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The new diplomacy Madeleine Albright has made it her mission to show Americans how foreign policy hits home. That’s no easy task, even for someone with her formidable political skills.
David L. Marcus, Globe Staff

06/01/1997
The Boston Globe
City Edition
Page 16
(Copyright 1997)

Forget Yalta. Forget Bretton Woods. Forget triumphant summits with Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow. This is where American foreign policy is conducted as the 20th century nears its end—in suburban Wingate, North Carolina. It’s a cloudy day in March, and Madeleine Albright’s bulletproof black Cadillac, escorted by police cruisers, whizzes along Route 74, the Andrew Jackson Highway, out past American Termite and Pest Control, past the Topless Palace and Bojangles Chicken.

Trailing behind, journalists in three chartered vans are balancing laptop computers and cellular phones, yelling at the drivers to speed up. Albright is going to the lion’s den. The reporters have mouthed those words to one another for a few days, and now, fortuitously, a State Department official has used the same phrase, so it can be inserted between quotation marks and attributed. A sign announces that this section of Route 74 is dedicated to US Senator Jesse Helms. The motorcade enters the grounds of Wingate College, Helms’s alma mater, site of the Jesse Helms Center.

When the limousine stops, out strides Jesse Helms himself. Today, the famously cantankerous chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the terror of many a State Department employee, is just a soft-spoken Southern gentleman showing around an out-of-town friend. He offers a hand to Albright, and they amble past a dozen television cameras, into a classroom with yellow cinder-block walls.

Albright—the highest-ranking woman ever in the United States government, overseer of a $19.6 billion budget, and the unanimous choice of the Senate to be the last secretary of state in the American Century—has come to do some old-fashioned politicking.

The Mideast peace accord is unraveling, North Korea is imploding, China has been linked to a scheme to improperly influence US politicians . . . but today, Albright has eyes only for the 75-year-old power broker who controls her budget, OK’s her nominees for ambassador, and, through legislative tricks, can singlehandedly stop the Senate from ratifying a treaty banning chemical weapons around the world. The treaty, known as the Chemical Weapons Convention, is about to take effect in dozens of countries, and the Clinton administration will be humiliated if Helms still has it bottled up in his committee.

Albright is also here to proselytize, to get Americans excited about foreign policy. She fields a half-dozen questions from students who want to know about balancing human rights and trade, about preparing for a global economy and fighting drug smuggling in Mexico. Then Laura Rush, an elementary education major, gives Albright an opening: “What do you consider your toughest negotiation while ambassador to the United Nations?”

“With Jesse Helms,” Albright quips. The 35 students laugh. Helms, sitting in a wood-backed chair up front, beams like a proud uncle and salutes Albright. Academics and diplomats are not known for pithiness, but in just three words Albright has shown that she has come because she wants to reach across party lines. And she has done it in good time for the evening news in North Carolina, which, after all, has just sent Helms back to Washington for a fifth term.

“You did great,” Helms tells her as they leave the classroom. The son of a North Carolina police chief and the daughter of a Czech diplomat lock arms. Helms glances at the crowd of onlookers. “I think she’s a keeper,” he says.

An hour later, at a press conference, Helms makes a surprise announcement: Although he despises the Chemical Weapons Convention, he will let it out of his committee so the full Senate can have a chance to ratify it.

In an administration viewed suspiciously by both the right and the left, an administration derided for its fund-raising excesses, Madeleine Korbel Albright has managed to hover above the fray. She wins praise from factions as diverse as free-traders, human rights organizations, and Cuban exile groups. Even the hard-line isolationists and United Nations-bashers on Capitol Hill compliment Albright for her efforts to streamline the State Department.

Elaine Shocus, Albright’s chief of staff, says Albright set out to “demystify foreign policy by showing the American people how it affects domestic policy and their daily lives.” And so she has. She receives an average of 2,700 letters a week—50 percent more than her predecessor, Warren S. Christopher. She is the first secretary of state to have an e-mail address (secretary(AT SIGN SYMBOL)(AT SIGN SYMBOL)state.gov); the address receives 200 messages per week. She seems to be everywhere: throwing out the first ball at an Orioles game in Baltimore, taking calls on Larry King Live, presiding over an “electronic town meeting” on the Internet, live from Moscow.

Warren Christopher spoke at one graduation ceremony every year; Albright received dozens of invitations this spring and accepted four. They include Mount Holyoke College (home for more than a decade to her friend Anthony Lake, President Clinton’s first national security adviser) and South Alabama University (in the district of Representative Sonny Callahan, the Republican who chairs the foreign operations subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee).

