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Opinion Madeleine Albright’s enduring legacy: U.S. leadership and women’s empowerment

Former U.S. secretary of state Madeleine Albright at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. (Gary Cameron/Reuters)
3 min

Madeleine K. Albright stood out and stood up. As the first female U.S. secretary of state and one of the few women in leadership on the global stage during the 1990s, Ms. Albright — who died Wednesday at the age of 84 — took a hard line against dictators and tyrants from the Balkans to Haiti to Rwanda. She pushed the United States to intervene in the Bosnian war in 1995 and again four years later to stop Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic in Kosovo. Hers was a steadfast belief that democracy would triumph over authoritarianism and that the United States had to lead for it to happen. She also championed the expansion of NATO to include Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. The doctrine that she called “assertive multilateralism” became a defining U.S. foreign policy of the post-Cold War era.

Ms. Albright’s own story embodied the American Dream. Born in Czechoslovakia just before World War II, she came to the United States at age 11 as a refugee from the Nazis and communism and graduated from Wellesley College in 1959, marrying three days after graduation. She was shut out of early professional opportunities because she was a woman. When her twins were born prematurely, she spent months in the hospital learning Russian and went on to earn a doctorate in government from Columbia University in 1976. She did not return to the paid workforce until she was 39 and considered herself part of a “transitional generation” of women. She advised other working moms that “women have to work twice as hard.”

Albright joined the Clinton administration as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, where she was credited with ousting then U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who was considered ineffective, and getting world leaders to take military action to stop the Bosnian war. Her success — and her friendship with fellow Wellesley graduate Hillary Clinton — led to her being named secretary of state, a position in which she served from 1997 to 2001. She wasn’t afraid to admit her mistakes. At the top of the list was not acknowledging the Rwandan genocide sooner and blocking early efforts to stop it.

David Ignatius: Madeleine Albright shaped a generation of foreign policy leaders

Even after leaving office, she was an inspiration to women around the world and frequently received a rock star-like reception when she visited college campuses for talks. She was known to utter the line: “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.” That statement backfired on the 2016 campaign trail when she employed it on Ms. Clinton’s behalf in a bitter internecine Democratic presidential primary. But the larger sentiment was widely embraced by young women and was even promoted on a Starbucks cup.

After the election of Donald Trump, Ms. Albright unabashedly called him “the most undemocratic president in modern American history.” She was equally skeptical of Russian President Vladimir Putin, warning only a month before she died that Mr. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine would be “a historic error” straight out of “Stalin’s playbook.”

Reflecting on her long career, Ms. Albright said, “It took me a long time to find my voice. But having found it, I’m not going to shut up.” Because she didn’t, her words — and her values — will live in history.

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