Madeleine Albright, a child refugee from Nazi- and then Soviet-dominated eastern Europe who rose to become the first female U.S. secretary of state and a mentor to many current and former American statesmen and women, has died of cancer, her family said Wednesday. She was 84.
A lifelong Democrat who nonetheless worked to bring Republicans into her orbit, Albright was chosen by former President Bill Clinton to be America’s top diplomat in 1996, elevating her from her post as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, where she had been only the second woman to hold that job.
As secretary of state, Albright was the highest-ranking woman in the history of U.S. government. She was not in the line of succession to the presidency, however, because she was a native of Prague. The glass ceiling that she broke was universally admired, even by her political detractors.
In announcing her death on Twitter, Albright’s family said she died of cancer and was surrounded by family and friends: “We have lost a loving mother, grandmother, sister, aunt and friend,” the statement said.
Outpourings of condolences came quickly.
Former President George W. Bush said Albright “served with distinction as a foreign-born foreign minister who understood firsthand the importance of free societies for peace in our world. I respect her love of country and public service”.
President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken had been informed of Albright’s death as they were flying to Brussels for an emergency meeting of NATO leaders about Ukraine.
Linda Thomas-Greenfield, U.S. envoy to the United Nations, honored Albright as a “trailblazer and a luminary” in remarks on the General Assembly floor shortly after news of her death emerged.
In 2012, President Barack Obama awarded Albright the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, saying her life was an inspiration to all Americans.
Albright remained outspoken through the years. After leaving office, she criticized President George W. Bush for using “the shock of force” rather than alliances to foster diplomacy and said Bush had driven away moderate Arab leaders and created potential for a dangerous rift with European allies.
However, as a refugee from Czechoslovakia who saw the horrors of both Nazi Germany and the Iron Curtain, she was not a dove and played a leading role in pressing for the Clinton administration to get militarily involved in the conflict in Kosovo.
She also toed a hard line on Cuba, famously saying at the United Nations that the Cuban shootdown of a civilian plane was not “cojones” but rather “cowardice.”
When the Senate Foreign Relations Committee asked her in January 2007 whether she approved of Bush’s proposed “surge” in U.S. troops in bloodied Iraq, she responded: “I think we need a surge in diplomacy. We are viewed in the Middle East as a colonial power and our motives are suspect.”
As secretary of state, Albright played a key role in persuading Clinton to go to war against the Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic over his treatment of Kosovar Albanians in 1999. In her U.N. post, she advocated a tough U.S. foreign policy, particularly in the case of Milosevic’s treatment of Bosnia and NATO’s intervention in Kosovo was eventually dubbed “Madeleine’s War.”
“I am an eternal optimist,” Albright said in 1998, amid an effort as secretary of state to promote peace in the Middle East. But she said getting Israel to pull back on the West Bank and the Palestinians to rout terrorists posed serious problems.
As America’s top diplomat, Albright made limited progress at first in trying to expand the 1993 Oslo Accords that established the principle of self-rule for the Palestinians on the West Bank and in Gaza. But in 1998, she played a leading role in formulating the Wye Accords that turned over control of about 40% of the West Bank to the Palestinians.
She also spearheaded an ill-fated effort to negotiate a 2000 peace deal between Israel and Syria under Syria’s late President Hafez al-Assad. And, she helped guide U.S. foreign policy during conflicts in the Balkans and the Hutu-Tutsi genocide in Rwanda.