Late one night in 1995, in a cramped airplane cabin high above the Pacific Ocean, Madeleine Albright laid down a draft of a speech I was to give in Beijing at the upcoming UN conference on women, and stared at me with the inflexible stare. those terrifying dictators shudder and ask what I was really trying to achieve with this speech.
“I want to push the envelope as far as possible,” I replied. “Then do it,” she said. She then told me how I could sharpen the speech’s argument that women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights.
That was Madeleine, always clear and bold getting to the heart of the matter. She’s been pushing the envelope all her life. She did it on behalf of women and girls, breaking the glass ceiling of diplomacy as the first woman to serve as Secretary of State and declaring atrocities against women around the world. She did it for the country that took her in as a child fleeing tyranny in Europe, while championing the United States as an indispensable nation and the leader of the free world. She never stopped pushing the boundaries for freedom and democracy, including flattering sometimes skeptical generals and diplomats to see human rights as a necessity for national security.
For Bill and me and her many friends around the world, Madeleine’s passing is a painful personal loss. She was unstoppable: insanely funny, stylish and always a game for adventure and fun. I will never forget how excited she was to lead me through the streets of her hometown of Prague and show me the yellow house where she lived as a girl. We couldn’t stop laughing when an unexpected rainstorm blew our umbrellas inside out, and we couldn’t stop smiling when the captivating playwright and dissident-turned-President Václav Havel charmed us over dinner. Madeleine was 10 years ahead of me at Wellesley, and for decades we would chat and sign our notes “Dear ’59” and “Love, ’69.”
Madeleine’s death is also a great loss to our country and to the cause of democracy at a time when it is under grave and persistent threat worldwide and here at home. More than ever, we could use Madeleine’s vital voice, her clear vision of a dangerous world, and her unwavering belief in both the unique power of the American idea and the universal appeal of freedom and democracy. We can honor her memory by heeding her wisdom.
Stand up to bullies and dictators
In the 1990s, when my husband appointed Madeleine UN Ambassador and then Foreign Minister, she faced the blood-soaked Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic. She helped pool US power and the NATO alliance to end the brutal war in Bosnia and ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. She saw the chronically underrated Russian President Vladimir Putin for what he is: a brutal autocrat bent on retaking the lost Russian Empire and a committed enemy of democracy everywhere. In a prescient column in The Times published Feb. 23, she warned that an invasion of Ukraine would be “a historic mistake” that would leave Russia “diplomatically isolated, economically crippled and strategically vulnerable in the face of a stronger, more united Western alliance. † As so often happened, the man with the guns was wrong and Madeleine right.
She was a woman of action, especially when faced with injustice. Madeleine understood that American power is the only thing standing between the rules-based world order and the rule of the sword. That didn’t mean she was ever quick or casual about using force, even for a good cause. Madeleine was the diplomat of a diplomat, ready to converse with even the most odious adversary to advance the prospects for peace. In 2000, she traveled to North Korea as the first foreign minister, where she negotiated for 12 hours with dictator Kim Jong-il. But, as she often said, her crucial historical frame of reference was Munich, not Vietnam, so she had a deep appreciation for the risks of doing nothing. Today, with an emerging authoritarianism threatening democracy not just in Ukraine but around the world, that’s a lesson worth remembering.
NATO and US alliances are the cornerstone of world peace
As foreign minister, Madeleine helped my husband welcome Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic to NATO after the end of the Cold War. Years later, I asked her to lead an international commission for the Obama administration to redefine NATO’s mission for the 21st century. After experiencing Europe’s historical traumas firsthand, she understood that the security NATO provided was the key to keeping the continent free, peaceful and undivided. She saw it as a political alliance, not just a military pact, strengthening democracy in countries that had only recently freed themselves from authoritarianism.
Madeleine rejected recently renewed criticism that NATO expansion has unnecessarily provoked and is responsible for the invasion of Ukraine. As Princeton historian Stephen Kotkin has pointed out, that argument ignores Russia’s centuries-long efforts to dominate its neighbors. Madeleine would be quick to add that it also erases the aspirations and autonomy of the former Soviet bloc countries that shed their shackles, built fragile democracies and were rightly concerned about Russian revanchism. She would encourage us to listen to the views of leaders such as our friend Mr Havel, who said the message of NATO’s expansion is that “Europe is no longer, and must never again be divided among the minds of its people.” and against their will. in any realm of importance or influence.”
Make no mistake, if NATO had not expanded, Mr Putin would threaten not only Ukraine, but the Baltic states and probably all of Eastern Europe. As the historian and journalist Anne Applebaum recently argued“NATO expansion has been the most successful, if not the only truly successful, piece of US foreign policy in the past 30 years.”
Madeleine also strongly disagreed with Donald Trump’s approach to treating America’s alliances as a defense racket that requires our partners to pay tribute or fend for themselves. She knew that American alliances — especially with other democracies — are a military, diplomatic and economic asset that neither Russia nor China can match, despite their best efforts, and are crucial to our own national security.
Attacks on democracy at home play into the hands of dictators abroad
They make it harder for the United States and our allies to stand up for human rights and the rule of law. In her scorching 2018 book, “Fascism: A Warning,” Madeleine described Mr. Trump as the first American president in modern times “whose statements and actions are so at odds with Democratic ideals.” She noted that his attack on democratic norms and institutions was “catnip” for autocrats like Mr Putin. After the January 6, 2021 uprising and Mr Trump’s attempts to overturn free and fair elections, Madeleine imagined Abraham Lincoln weeping. “My family came to America after fleeing a coup, so I know freedom is fragile,” she says wrote† “But I never thought I’d see such an attack on democracy cheered from the Oval Office.” With the Republican Party recently declaring the uprising and events that led to it “legitimate political discourse” and some of the party’s most powerful media allies urging the Kremlin on Fox News and elsewhere, it’s clear that the threat to our democracy thus alarmed Madeleine remains an urgent crisis.
The fundamental truth Madeleine understood and shared her view on all of these challenges is that America’s strength stems not only from our military or economic might, but from our core values. In 1995 Madeleine told me a story that still inspires me today. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, she visited parts of the Czech Republic liberated by American troops in 1945. Many people waved American flags as she passed, and to her surprise, some only had 48 stars. They must have been decades old. It turned out that American GIs had handed out the flags half a century earlier. Czech families said they had kept them hidden through the years of Soviet rule and passed them on from generation to generation as the embodiment of their hopes for a better, freer future.
Madeleine knew exactly what that meant. Even towards the end of her life, she cherished her first glimpse of the Statue of Liberty, when she sailed into New York Harbor in 1948 as an 11-year-old refugee on a ship called the SS America. She would have been thrilled with President Biden’s announcement on Thursday that the United States will welcome up to 100,000 refugees fleeing Ukraine, and she would have encouraged us to do more to respond to this unfolding humanitarian nightmare. She would warn, as she did in her book, of the “selfish moral numbness through which fascism can thrive”, and urge us to keep pushing the boundaries for freedom, human rights and democracy. We should listen.
Hillary Clinton served as US Secretary of State from 2009 to 2013.