Madeline Albright’s Contribution to U.S. Foreign Policy

Jeff Berger —

PSDI recently read Madeline Albright’s latest book, Fascism: A Warning, published in 2018, which she completed while Donald Trump was still engaged in a war of words with Kim Jung-un of North Korea—before the two of them began their love affair. The book seems to have been prompted by her concerns about Trump, whose behavior is very similar to many 20th century fascists of the past, as well as other dictators who may or may not be fascists. However, she conceived the book prior to Trump’s election and had intended to write it even if Hillary Clinton had become President. The book is an urgent examination of fascism in the 20th century and how its legacy shapes today’s world. A quote on the book cover from the Economist magazine says, “Her way with words is a happy surprise, as is her wisdom about human nature. Free of geopolitical jargon, her deceptively simple prose is sprinkled with shrewd observations about the emotions that underpin bad or wicked political decisions.”

Memories of her family childhood remain etched in Albright’s mind and led her to become a Cold War warrior. The Soviet Union and Communism were the enemies, and it is clear that she does not distinguish between the two. She begins her book with a brief history of the rise to power of Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin. She pointedly explains that Stalin accused all capitalists of being fascists, but that Stalin was himself as much a fascist as anybody. I needn’t get into the semantics of what fascism really is and Albright doesn’t either. But in her book she includes chapters on 20th and 21st century dictators from both the left and the right, including the current dictators of Hungary, Turkey, the Philippines, Venezuela, North Korea, and Russia. She also offers an unflattering portrayal of Joe McCarthy who was an anti-Communist fanatic, and arguably a fascist. But my thoughts in this article are less about Albright’s book than her life.


What makes this book compelling is Albright’s first-hand experiences, starting with her birth. She was born as Marie Jana Korbelová in May 1937 in Czechoslovakia. (Albright was her husband’s name.) Her parents were Jewish, but she was raised Catholic after her parents converted to protect their children from the Nazis. At the time of her birth, her father, Josef Korbel, was serving as a press attaché in Belgrade, Serbia. He was an early supporter of Czech democratic politicians.

In March 1939, Germany invaded Czechoslovakia and Albright would lose three grandparents and numerous other family members to the Nazis. But soon after the invasion her parents led their children to London, where Korbel continued to serve the Czech government-in-exile. When the war ended, the family returned to Prague, then under Soviet occupation. Korbel was appointed ambassador to Yugoslavia and the family moved to Belgrade. He was unhappy that Yugoslavia was controlled by the Communist dictator, Josip Tito, and he would become even more unhappy when the Communist Party grabbed controlled of Czechoslovakia with the support of the Soviet Union. Korbel then led his family to the United States when Madeline was 11 years old. Korbel became Dean of the University of Denver’s school of international relations, where he later taught future Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Early Career

Albright earned her PhD studying international relations and learning to speak Russian. She got her start in Democratic Party politics working for Edmund Muskie in 1972. When her former professor, Zbignew Brzezinski, became Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor, Albright worked for him. She traveled to Poland and wrote about the dissident Solidarity movement, then in its infancy. She joined the academic staff at Georgetown University where she specialized in Eastern European studies and directed the university’s program on women in global politics. She also served as an advisor for Geraldine Ferraro, the Democratic candidate for Vice-President in 1984, and Michael Dukakis, the Democratic nominee for President in 1988.

The Clinton Administration

During Bill Clinton’s first term as President from 1993 to 1997, Albright served as Clinton’s Ambassador to the United Nations (UN), and during his second term from 1997 to 2001, as Secretary of State. Albright’s approach to foreign policy was always as an interventionist using cooperation with its allies in NATO and the UN. Largely due to her disappointment that the UN did nothing to stop the genocide in Rwanda, she led an American effort to block the re-election of UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali in 1996. That led to the election of Kofi Anan.

