war soon became familiar names in our household and the broader Bosnian expatriate community in faraway Southeast Asia.

One of these names was Madeleine Albright. As then-U.S. President Bill Clinton’s ambassador to the United Nations, her forcefulness, demeanor, and eloquence captured our imaginations as we all hoped for a U.S. intervention in Bosnia.

Albright was one of the most hawkish members of the Clinton administration, and she pushed hard for more assertive U.S. involvement in Bosnia. As a Central European immigrant to the United States—her family fled communist Czechoslovakia when she was young—Albright knew more about the Balkans and understood the region better than then-U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher. As a child, she even spent time living in Belgrade, then part of Yugoslavia, while her diplomat father served as the Czech ambassador to the country.

In 1994, she visited Sarajevo to open the U.S. Embassy in the besieged Bosnian capital and memorably declared, “Ya sam Sarajevka” or “I am a Sarajevan,” echoing former U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” declaration. Albright’s visit is still fondly remembered many years later.

By 1999, Albright had risen to become secretary of state, and then-Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic had launched his fourth war: this time on Kosovo, after wars in Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia. The Clinton administration’s learning curve about the Balkans led it to be far more willing to use force this time around. Additionally, then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair and then-French President Jacques Chirac were more supportive of a joint humanitarian intervention. The convergence of these factors meant that Kosovar Albanians would not be left alone.

I vividly remember Time’s cover page in May of that year featuring a photo of Albright on a cellphone and the headline “Albright at War.” Of all the Clinton administration officials, only Albright left the impression that she understood Milosevic for what he really was: a dictator bent on territorial expansion and the dream of a “Greater Serbia.” Her own experience as a refugee, her experience of having lived in the Balkans as child, and her training as a political scientist prepared her well to face the grave threat to European security in the 1990s.

The war in Bosnia and international diplomacy to end it sparked my interest in international affairs. When many years later I got a scholarship to study for a master’s degree at Georgetown University, I was grateful for the opportunity to meet at least one former Clinton administration official teaching there. (There were several, including former National Security Advisor Anthony Lake, whose class I also took.) I enrolled in Albright’s “America’s National Security Tool Box” class in 2007—not simply for the course itself but also to take the measure of the historical figure that had shaped the United States’ Bosnia policy.

I read Albright’s 2003 memoir Madam Secretary as preparation for the course. The impression I got from the memoir was that she was very aware that Clinton should have intervened earlier to stop the war in Bosnia. However, she was personally invested in safeguarding Clinton’s legacy and therefore hesitant to raise any lingering qualms she may have had about this foreign-policy challenge that had plagued the first Clinton term.

In class, Albright set out to discuss the variety of U.S. power instruments at hand. Then, as now, the Iranian nuclear program loomed large, and she had the class of 20 graduate students simulate possible international responses to a potential crisis. Albright frequently asked students for our opinions about the readings and current issues before giving her take, which was usually very perceptive.

Far more interesting than her lectures, though, were her reminiscences, anecdotes, and quick wit. At the time, in 2007, she was also working tirelessly on then-Sen. Hillary Clinton’s presidential primary campaign in Iowa and made trips there. She relished the idea of America electing its first female president. Not one to mince her words, Albright recalled at one point how some in the male-dominated foreign-policy team in Bill Clinton’s first term had scorned her. Her support for women leaders in public life was passionate and deeply influenced by the experience of her generation in breaking glass ceilings.

Albright had a few self-effacing anecdotes she liked to share, but I remember one in particular on Bosnia. After leaving her office, Albright was in line at an airport in Chicago. A security guard recognized her, walked up to her, and introduced himself as a Bosnian American, thanking her for all she did for Bosnia. He asked to take a picture with Albright as others in the line looked on. A lady right behind her asked what was happening. “He is from Bosnia, and, you know, I was secretary of state,” Albright explained. “Wow, you were the secretary of state of Bosnia!” the woman exclaimed.

At the end of the semester, Albright invited our class to her Georgetown home for lunch—a gesture all of us who attended certainly remembered for many years to come. She told us how her home was chosen as a secret location for a meeting a few years earlier between then-Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards to hammer out a deal for the Democratic ticket in 2004.

What was evident after a semester in Albright’s class was her sharp mind and unabating purpose in life. Although acutely conscious of her glass ceiling-shattering history, not once did Albright seem content to wrap up her legacy.

In the United States, Albright is remembered as the foreign-born first female secretary of state. In the Czech Republic, she is the favorite daughter who made it to the pinnacle of U.S. diplomacy. In Bosnia and Kosovo, Albright is fondly remembered as a forceful advocate of an assertive U.S. diplomacy that put a stop to Milosevic’s wars of conquest.

I will remember Albright both as a policymaker and a professor. As the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and then as the country’s top diplomat, Albright embodied the good that America stood for in the 1990s among my generation of Bosnians growing up amid the war. As a professor, Albright had both clarity of ideas and the eloquence to convey them. Her sharp wit, excellent memory, and sense of humor made her a formidable presence in class. Now, as I teach international relations to students of my own in Sarajevo, I frequently refer to Albright and other Bosnia hawks from the 1990s.

Far more than any particular lesson though, I will treasure the opportunity I had to spend time with the United States’ 64th secretary of state and a historical figure who hailed from a region close to my own. To paraphrase former U.S. President Barack Obama, only in America was Albright’s story even possible.

Hamza Karcic is an associate professor at the University of Sarajevo’s Faculty of Political Sciences. Twitter: @KarcicHamza

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

A view of the Russian Central Bank headquarters in downtown Moscow on May 26.
A view of the Russian Central Bank headquarters in downtown Moscow on May 26.

Actually, the Russian Economy Is Imploding

Nine myths about the effects of sanctions and business retreats, debunked.

Taliban fighters wait as people gather for a ceremony to raise the Taliban flag in Kabul.
Taliban fighters wait as people gather for a ceremony to raise the Taliban flag in Kabul.

The Taliban Detained Me for Doing My Job. I Can Never Go Back.

FP’s columnist on a harrowing return to Kabul, almost one year after the United States left Afghanistan.

A man walks past a closed store of the Japanese clothing brand Uniqlo in Moscow on June 8.
A man walks past a closed store of the Japanese clothing brand Uniqlo in Moscow on June 8.

Russian Sanctions Are Working but Slowly

Moscow’s military capabilities are being ground down, piece by piece.

Men stand atop a wooden platform over a muddy river holding a long pole down into the water.
Men stand atop a wooden platform over a muddy river holding a long pole down into the water.

Ghana’s ‘Success’ Exposes the West’s Toxic Development Model

Standard theories of global progress continue to be largely limited to raw extraction.