People die at random, of course, but it seems poignant that Madeleine Albright has died at the very moment the liberal post-Soviet world has met its own, more violent, end. Her term as Bill Clinton’s secretary of state coincided with the moment America, the most powerful nation in the history of the world, sat, unknowingly, at its own apogee.
The Soviet Union was newly gone. America stood peerless and unchallenged. The attacks of September 11, 2001, and the twenty years of War on Terror that followed, were still unthinkable. China’s GDP rivaled Italy’s, not America’s. Even offhand, Albright could describe America as the ‘indispensable nation.’ Charles Krauthammer had called it early — this was the ‘unipolar moment.’
America’s problems were the problems of pre-eminence. But they were still serious. A little earlier, Albright, as ambassador to the United Nations, had deplored the amoral Clinton and UN response to the genocide in Rwanda.
As secretary of state, she inherited the failed Clinton attempts to prevent North Korea from developing nuclear weapons, and the Agreed Framework which even made provision for the normalization of relations between the Hermit Kingdom and the world’s sole hyperpower.
Albright’s visit to North Korea in 2000 must rank alongside Jim Callaghan’s trip to see Idi Amin in 1975 (in a bid to save the life of a Briton abroad) as one of the more quixotic of foreign ministerial journeys. Needless to say, the North Koreans got their nukes. Relations between the United States and the Kim dynasty were never normalized.
Online at least, the announcement of Albright’s death has been most associated with a comment she made about the claimed death toll of sanctions levied against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq between the two Gulf Wars. In 1996, Albright was confronted by Lesley Stahl on 60 Minutes with Saddam’s own figures — claiming that sanctions had killed more than half a million children. Told that this was more than America’s nuclear weapons killed in World War Two, Albright was asked whether it was justified: ‘I think this is a very hard choice, but the price… we think the price is worth it,’ she replied.
Never mind that Hussein was a liar, that the statistics Stahl cited had no basis in fact, and that the sufferings of Iraqis were passed happily on to them by Saddam’s government. The interview won an Emmy.
Albright’s was a very American life. Her family fled the Czech ruins of World War Two and the newly growing Soviet Empire by emigrating to the United States in 1948. Albright was bright and studied hard. She wrote her doctoral dissertation on the Prague Spring and seemed marked out for a career in academia and American foreign policy.
Her old professor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, had risen to the National Security Council and introduced Albright to its cloisters. Albright maintained an association with Democratic Party policymaking and watched official Washington from a post at the politically connected Georgetown University, where she taught and researched eastern Europe.
In retrospect, it seems ironic that the clever, moralizing Albright only held official positions in the amoral and glib Clinton years, rising from the PR-based talking shop of the United Nations to the helm of the State Department. But she also had a smart mouth — the kind that impressed Clinton. When the Castro regime shot down two aircraft belonging to a political campaign run by Cuban exiles in 1996, Albright the ambassador called it an act of ‘not cojones, [but] cowardice.’ Clinton enjoyed the remark and promoted her.
Albright was not alone in her memoirs of writing about the frustrations of power, even power held at the End of History. Samantha Power, also a brainy Democratic party foreign policy operative, has since written about the many chances the Clinton and Obama years wasted when they failed to do the right thing. Power and Albright each noticed America’s inability to build a world in which it was both dominant and did not allow squalid regimes to commit genocide — or to launch needless and vicious wars against neighbors, or to massacre civilians who protested for political rights.
Both Power and Albright were intelligent idealists overpowered in government by the cynics who surrounded them. Each left office disillusioned.
Out of office, Albright urged lawmakers to use military action to punish Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons in 2013 — something that went against the desires of another glib Democratic president, and which would, had she been heeded, have changed the course of an eleven-year-long war which has plumbed new depths of barbarism. She observed the Trump administration’s handling of Syria and North Korea with a gimlet eye — seeing no strategy to be found in either case. This was another post-power judgement that has been proven right.
With George W. Bush’s election, Albright left office — and kept a low profile in a way that only America affords its former officials. She wrote her memoirs and several other topical books (including, during a time when the subject was intensely fashionable, one of the better Trump-inflected volumes on the prospects of American fascism). In a move possible only in America, Albright even endorsed the dietary supplement Herbalife, whose parent company has been accused of being a pyramid scheme.
Like many former secretaries of state, Albright never exactly retired. As recently as February 23, a piece was published in her name in the New York Times on the ‘historic mistake’ Vladimir Putin was making.
‘Instead of paving Russia’s path to greatness, invading Ukraine would ensure Mr. Putin’s infamy by leaving his country diplomatically isolated, economically crippled and strategically vulnerable in the face of a stronger, more united Western alliance,’ she wrote.
This may well be proven correct. A last judgement by the secretary of state who was in office at the final moment when America appeared unchallengeable. Whose time in power coincided with the close of a decade marked with delusional questions about whether events like Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would ever be possible again.
This piece was originally published in Spectator World.