As Secretary of State in 1998 she influenced the UN to intervene in Kosovo on behalf of Muslims to protect them from genocide at the hands of Christian Serbs, who were led by Slobodan Milošević. (During Clinton’s first term, Milošević had also led the Serbs to commit brutal atrocities in Bosnia Herzegovina against Muslims.) During their meeting, Milošević lectured Albright about how the Serbs were merely rectifying the atrocities that the Ottoman Turks had committed six centuries earlier when they invaded Kosovo and slaughtered Christian Serbs. (Milošević was very selective in his recollection of history. Only a few decades before the Turkish invasion of the Balkan peninsula, the Serbs had been the aggressors against their Christian neighbors.)

Throughout the 1990s, Albright was deeply involved in trying to prevent Saddam Hussein from reconstituting Iraq’s weapons-of-mass-destruction program (WMD). The UN had WMD inspectors on the ground and had imposed an economic boycott on Iraq that was crippling the country. (Hussein allegedly aggravated the harm by preventing medical relief aid from reaching its intended recipients.) When Leslie Stahl of 60 Minutes asked Albright if the purported deaths of a half-million Iraqi children due to the sanctions was an acceptable price to pay, she replied, “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price … is worth it.” (She later said she regretted saying that.) In 1998, when Hussein expelled the WMD inspectors, Albright supported the bombing of some Iraqi facilities thought to be related to WMDs. Much criticism followed. Later, when George W. Bush invaded Iraq to overthrow Hussein, Albright supported the invasion. However, she did not support the US occupation of Iraq that followed.

Albright on North Korea

Perhaps the most interesting part of Albright’s book concerns North Korea. With the Cold War over, North Korea had lost its Russian benefactor and did not trust China, which had itself embarked on the “road to capitalism.” In 1993, Kim Il-Sung—Kim Jong-un’s grandfather, the so-called Great Leader and founding father of the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea)—withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and began planning to build nuclear weapons. Negotiations with President Clinton led to an agreement whereby the North Koreans shut down its reactors and sealed its fuel rods in exchange for the promise of better relations and help to meet its energy needs. The agreement was imperfect, but a crisis was averted. In 1994, Kim Il-Sung died and Kim Jong-Il became the new leader. It was a time of terrible suffering from massive floods. People were starving. The DPRK restarted its nuclear program. In 1998, the famine ended and the DPRK began to test its new missiles. The West was alarmed. It took two years for Albright to travel to Pyongyang to meet with Kim. It was near the end of October, a week before the US election.

Albright spent two days in Pyongyang, which included about 12 hours with Kim Jong-Il. In their meetings, Albright found Kim to be well-informed and engaging. Kim listened patiently and did not try to lecture her about history or wander off on random subjects the way Milošević or other authoritarian leaders had done. When Albright paused to gather her thoughts, Kim urged her to continue. (That was something her male colleagues in Washington did not do.) In response, Kim was disingenuous, but not discouraging. He said he took the issues seriously because the United States did, but that we were wrong to think that his country would attack anyone. Kim was interested in developing satellite communications, but he was willing to forego it if somebody would send satellites into orbit for him, free of charge. He was also willing to stop selling technology to Syria and Iran, for compensation. He insisted that if he gave up his quest for long-range missiles, South Korea must do the same. The question of verification would require further discussion. Albright did not believe his pretensions of pacifism to be credible, but she liked his positive tone. It did not bother him that the US had 37,000 troops in South Korea, because what he wanted was a balance of power in the region so that neither China nor Japan gained hegemony. He felt his relationship with China was poor. His desire to normalize relations with the US seemed genuine. He also conceded that young North Koreans had been incorrectly taught that Americans were bastards.

Albright returned home and approached Clinton with the idea of meeting with Kim, and the South Korean government also asked Clinton to make a trip to Pyongyang. After George W. Bush won the election, Clinton asked Bush for his opinion and Bush said it was Clinton’s call. (Albright complements Bush for his graciousness, while politely ignoring his Vice President and Secretary of Defense.) Many in Congress discouraged the contact the Kim because they thought it would legitimize the DPRK.