On Thursday, she will get an honorary degree at Harvard University, where she will deliver the commencement address 50 years to the day after General George C. Marshall, one of her predecessors, went to the campus to announce his ambitious plan to rebuild Europe after World War II. She, too, will focus on Europe; aides say the speech will be quintessential Albright. She’ll talk about the subject she knows best to an audience she knows well, having studied at Wellesley College and advised Michael Dukakis on foreign affairs during his presidential bid.

Until now, Albright has stayed away from New England, where she and Bill Clinton already have solid support. In a rare move for a secretary of state, she made her first trip not to Paris or London but to Houston, where she visited two Republicans, former president George W. Bush and James S. Baker III, who, as secretary of state, was also known for sharp political instincts.

Albright’s early months at State have been heavy on symbolism and lighter on substance. But that’s not necessarily the wrong approach in an era when the majority of Americans can’t find Bosnia on a map and believe that 15 percent of the federal budget goes to foreign affairs (the actual figure is 1 percent). “She started off exactly on the right track,” says Leslie H. Gelb, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. “You can’t have a foreign policy in the post-Cold War world without the backing of the American people and Congress.”

The post-Cold War world. We live in an era that is defined by the era that came before. That makes managing foreign affairs extremely difficult. What is the greatest threat to American interests today? The instability of Russia, with its considerable stockpile of nuclear and chemical weapons? China’s expansionist dreams? Iraq’s inclination to provoke its neighbors?

While Albright says all those issues are significant, she avoids ranking them. Like Christopher, she is pushing the State Department to look at threats that cross boundaries, including environmental destruction, terrorism, disease, drug smuggling, and other crimes.

Under Clinton, foreign policy has become almost synonymous with trade policy. Albright knows the tune. During her 20-minute speech at Wingate University, she mentioned the word “jobs” five times. Still, aides say that, for all her talk about imports and exports, Albright has made it clear to China and other countries that the United States is interested in protecting human rights. Although she attracted little attention for it, in April she took on the Commerce and Treasury departments and successfully pushed Clinton to call for economic sanctions against Burma’s harsh military government.

“I believe a foreign policy devoid of moral considerations can never fairly represent the American people,” she said in North Carolina. “It is because we have kept faith with our principles that, in most parts of the world, American leadership remains not only necessary but welcome.” Albright often laughs as she tells audiences that she founded her high school’s foreign affairs club so that she could make herself the president. There’s a broader, unspoken truth in that: Albright knows how to get power and how to use it.

When Hillary Rodham Clinton attended the UN women’s conference in Beijing, in 1995, Albright spent a day hosting her fellow Wellesley alumna. The next summer, when Hillary Clinton visited Prague, the city where Albright was born, Albright was her escort. A photographer happened to pass by an open door and snapped a picture of the two chatting in a women’s bathroom. That picture sits on Albright’s desk, inscribed by Mrs. Clinton: “The only time we can get away from the guys.”

Washington gossips, always on the lookout for someone ascending the White House’s A-list, predicted that Albright would be rewarded with the secretary of state’s job in the second Clinton administration. They were right. But many failed to see that this is not one more rung on the ladder for Albright, who turned 60 last month. She has no hopes for higher office. (Because she was born abroad, she cannot be president.) Friends say she has the job she coveted: She feels passionately about improving the way America shapes its foreign affairs, and she worried as Congress chipped away at the State Department’s budget in recent years.

In her confirmation hearing, she warned the Senate that American emissaries rely on woefully outdated technology. She spoke from experience: Out of frustration with the US mission’s congested phone lines at the United Nations, she sometimes called Washington from a pay phone. The United States may be the most powerful nation on earth, but few of its diplomats have access to the Internet on their computers. At State, several offices still have wall maps that include the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, although the USSR collapsed six years ago.

Albright has spent her career studying the rest of the world and learning how things are done in Washington. At Columbia University, in New York, she wrote her doctoral thesis under Zbigniew Brzezinski, who later became Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser. She taught international relations at Georgetown University, in Washington, where she was voted the most popular professor for four years in a row. And in the late 1970s, she learned the ways of Capitol Hill while chief legislative assistant to Senator Edmund S. Muskie, of Maine. Most recently, Albright served as America’s ambassador to the United Nations, where she fought for reforms, faced down Cuban envoys, and forced Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali into retirement.

