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Albright’s 9-Nation Tour Puts Smiley Face on U.S. Foreign Policy Agenda

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If part of successful diplomacy is creating the right atmospherics, Madeleine Albright is off to a great start.

One month into her job as secretary of State, she has capitalized on her star quality, plain talk (in several languages), savvy and a slight seasoning of what the British would call cheek to charm her counterparts from Rome to Tokyo on her first foreign trip--a foray that is laying the groundwork for the United States’ global agenda under her stewardship.

Today she completes the 11-day, nine-nation tour in Beijing, where she will meet Chinese leaders on the eve of “paramount leader” Deng Xiaoping’s funeral.

The Chinese signaled they want the visit to go ahead but also want it completed in one day rather than two so she can leave before the ceremony--from which foreigners are excluded.

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Albright said Sunday that she will complain to the Chinese leaders about the country’s record of violating human rights, but she added that the United States must continue to do business with Beijing despite its repressive policies. Appearing on ABC-TV’s “This Week,” she said the Chinese “expect me to raise human rights--and I will.”

So far, Albright’s profile could hardly have been higher, the pace of her journey quicker. At one point, she quipped that she was moving so quickly from country to country that her soul and body were in different places. Along the way, her countenance has graced the front pages of major newspapers at virtually every stop.

“Welcome to Brussels, Madeleine!” shouted Belgium’s leading French-language daily, Le Soir, as she arrived there, while the conservative Le Figaro in Paris commented simply, “Red Carpet in Paris for Madeleine Albright.”

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On the street, reaction has also been positive. She caused a stir walking through the Piazza del Campidoglio in Rome, pausing at one point to pose for a photo with a family out for a Sunday stroll. As she walked through the Kremlin grounds a few days later in Moscow on her way to meet Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin, an elderly woman shouted excitedly: “I know her! I know her! What is her name? Albright? That’s right!”

There are also the hats: a black Stetson in Rome, Bonn, Moscow and Seoul, plus a snappy military cap with “Albright” embroidered in gold across the front that she donned at the Korean Demilitarized Zone. There, in Panmunjom, she joked with U.S. soldiers about the first time she fell in love with Americans in uniform and then peered through binoculars into the Communist North.

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For Europeans especially, the contrast between Albright and her predecessor, Warren Christopher, couldn’t be greater. For them, Christopher was a colorless man with poor communication skills, a man most closely associated with the Clinton administration’s early policies--which seemed to change as often as a movie marquee.

“There’s a feeling of relief that Warren Christopher has gone,” said Francois Heisbourg, a former senior official in the French Defense Ministry. “There’s also relief that Albright went to Europe first.” (Most Europeans appear to overlook the fact that Christopher’s later diplomatic successes allowed Albright to begin her job free of immediate crisis.)

Albright’s penchant for plain speaking led the media in several countries to dub her “the Iron Lady"--a sobriquet once associated with former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. But Albright’s style is not so much iron as an amalgam of several components, both soft and hard.

“It’s a friendly style,” she says of herself. “It’s a very people-to-people style.”

After more than four hours of meetings with Albright in Moscow, Russia’s normally sardonic foreign minister, Yevgeny M. Primakov, smiled briefly as he referred to Albright as “an iron lady, but a constructive lady.”

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Whatever its components, Albright’s way of doing business, her language skills--she has spoken four on this trip: French, Russian, Czech and English--and the sparkle she brings to the normally staid blue-suit world of diplomacy have all helped warm the atmosphere.

The same chemistry that softened the cantankerous Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) during Albright’s confirmation hearings last month was visible on the beaming face of French Foreign Minister Herve de Charette in Paris as he greeted her with several kisses and later as he listened to her begin a news conference with remarks in French.

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Aides claim that substantive results have come with the atmospherics. In Brussels, for example, her pep talk gave North Atlantic Treaty Organization representatives a visible boost and, at least temporarily, dampened doubts about the American-driven policy of enlarging NATO eastward.

And although she failed to persuade Russia to lower its resistance to NATO enlargement, she did manage to engage Primakov in a long discussion of details of a proposed NATO-Russian charter.

But the trip also has had its lesser moments.

After the meeting with Yeltsin--talks that began with reporters seeing her being received by a gaunt Russian leader--Albright pronounced him “at the top of his game.” It was a comment that led one observer to suggest the “game” would have to be shuffleboard.

Times staff writer Norman Kempster in Washington contributed to this report.

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