WASHINGTON: Madeleine Albright, who came to the United States as a refugee girl and became the first female secretary of state, shaping American foreign policy in the late 20th century, has died at the age of 84.
Appointed by President Bill Clinton as ambassador to the United Nations and then as the top American diplomat, Albright was one of the most influential statesmen of her generation.
Mourning his passing, Clinton said Albright had been “a force for freedom, democracy and human rights,” calling his death an “immense loss to the world.”
President Joe Biden said Albright had “changed the course of history,” adding that he “defied convention and broke barriers time and time again.”
At the United Nations, the Security Council observed a moment of silence before voting on a Russia-led resolution on Ukraine.
Clinton, announcing her choice of Albright to head the State Department in 1997, said that gender “had nothing to do with her getting the job” and that she was the most qualified candidate.
Albright, however, was aware of the importance of the appointment.
“It used to be that the only way a woman could really make her foreign policy views felt was by marrying a diplomat and then pouring tea on the lap of an offending ambassador,” she once said in a speech to the Group of Women in Foreign Policy.
“Today, women participate in all facets of world affairs.”
Albright took the helm of the State Department in a post-Cold War world in which the United States had emerged as the sole superpower, leading crucial discussions with world leaders on arms control, trade, terrorism and the future of NATO.
Not since Margaret Thatcher ruled Britain has a woman held such a position of global influence.
Born Marie Jana Korbelova in Czechoslovakia on May 15, 1937, Albright came to the United States as a refugee with her family in 1948 and became a US citizen in 1957.
His father, Josef Korbel, a diplomat, had converted from Judaism to Catholicism after the family fled to London in 1939 to escape the Nazis.
Albright said he only learned of his Jewish origins late in life and the fact that three of his grandparents had died in concentration camps.
– ‘Short, noisy guy’ –
Fluent in English, Czech, French, and Russian, Albright earned his undergraduate degree from Wellesley College.
He earned his doctorate in political science from Columbia University and began working for Democratic Senator Edmund Muskie.
He later joined President Jimmy Carter’s White House National Security Council, serving under his national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, his former Columbia professor.
After Carter’s defeat, Albright began teaching at Georgetown University in Washington, but remained an influential voice in Democratic foreign policy-making circles.
Clinton named her US ambassador to the United Nations in 1993 and she served in that role until 1997, when she became secretary of state.
One of his last trips in the post was an official visit to North Korea, where he met then-leader Kim Jong-Il.
In an interview with AFP as she prepared to leave the State Department in 2001, Albright said she would remain involved in foreign policy.
“I’m not going to be a wallflower,” Albright said.
“I haven’t considered myself the tall, quiet type either, so I’m going to be the short, loud type and stay out there,” she said. “I love foreign policy, I’m passionately interested in how the world evolves.”
Just a month ago, The New York Times published an op-ed by Albright arguing that Russian leader Vladimir Putin would be making a “historic mistake” by invading Ukraine.
Albright married Joseph Albright in 1959. They had three daughters and divorced in 1982.
Her memoir, “Madame Secretary,” was published in 2003.
She also wrote a book about her massive collection of brooches, which she explained to Smithsonian magazine in 2010 sometimes “reflected whatever problem we were dealing with.”
Once, during her tenure at the United Nations, state media in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq compared her to a “peerless snake”: she responded by wearing a snake brooch at a meeting on Iraq.
“In all roles, he used his fierce intellect and sharp wit, and often his unparalleled collection of pins, to advance the national security of the United States and promote peace around the world,” Biden said.