In December, several days after Clinton nominated her, Albright gathered a few advisers, including Jamie Rubin, her kinetic aide, and Shocus, her chief of staff, who was a lawyer on Senator Edward M. Kennedy’s staff. Sitting in Albright’s Georgetown house, they listed goals for her first 100 days: amassing support from Republicans as well as Democrats; increasing the foreign affairs budget; prodding the Senate to ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention; pushing the United States and Europe to expand the NATO alliance. And they wanted to start consolidating America’s foreign affairs agencies, a sprawling patchwork that had been stitched together during the Cold War.

On her first day on the job, Albright ate lunch in the State Department cafeteria, sending a signal of support to a staff demoralized after years of budget cuts and barbs from Congress.

Albright quickly embarked on rounds of low-key visits and phone calls to influential legislators. On the day that she flew in a government plane to Jesse Helms’s home turf, Marlin Fitzwater, former press secretary to Bush, was also heading to North Carolina to give a speech. Fitzwater, a keen observer of Washington’s ways, smiled at the mention of Albright’s trip. “It’s smart politically,” he said, “and it shows that there is a value for politics in foreign affairs. I don’t think she’s going there to get a chemical weapons treaty: She’s going there to curry favor with Jesse Helms.”

He underestimated Albright. That night, halfway into the Jesse Helms Lecture at a packed gymnasium at Wingate College, she said, “Chemical weapons are inhumane. They kill horribly, massively, and, once deployed, are no more controllable than the wind.” The crowd clapped enthusiastically. Albright’s aides grinned at one another; Albright had tweaked the mighty Helms in his own back yard.

Three weeks later, following a public relations blitz by Albright, President Clinton, and others, the Senate ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Albright’s aides all use the same word to describe her: “disciplined.” Her day starts at 5:30 a.m., when she reads the newspapers. At 7:20, the Fleetwood limo picks her up at her brick house (now under surveillance by Diplomatic Security agents day and night). Ten minutes later, she’s in her seventh-floor office above the labyrinthine halls of the State Department, which looks like the world’s largest rat maze.

The office is decorated with portraits of her heroes: Muskie, Marshall, and Thomas Jefferson. On a shelf is a basketball signed by the Harlem Globetrotters. Nearby stand Russian matrushka dolls painted with the likenesses of Albright, Shocus, Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, and other subordinates.

Albright is in charge of a vast operation that includes 250 US embassies and consulates abroad as well as 14 regional passport offices from New Hampshire to Hawaii. Her daily schedule, printed out in small type, takes up two pages. Minutes after she arrives, she gets an intelligence briefing from a CIA official. Then she reads cables from her ambassadors and holds a half-hour meeting with her senior staff—except on Wednesdays, when she heads to the White House.

Albright is an early bird, and she’s had to adjust to late-night calls from the country’s number one night owl, Bill Clinton. Some days, Albright and her old friend Sandy Berger, the national security adviser, chat every couple of hours on a “drop line”—a direct, secure phone. The camaraderie is a long way from the last Democratic administration, when Jimmy Carter’s secretary of state, Cyrus R. Vance, clashed with Brzezinski.

On a recent Tuesday, a typical day, Albright meets in her office with Qatar’s foreign minister to talk about the Mideast peace process. Then, in a ceremony in a gold-leafed room with spectacular views of Washington, she swears in Pete Peterson as America’s first ambassador to Vietnam. Walking out with several aides, Albright marvels at Peterson’s gentle words about reconciliation, which have a special resonance because he spent more than six years as a prisoner of war in Hanoi. Downstairs, in a cramped television studio made to look like her office, she videotapes a speech to be broadcast to the 75th anniversary conference of a Chicago foreign affairs group. (The set has no soundproofing, so tapings are interrupted every time someone flushes a toilet in a bathroom down the hall.) Then she meets with advisers about turmoil in Albania . . . and on and on, till after dark.

The State Department press corps is not invited to the most important event of the day, when Albright ventures into another thicket. This time it is a ground-floor auditorium where she is holding a question-and-answer session with several hundred employees of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, the US Information Agency, and the Agency for International Development. It is a stoical crowd; they have survived several years of reductions in forces—known elsewhere as layoffs.

Albright has called the meeting to advise them that their agencies will soon be streamlined and merged into the State Department in what she calls the “most far-reaching reorganization of our foreign policy institutions in 50 years.” The employees line up to express their anxieties. Albright promises to do her best to avoid laying anyone off, but she doesn’t back down. She tells the crowd that she would be a hypocrite if she demanded reforms at the United Nations but not in her own bureaucracy.

