Madeleine Albright, who came to the US as a child refugee and rose to be the first female secretary of state, shaping American foreign policy at the end of the 20th century, has died at the age of 84.
Tapped by president Bill Clinton as ambassador to the United Nations then as the US top diplomat, Albright was one of the most influential statesmen of her generation.
In mourning her passing, Clinton said Albright had been “a force for freedom, democracy and human rights,” calling her death an “immense loss to the world.”
President Joe Biden said Albright had “turned the tide of history,” adding that she “defied convention and broke barriers again and again.”
At the United Nations, the Security Council observed a moment of silence before voting on a Russian-led resolution on Ukraine.
Clinton, announcing his choice of Albright to head the State Department in 1997, said gender “had nothing to do with her getting the job” and she was the most qualified candidate.
Albright, however, was aware of the significance of the appointment.
“It used to be that the only way a woman could truly make her foreign policy views felt was by marrying a diplomat and then pouring tea on an offending ambassador’s lap,” she once said in a speech to the Women in Foreign Policy Group.
“Today, women are engaged in every facet of global affairs.”
Albright took the helm of the State Department in a post-Cold War world in which the US 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 governed Britain had a woman held such a position of global influence.
Born Marie Jana Korbelova in Czechoslovakia on May 15, 1937, Albright came to the US as a refugee with her family in 1948 and became a US citizen in 1957.
Her 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 she only learned about her Jewish origins late in life and the fact that three of her grandparents had perished in concentration camps.
‘Short, noisy type’
Fluent in English, Czech, French and Russian, Albright earned her undergraduate degree from Wellesley College.
She earned her doctorate in political science at Columbia University and went to work for Democratic senator Edmund Muskie.
She later joined the National Security Council in the White House of president Jimmy Carter, serving under his national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, her former professor at Columbia.
After Carter’s defeat, Albright began teaching at Georgetown University in Washington but remained an influential voice in Democratic foreign policy-making circles.
She was named US ambassador to the United Nations by Clinton in 1993 and served in that role until 1997, when she became secretary of state.
One of her final voyages in the post was an official visit to North Korea, where she met with 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 am not going to be a wallflower,” Albright said.
“I also have never thought of myself as the tall, silent type, so I will be the short, noisy type and I am going to stay out there,” she said. “I love foreign policy, I am passionately interested in how the world evolves.”
Just a month ago, The New York Times published an opinion piece by Albright in which she argued that Russian leader Vladimir Putin would be making an “historic error” if he invaded Ukraine.
Albright married Joseph Albright in 1959. They had three daughters and divorced in 1982.
Her memoirs, “Madam Secretary,” were published in 2003.
She also wrote a book about her huge collection of brooches which, she explained to Smithsonian magazine in 2010, sometimes were “reflective of whatever issue we’re dealing with.”
Once during her stint at the United Nations, state media in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq compared her to an “unparalleled serpent” – she responded by wearing a snake pin to a meeting on Iraq.
“In every role, she used her fierce intellect and sharp wit – and often her unmatched collection of pins – to advance America’s national security and promote peace around the world,” Biden said.