Albright: A Hard-liner Who Wears Heels

Walter Russell Mead, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a presidential fellow at the World Policy Institute. He is the author of "Mortal Splendor: The American Empire in Transition" (Houghton Mifflin) and is writing a book about U.S. foreign policy

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) rejoiced at the news that President Bill Clinton named 59-year-old U.N. Ambassador Madeleine K. Albright to replace the outgoing Warren Christopher as secretary of state. Albright, said the senator, is a “tough and courageous lady,” whose Senate confirmation should present no great problems. That Helms endorsement speaks volumes about both the opportunities and the challenges facing the accomplished diplomat who is about to become the highest-ranking female official in the history of the United States.

On the positive side, Albright can look forward to a relatively smooth working relationship with the large and increasingly conservative Republican majority in the Senate. With abrasive political battles ahead over U.S. foreign policy--cutbacks in foreign aid, extension of the U.S. troop presence in Bosnia, restructuring of the State Department, the North American Free Trade Agreement and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization expansion, trade and human-rights issues with China--Clinton had no choice but to appoint a tough-talking, politically savvy diplomat who could protect the administration’s right flank.

Albright, a longtime protege of Cold War and anti-Russian hard-liner Zbigniew Brzezinski, fills this bill admirably and, as the first woman appointed to this most august of Cabinet offices, her nomination also helps Clinton with feminists who might otherwise sniff at a hard-line choice for secretary of state.

Unfortunately, the same track record that helped Albright win this post will make it more difficult to succeed in it. Her identification with strong, internationally unpopular U.S. stands in the United Nations helps her with U.S. conservatives, but widens the gap between the U.S. and many of its leading allies. Her role in casting the veto against a second term for U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali and her public identification with the U.S. embargo against Cuba endeared her to people like Helms--but left her isolated on these issues at the United Nations.


Now, when the United States is scrambling to limit the damage that the Helms-Burton sanctions against Cuba and other related initiatives have caused to its relations with friendly countries such as Britain and Germany, the appointment of a secretary of state so closely connected with these stands won’t help.

Her credentials as a long-time friend of Israel are also a double-edged sword. In 1992, she urged then-candidate Bill Clinton to attack President George Bush’s decision to suspend U.S. loan guarantees for Israeli settlements on the West Bank. At the U.N., she has been a tireless and effective opponent of Iraqi efforts to escape from sanctions imposed after the Gulf War. Stands like this may help her with Israel’s Likud government, but an Albright-led State Department will have a harder time convincing Arabs and Palestinians that the United States can be trusted as an honest broker between Israel and its enemies.

Her reputation as a hard-liner in U.S.-Russian relations also helps her at home but could hurt her abroad. As secretary of state, one of her first jobs will be to soothe Russian alarm at the imminent expansion of NATO, to include such former Warsaw Pact countries as Poland, Hungary and her native Czech Republic. She will have an uphill battle to win the trust of Russians, who have a visceral distrust of her mentor Brzezinski and who resented what they saw as her heavy-handed diplomacy at the United Nations.

Albright’s track record on Bosnia may also haunt her as the situation in the ex-Yugoslav republic unfolds. In the early years of the Bosnian War, the United States regularly castigated Britain and France for moral cowardice in supporting compromise peace plans at a time when Britain and France had troops on the ground in Bosnia while America did not. As chief spokesman for U.S. policy in the United Nations during those years, Albright made enemies who she must now convert into friends.


These problems are not all Albright’s fault. The role of U.S. ambassador to the United Nations is a difficult one. More than most diplomats, a U.N. ambassador must engage in public diplomacy--making the case for U.S. policy and standing up for the United States in open debate. It is not Albright’s fault that Clinton administration policy on such issues as Somalia, Bosnia, China and multilateral trade sanctions against Cuba, Libya and Iraq alienated some key allies and created an impression that U.S. foreign policy was conducted by lightweights.

In her new role as secretary of state, Albright will have more opportunity to shape U.S. foreign policy, and less need to act as a point person in debate. Her challenge will be to bring a new level of coherence and strategic thought to a foreign policy often in disarray, while winning the confidence and trust of world leaders who, so far, have seen her as a political operator rather than as a profound foreign-policy thinker.

Albright is blessed with considerable intellectual gifts and a formidably strong character. Whether she joins men like Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, George Marshall and Dean Acheson on the short list of great secretaries of state depends on whether she, and the president she serves, can develop and articulate a broader and deeper foreign policy than he created and she defended during Clinton’s first term. If she makes an effective transition from street fighter to statesman, Albright, who has already reached heights matched by no other American women, could win an enduring place in American history.