Sometimes it takes an outsider’s perspective to see things that are too close, too familiar to those inside the frame. Although Madeleine Albright was born in 1937 she was not one of those self-absorbed, American baby boomers who can’t acknowledge how lucky they are. She was born in Prague, fled the Nazis a year later and spent the war in London. She was granted asylum in the U.S. as a political refugee after her family had returned to Czechoslovakia only to flee a second time when the Communists overthrew the elected government in which her father was a leading figure.
“She treasured her first glimpse of the Statue of Liberty, sailing into New York Harbor in 1948 as an 11-year-old refugee on a ship called the S.S. America,” Madeleine Albright told Hillary Clinton.
“Becoming a U.S. citizen is the most important thing that ever happened to me,” she also said.
And yet, like Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski, she was not a “natural born citizen” who could aspire to be president. Like them, she was part of Europe’s greatest 20th century gift to America—talented, hard-working refugees of great intellectual powers whose love of the U.S. and desire to protect her and see her thrive was the guiding principle in their foreign policy careers.
In 1979, I was headed for an interview at the National Security Council. Waiting in the West Wing, I stopped off to see Lloyd Cutler, who had recently been made White House counsel. He surprised me by offering me a job, and so I cancelled my NSC meeting with the National Security advisor’s closest aide, Madeleine Albright, whom I only later met during the Carter administration. We became friends through the most popular person in Washington, Harry McPherson, because, in part, she shared Harry’s love of politics—like Harry, she was that rare intellectual who actually enjoyed the Washington merry-go-round and thrived there. For them it was a shining if turbulent lake to be traversed, not a swamp.
In 1993, she became the second woman to be U.N. ambassador; in 1997, she became the first woman secretary of State. She was much amused when I told her about the young daughter of a friend who asked her parents in 2012 or so (after secretaries Albright, Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton) whether or not the secretary of State had to be a woman. And she asked, jokingly—I think—whether that could be made a constitutional requirement.
Her commitment to women’s rights was no joke, however, and it was as much for this leadership as for her foreign policy achievements that she was given the Medal of Freedom in 2012.
Historians and policy analysts will remember her best for her dedication to liberal democracy—inclusive public institutions, multiparty elections, human rights and the rule of law—to which she was willing to commit American power. Her most memorable phrase on this subject, however, is easily misconstrued.
Madeleine Albright said that the United States was the “indispensable nation,” which some have taken to mean that nothing good happens in the world unless it is Made in America. Actually, it is an observation about alliances, not exceptionalism. It means simply that when America declines to lead, whether through self-absorption, short-sightedness or simple fear our greatest national security asset, our alliances with other democracies, become enervated and lose the capacity of effective action. Our failure to stop genocide in Rwanda is a good example of the what’s-in-it-for-us mentality that paralyzes until it is too late; our success in stopping genocide in the Balkans is a tribute to our ability to organize collective action, late perhaps, but just in time, when so-called realism would demur.
The international society of states, like every leading state in it, is about to undergo a fundamental change in the very nature of states. We sense that, and we look back to earlier forms for help: socialism, populism, ethnic identity. But these time machines will not provide us with the new ideas and the new leadership our deeply divided situation will require. Among Madeleine Albright’s last public statements was this:
“We are in one of the most crucial periods that I’ve ever seen—and I’m old and I’ve seen a lot of very serious problems, like World War II and communism taking over. I don’t think we’re going to go back to something. We need to develop a system that is able to deal with the fact that there’s been a breakdown in the social contract. … I would make sure we talk to people with whom we disagree and try to understand where they’re coming from, not just tolerate them, but figure out what is motivating them.”
When I learned of Madeleine’s death, I fished out an old photo, taken about 2000. We are in Maine at the christening of a Navy cruiser, having a quiet lunch together. She is wearing a cap with braid and the name of the new vessel.
My three young daughters are about to acquire a new photograph for their playroom. May it inspire them as its subject always inspired their father.
Philip C. Bobbitt is a professor at Columbia Law School and director of its Center for National Security. He is the author of The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace, and the Course of History.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.