Albright Approach: Upfront, Personal
By Michael Dobbs
On her first full day as secretary of state, Madeleine K. Albright did a little pirouette in front of hundreds of American diplomats. "You may have noticed that I do not look like Warren Christopher," she joked, drawing loud laughter from her predominantly male audience.
Over the last month, Albright has made the "I am not Warren Christopher" theme a key part of her new public persona. The contrast is rarely as explicit as it was on that euphoric first day in Foggy Bottom, but it is there nonetheless, in practically everything she does, both at home and abroad. There are some countries notably France where it is almost her major selling point.
A couple of weeks ago, the CBS News program "60 Minutes" aired a flattering profile of Albright that included shots of her doing the macarena in the United Nations Security Council with the Argentine envoy. It is difficult to imagine Christopher doing the macarena, even for the benefit of the television cameras. A buttoned-up Los Angeles lawyer ribbed by President Clinton as prone to eating M&Ms with a knife and fork, Christopher went to almost excruciating lengths to avoid any suggestion of personal flamboyance.
It is equally difficult to imagine Christopher stepping off his official airplane in a Stetson or kissing the foreign minister of France four times on both cheeks or making chitchat with his motorcycle escort. Sometimes, it is the most insignificant gestures that become hallmarks of a new era.
With just one stop left on an 11-day round-the-world tour a meeting Monday with Chinese leaders in Beijing Albright already has achieved a goal that eluded Christopher during his four years in office: She has found a way of talking about American foreign policy so ordinary Americans can understand.
Her approach to diplomacy is very personal. A small illustration of this technique came Saturday when she told U.S. troops on the front line with North Korea how, as a child growing up in London during World War II, she had first heard the phrase "the Yanks are coming."
"That was the first time that I fell in love with American men in uniform," she joked.
The obvious stylistic differences between Albright and Christopher have obscured the the fact that on substantive foreign policy issues, their positions are almost identical. So far, Albright has yet to undertake a major initiative.
That said, Albright is viewed as generally more hawkish than Christopher and more willing to resort to force. A few months before he left office, Christopher made the devastating admission that it had taken him some time as secretary before he fully appreciated the need for vigorous American leadership. Albright betrays little embarrassment about being out front.
Albright's background as a refugee from Nazism and communism has given her a personal interest in the creation of new security arrangements for Europe to reflect the political changes that have taken place since the end of the Cold War. Christopher had to be persuaded that the eastward expansion of NATO to the borders of the former Soviet Union was a sensible policy. Albright has been a true believer from the very start.
The French newspaper Le Figaro described Christopher last week as "a cautious old gentleman, a lawyer, who treated diplomacy on a case-by-case basis rather than in the framework of a vast strategy. He was a Californian less interested in Europe than in Asia." Albright, it wrote, was a European who "will make sure that the United States lives up to its responsibilities."
"Albright has one great advantage. Her name is not Warren Christopher," joked Francois Heisbourg, a French defense industry official and foreign policy analyst, recalling Christopher's prickly relationship with French Foreign Minister Herve de Charette.
So far, comparison of the two secretaries of state has worked mainly to Albright's advantage, particularly in communicating American foreign policy goals to a broader audience. Christopher was at his best talking to small groups behind closed doors. Albright is a public personality, adept at exploiting her personality for political ends.
In fairness to Christopher, it must be said that he became secretary of state at a more difficult period for U.S. foreign policy. He had to deal with simultaneous crises in Bosnia and Somalia, both of which turned into political and military fiascoes for the Clinton administration. After being out of power for 12 years, the Democrats had to relearn how to wield American power. It was a baptism by fire.
Most of the foreign policy mistakes made by the Clinton administration came during the first two years. As the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Albright has had the advantage of being part of this learning period, seeing how not to conduct policy. Compared to the bruising debates of 1993-94, there is now broad consensus within the administration over goals and priorities.
Albright's itinerary is an indication of the administration's present priorities. Christopher's first trip was to the Middle East, and he remained intimately involved in the intricacies of Arab-Israeli shuttle diplomacy for the next four years. He did not visit Europe until May 1993, for what turned out to be a failed attempt to persuade the allies to intervene decisively in Bosnia. It was 18 months before he visited China.
Albright, by contrast, has been at pains to pay attention to core strategic relationships with Europe and Asia. The Middle East has been relegated to second place. By including Russia and China on her first trip, she is focusing attention on the need to integrate them into the modern world as the overriding strategic challenge facing the United States.
Despite her grueling debut, Albright has yet to make a serious mistake. Her style is summed up in the Stetson, which she bought last month in Houston and wears often. It is friendly, informal and suggests a tendency to shoot from the hip. It is also, as befits a refugee from Europe, very American.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company