The Many Lives Of Madeleine Albright

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Blunt But Flexible

By Johanna McGeary

(TIME, February 17) -- General George Marshall's seems a curious portrait to adorn the Secretary of State's office in 1997, but the choice tells a lot about Madeleine Albright. The 1940s hero-diplomat crafted the ambitious economic plan that kept half of Europe on democracy's side. That world of us vs. them was swept away in 1989, but Albright still aspires to Marshall's "magic and very American approach," eager "to plant the seed" of democracy as he did. She has never forgotten how the people of her native Czechoslovakia, blocked by Stalin from joining the Marshall Plan, quietly absorbed American ideas even across a sealed border.

More than many other Secretaries of State, what Albright will do in the job grows organically from who she is. Her own history gave birth to this unshakable tenet: "I truly do believe in the goodness of American power. I don't just mean military force. I mean the role the U.S. can have in the world when properly used." Her own task, she says, is also Marshallian: to bring as many states as she can into the developed world's system of rule by law, of international agreements and of peaceful behavior.

Realpolitikers will grumble: too bad she doesn't have Marshall's billions of dollars to rearrange the world. Yet Albright is already off to prove that her outlook can shape the day-to-day business of U.S. diplomacy. During the trip she will begin next week to nine key powers in Europe and Asia, she plans to coax the world's major players into working "together to develop the international system as we're going into the 21st century." That's what another of her predecessors, George Shultz, once adroitly called "gardening"--the diplomacy of nurturing foreign relationships so they can blossom in the service of American interests.

Albright is lucky to be gardening at a moment of relative tranquillity. While Warren Christopher had to cope at once with second-tier crises like Bosnia, Haiti and Somalia, Albright is free to focus on the prime challenges to American security ahead: attaining a democratic, capitalistic Russia and handling a rich, restless China as it aspires to superpower status.

Those are the main jobs. She's also got to keep her boss from stumbling into any unexpected crises, and she brings to this a passion for problem solving and cutting through diplospeak. When she sits down with her senior aides each morning, they reel off two-minute reports on North Korean famine, the chemical-weapons treaty pending in Congress, the hostage standoff in Peru. "How does our policy jibe with Peruvian policy?" she demands as she prepares for a meeting with President Alberto Fujimori. "I'm fascinated to know what's happening inside that embassy."

She's proud of her bluntness; so her own words must serve as clues to her intentions:

"I'm not a diplomat. I'm such a political person." Translation: she is not about to depart radically from current policies. The Albright version of Administration policy will look pretty much like the Christopher version. She was chosen as a team player, she helped formulate the current positions, and she is smart enough to let Bill Clinton be master of his own foreign policy.

"My mind-set is Munich." Translation: Albright operates from a visceral impulse to jump into trouble spots, with guns if necessary. But her approach to using force has never been set in stone. She opposed the Gulf War and now says she was wrong. She pushed to capture Somali warlord Mohammed Farrah Aidid, but has been sobered by that debacle. She advocated "assertive multilateralism" in Bosnia, which meant joining forces with the U.N. to impose a peace, but when that fuzzy "ism" became the butt of jokes, she dropped it. What's less clear is where the lessons of Munich next apply. "I would never recommend that the President of the U.S. use force lightly," she says. She follows a "doability doctrine": America should use its military power where it can to achieve practical if sometimes limited goals. But, she adds, "just because you cannot do everything does not mean you should do nothing"--not exactly a prescription for when to go in and when to stay out.

"I tell it like it is." Desired translation: she's going to be very tough on human rights. Actual translation: she's going to talk very tough on human rights to tin-pot dictators but keep the tone civil with big countries like China, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Fidel Castro should not expect any change of U.S. policy under a woman who denounces Cuba as an "embarrassment to the western hemisphere." Iraq and Iran will continue to be ostracized by a Secretary who says "their raison d'etre is to destroy the international system." The high-wire act for Albright will be to speak firmly enough to satisfy U.S. critics who charge that trade-conscious Clinton is soft on China but not so harshly that she alienates Beijing. By all accounts, though, Albright's public tough talk turns charming in private. As Paul Wolfowitz, dean of international affairs at Johns Hopkins University, notes, "She didn't roll Jesse Helms by giving up her views."

"I have very set and consistent principles, but I am flexible on tactics. I like to get the job done." Translation: the ends justify the means. When criticized about her role in the crude U.S. campaign to dump U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Albright responds, "At times it was a little messy, but I'm really proud of what happened there. I think we delivered to the U.S. and the U.N." She justifiably claims credit for sweet-talking the U.N. into blessing Washington's invasion of Haiti, the first time the U.N. ever approved a U.S. military intervention in the western hemisphere. The one word you never hear about Albright is imagination. Yet those who complain she lacks a grand strategy to subdue a messy post-cold war world may be missing the point about Albright. "I really do think that strategic thinkers who never adjust their strategy or their thinking are not useful," she says. "I've tried to have my conceptual ideas, but it doesn't do any good to have those if you can't make them happen."

--Reported by Ann Blackman and Douglas Waller/Washington

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