At the same time, discussions were going on with Yasser Arafat and the Israelis. Clinton said he could not deal with both the Middle East and North Korea during his limited remaining time in the White House. He saw more hope in Arafat than Kim. Albright says that was a mistake. More recently, Clinton told Albright that his decision to trust Arafat was a mistake and that in retrospect he should have gone to North Korea.

In January, Madeline Albright left office hoping that the Bush administration would continue talks with North Korea. It didn’t happen. Factions on the Bush team fought with each other. Their only messages to North Korea were threats. Then during Bush’s 2002 State of the Union address, he said that North Korea was part of the Axis of Evil. And the rest is history. In 2006, North Korea completed its first nuclear test. Not only did the Bush administration not help to create peace in the Middle East, it completely botched the situation in North Korea.

Albright on Nationalism and Socialism

Albright is a strong supporter of NATO and she stresses the need for the United States to maintain alliances around the globe. She is very upset by Donald Trump’s “go-it-alone” strategies and his tendency to bully countries that should be our natural allies. She is against extreme forms of nationalism and is in favor of the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement that was abandoned by Trump. She is liberal when it comes to economics, but she is strongly against what she thinks of as socialism. She argues for a return to the center and fears people who she thinks are fascists or even too liberal. However, much of that fear comes from past experiences where fascist reactions have occurred in response to socialist policies. Right-wing Republicans like to equate democratic socialism with Venezuela, but Nicolas Maduro, the socialist dictator of Venezuela, has a lot more in common with Trump than with Bernie Sanders. Both are authoritarians and against free speech. There seems to be a misconception that socialism is anti-democratic, and Albright seems to have has bought into this view.

Albright on How Fascism Gains Popularity

In the concluding chapter of Fascism: A Warning, Albright explains that in times of tranquility, we can afford to be patient, because democracy works best with patience. This enables consultation with experts, testing of our assumptions, and doing long-range planning. Activists of both the left and right wish we could boldly push the boundaries, but it is especially when we are afraid or confused that we may be tempted to give away bits of our freedom—or less painfully and more likely, somebody else’s freedom—in the quest for immediate action to address problems. Bill Clinton observed that in uncertain times, people would rather have leaders who are strong and wrong than weak and right. Throughout history, demagogues have often outperformed democrats in generating popular fervor, and it’s almost always because they are perceived to be more decisive and surer in their judgments. (This is also the reason the US Congress has abrogated much of its constitutional responsibilities to the executive branch without democratic deliberations, in order to get things done.)

If the circle of despots that Albright cites in her book hadn’t come into being, Trump’s dispiriting influence would likely be temporary and manageable, a minor malady from which a healthy body could rapidly recover. But when the law-based international order is already fighting off a variety of illnesses, the immune system is weakened. That is the peril we confront.


Upon leaving office, Madeline Albright capitalized on her expertise, notoriety, and international connections to found the international business consulting firm, Albright Group (AG). In 2009, AG merged with Stonebridge International to form the Albright Stonebridge Group (ASG), for which she serves as Chair. ASG describes itself as a “global strategic advisory and commercial diplomacy firm … informed by an unparalleled worldwide network of over 230 regional experts and sectoral specialists … [that focuses] on emerging markets.” In other words, ASG helps transnational corporations locate and navigate opportunities to profit from the globalization of the world economy.

Selected Sources by Madeline Albright

Fascism: A Warning (2018).
Madam Secretary (2003).
Memo to the President Elect: How We Can Restore America’s Reputation and Leadership (2008).
Prague Winter (2012).

Additional sources are available in the Wikipedia entry on “Madeline Albright.”

Saphire, a collie, eating out Jeffrey Berger's hand
Jeff Berger and Saphire

Jeff Berger (Author) – Tech writer, public speaker, and engineer. He earned Masters degrees in statistics and operations research from the University of California, Berkeley, and was employed by IBM for more than 30 years. He developed an interest in history and economics during the 1990’s and now wonders if he might have chosen the wrong career.

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