Without mentioning names, she reminds everyone that certain members of Congress are pining to hack the State Department’s budget again. “If we work together and do this job right,” she says, “we will have more success in winning congressional and public support for our engagement overseas.”

Everyone in the room gets the message: cooperate with me now or face Jesse Helms later. So far, the press has scrutinized Albright more than any of her predecessors in memory. That was inevitable: After 63 secretaries of state, including Jefferson and John Quincy Adams, Albright is the first woman. She wears her biography on her sleeve. Everyone, it seems, knows she spent her first years moving throughout Europe, as Nazis and then Communists controlled her homeland, and arrived in Long Island as a refugee at age 8.

In February, just days after Albright was confirmed, The Washington Post disclosed that Albright’s parents had concealed their Jewish identity, and, tragically, three of her grandparents and several cousins had been killed in the Holocaust. The Post’s disclosures prompted varying responses from colleagues. Some said Albright should be left alone. Others suggested that Albright, like many refugees from war-torn regions, had tucked some family incongruities in her subconscious without wanting to know more. A third group said Albright purposely ignored signs of her background, perhaps to make headway in a foreign affairs establishment that long shunned Jews. “There was a calculated career choice there not to have to confront evidence that has been sent to her for years,” says Allan Nadler, director of research for the Yivo Institute for Jewish Research, in New York.

Albright, who was raised as a Roman Catholic, told reporters that she never intentionally misled anyone about her heritage and wants to learn more. Her aides, familiar with the short attention span of the press, predicted that the matter would fade. And so it has, except for the occasional joke. In April, at the White House correspondents dinner, Albright and the Clintons looked on as comedian Jon Stewart intoned: “Attention: The Albright bas mitzvah has been moved to the Madison Room.”

Madeleine Albright has enjoyed an extraordinary honeymoon with the press and Congress, but this, too, will end. Nothing personal; that’s the nature of Washington. This week’s loyal supporter is next week’s embittered critic. Albright’s advisers realize that there are drawbacks to having a high-flying secretary of state. For one thing, she is liable to make enemies. And by raising expectations, she increases the chances that she will come up short.

Albright’s friends are watching the Pentagon for potential foes. There’s an inevitable tension between those who specialize in using diplomacy abroad and those trained to use force. Although State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns says Albright has a model working relationship with Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, some say Albright has ruffled the feathers of a few Pentagon officials. They are said to be less than thrilled with Albright’s ideas about giving the Russians a voice in alliances such as NATO. And this, after all, is the woman who irritated the Pentagon by calling for US air strikes against the Bosnian Serbs, the woman who once upbraided General Colin Powell by saying, “What’s the point of having this superb military you always talk about if we can’t use it?”

Beyond the ups and downs of Washington alliances is the far more important issue of the volatility of the world. During four years at State, Warren Christopher visited the Mideast 23 times. In the span of a few months, though, terrorist bombings, the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, and the election of Benjamin Netanyahu changed the landscape. These days, even Christopher’s biggest fans don’t claim that his thousands of hours of work forged a lasting peace.

As Albright tries to navigate this treacherous landscape, she has a number of things working against her, detractors say. The most common complaint is that she doesn’t have a long-range vision. At the United Nations, some dubbed her “Madeleine Half-bright.”

Others say it’s not her vision but her policies that fall short. Michael Mandelbaum, a foreign policy expert at Johns Hopkins University’s School for Advanced International Studies, predicts that NATO enlargement will bring no benefits to Americans and that Europeans will balk at paying their share. “When the American public discovers it has been deceived on an international commitment,” he says, “or when the commitment costs more than they have been told, they tend to lash back.”

Fareed Zakaria, managing editor of the journal Foreign Affairs, says Albright devotes too much attention to European issues; the rise of China and Japan means that for the first time in modern history, the West is no longer home to all the great powers. “If the administration feels that expanding NATO is the most important thing it can do to secure American interests for the next 25 years,” he says, “then clearly it has forgotten about Asia. The priorities are entirely out of whack.”

A secretary of state is an easy target for criticism. Council on Foreign Relations president Gelb puts it this way: “If anything happens in the world, whether or not it’s the fault of the United States and Madeleine Albright, the United States will get blamed and Madeleine Albright will get blamed. If there’s an earthquake in Guatemala, it would be America’s responsibility.”

Albright has tamed conservatives on the Hill and bureaucrats in her own back yard. It’s time to face a more formidable adversary, which is why she has flown 4,500 miles on an Air Force jet lent by Vice President Al Gore for a 24-hour visit to Moscow.

It’s May 1—May Day, an occasion for jubilation in Moscow back when the Soviet Union existed. Today, the authorities no longer bother with parades. Those with money flee to dachas in the countryside while ragged retirees plod past Red Square clutching black-and-white portraits of Stalin tacked onto scraps of wood. It’s a sad sight, really: The Other Superpower has been reduced to revering Stalin on a stick.

Albright has come to persuade Boris Yeltsin’s government to give its assent as three of its former satellite states—Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic—join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, symbolically switching from the old Soviet Bloc to the West. NATO doesn’t need Russia’s permission, of course, but there’s nothing to gain from alienating a country that has thousands of nuclear weapons. And time is short: Albright wants Russia’s OK well before NATO expansion is announced in July.

NATO expansion doesn’t stir up a lot of excitement among the American public or average Russians. But Albright comes from a generation of leaders who believe in US-European alliances. She sees an enlarged NATO as a symbol of increasing peace and prosperity and a tool for preventing future disasters like Bosnia. The expansion is especially meaningful to her, perhaps, because one of the three countries, the Czech Republic, is the land her family abandoned forever when the Communists took power.

She knows, though, that the Russian government views NATO as a stuck-up club determined to snub Moscow. Russia has insisted on limits on the number of troops in the new NATO countries and made other demands that the West refuses to meet. An advance team including Albright’s deputy, Strobe Talbott, and several Pentagon generals has already arrived in Moscow for talks, but the word is that they have not made headway.

For three blissful months, Albright has returned home victorious from each of her trips through the United States and abroad, thanks to her charm and persistence and her staff’s savvy planning. This trip, shoehorned into her schedule, has an impromptu feeling. Albright has dark circles under her eyes, and her voice sounds scratchy.

Soon after the plane touches down, Albright goes to visit her counterpart, Foreign Minister Yevgeny M. Primakov, for the second time since February. An outspoken opponent of NATO who used to head Russia’s intelligence agencies, Primakov has just undergone gallbladder surgery. He is a dour-looking man. At a press conference in the Russian government’s 100-year-old Osobynyak guest house, where the iron stair bannisters are shaped like fierce dragons, Albright speaks of her “firm” friendship with Primakov, but he doesn’t echo the phrase. It’s obvious that it will take more than charm to win over Primakov.

Albright admits that the talks are going slowly, then says, “We are earning our pay.” At last, Primakov brightens. “I earned my pay for sure,” he mutters, “because I get paid less.” That night she dines with Primakov, and he invites her to delay her departure the next day by a few hours so they can meet again.

In the morning, Albright leads a round-table discussion with Russian intellectuals. It is closed to the press, but by all accounts Albright gets a grilling from her guests. Several see an enlarged NATO as a threat; the rest see it as a sign that the West has lost all hope for democracy in Russia. When Albright meets again with Primakov, she tells him about her encounter with the intellectuals and adds, “As my boss likes to say, `I feel your pain.’ ”

Neither side makes significant concessions, but they agree to talk again. As the plane flies back to Washington, State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns tries to put a good spin on things. As for Albright, marking her 100th day as secretary of state, she seems undaunted.

During a refueling stop at Shannon Airport, in Ireland, she wanders through the aisles of a duty-free store. She could be just another vacationing grandmother buying linens and smoked salmon for her loved ones, except for the three Diplomatic Security agents, wires dangling from their ears and 9mm pistols on their belts, discreetly moving through the displays of Waterford crystal.

Before reboarding the plane, Albright poses for pictures with the pilots and airport officials. She makes small talk, saying that the trip has gone well and that Primakov looks good. Clearly, she is a woman who has had a brush with the worst of the 20th century, so she knows how to keep setbacks in perspective. She believes in tomorrow. In this case, her optimism is justified. After two more weeks of negotiations, Yeltsin announces that Russia can live side by side with an expanded NATO. In a hastily arranged Rose Garden press conference, Clinton says Europe is on the verge of becoming an “undivided continent where our values of democracy and human rights, free markets, and peace know no boundaries.”

An aide mentions something telling as Albright revels in another victory. The day before Albright arrived in Russia for her February visit, Primakov’s granddaughter was born. Albright brought a present for the newborn: a signed photo of President Clinton. On it, Albright wrote, “Your grandfather and I are working to make sure you grow up in a safer world.”

PHOTO; CAPTION:PHOTOGRAPH BY MARK WILSON / THE BOSTON GLOBE

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