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Madeleine Albright: a tortoise brooch

Madeleine Albright: a tortoise brooch

Madeleine Albright, the first woman to be US Secretary of State, died this week at the age of 84. She was both an idealistic realist, and a realistic idealist


When Madeleine Albright came to a Tortoise ThinkIn, she wore a brooch.  It was bejewelled and as big as a baseball.  It was a tortoise.  It was a warm, personal, quietly funny gesture that suggested she’d thought about her audience; and before she’d even started speaking, she’d won us over. 

One of the strange and special things about working in news is that you get to meet, even briefly, extraordinary people.  And so sometimes, when one of them dies – as Madeleine Albright, the first woman to be US Secretary of State, died this week at the age of 84 – it can feel personal.  A real loss. Particularly, if it’s a person who, in how she acted and what she said, really spoke to you. 

I’m James Harding, editor and co-founder of Tortoise, and, in amongst all the draining, sad news and at a time when diplomacy seems powerless to stop the march of suffering and destruction in the world, I wanted in this week’s Editor’s Voicemail to draw some strength from how much there was to learn from Madeleine Albright. 

“Americans,” she told us at that ThinkIn in June 2020, “Americans don’t like the word mulitilateralism.  It has too many syllables and it ends in an ‘ism’.”  

As with any great politician, Albright marshalled her soundbites to a serious purpose. She had a clear idea of global leadership; what it was, why it was needed, and how it worked.   It wasn’t glib or simple; it was informed by complexity and energised by flexibility.  The US, to use the Bill Clinton formula that became her mantra, was the world’s “indispensable nation”, but, as she said, “there is nothing about the word indispensable that says alone; it means to be engaged and to be a partner.” 

Having been the US representative at the UN before she became Secretary of State, she prized patchwork alliances designed to meet particular problems: “As the world has gotten more complicated,” she said, “there are more and more partners for different parts of things, we see various groups being created, some ad hoc, some permanent.” Not all the world’s problems can be solved globally. Often, the bar for reaching international agreement is just too high.  We need institutions, but we also need groups.  We need those who can to do. We need both  permanent structures and fast mobilisations.  And we need alliances between the two.  

It’s a vision of global leadership that stands up for organisations like the UN, but also recognises that those institutions aren’t enough.  It looks for diplomacy to be animated by societies, communities and public action.  In the face of so much fatalism – ‘the world’s too complicated, nothing seems to work’ – and vandalism – ‘let’s tear down the old institutions and start again’ – she offered us an invitation to meet the problems in front of us, one at a time, with imagination, collaboration and action.  It was an invitation to get involved.  

Albright, as you may remember from her days out on the campaign trail backing her friend Hilary Clinton, was famous for saying that “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other”.  When she joined us at that ThinkIn, in the summer of 2020, when the world was looking on at the strikingly different responses to Covid-19 from Jacinda Ardern, Angela Merkel and Tsai Ing-wen on the one hand and Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and Jair Bolsonaro on the other, and she talked about the qualities of women’s leadership in terms that were concrete and clear.

Others, you may remember, ducked the comparison.  And yes, she said, she knew these were generationalistions.  But she didn’t shy from the point: women, she said, tended to be more “cooperative and dependable”, more used to multi-tasking and so have better “peripheral vision”, “decisive”, and given the experience of trying to bring warring children together, more capable of taking other people’s views into consideration when decisions are made.  In short, she said, “the world would be better off if there were more women leaders.”  

Madeleine Albright’s time as Secretary of State – and the Clinton Administration itself – was scarred by America’s failure to intervene to save lives in Rwanda.  It was an unparalleled failure of the international community and US leadership, a case of by-standing that cost the lives of roughly a million people.  When I read the New York Times’ account of her life, I was struck by one unusual sentence. 

The paper quoted the apology Albright made in her memoir: “My deepest regret from my years in public service is the failure of the United States and the international community to act sooner to halt these crimes,” she wrote.  And then, the New York Times went on, “it was a regret she repeated, in much the same words, in an interview for this obituary.”  Rarely do obit-writers admit to interviewing their subjects; rarer still is it made clear what the subject made a point of emphasising in the account of their lives.  

The force of such a regret from a person in power – and, to my reading, insisted upon for inclusion in her obit – is surely a call to learn the lessons of bystanding.  It must be a spur to do more, to challenge our reluctance to intervene.  The word she used was ‘crimes’.   And the question is how we get organised to go after the criminals. 

This surely is Albright’s call to action –  in the face of the crimes of dictators in places such as Myanmar and Egypt and Syria, crimes we barely bother to witness; those crimes in places such as Afghanistan and Yemen, crimes of corruption and fanaticism that we meet with little more than sorrow; crimes of hunger and sickness in the poorest countries in the world, which we meet with rhetoric, but not resources; and Russian war crimes in Ukraine, crimes that we seem unable to prevent. 

Madeleine Albright was a living reminder that history is real.  It’s not remote or academic.  It’s the sum of experience.  At the start of the ThinkIn, she mentioned that she was old enough to remember having lived as a refugee in London during the Blitz.  If you followed her story, you’ll know that her life was shrouded in secrets: during World War II her Czech parents had converted to Roman Catholicism and hidden her Jewish heritage to protect her and her family from the Nazis; it was only years later, well into adulthood, that she learned the truth that she had lost more than two dozen members of her family, including three grandparents, in the Holocaust.    

She appeared to me to meet the world with an exceptional mix of principle and pragmatism.  She believed, she said, in moral leadership, but knows it goes astray when it’s moralistic.  She wasn’t one for having to choose whether American foreign policy should be idealistic or realistic, because, she said, “I didn’t know whether I was an idealistic realist or a realistic idealist.  You clearly need both.”  And she left us with an idea that counsels against despair or fatalism: “The way I describe it is that foreign policy is like a hot air balloon: you need the idealism to get the balloon up and then you need the realism to get it going in the right direction.” 

The tortoise brooch was a nice touch; and the generosity of her gesture was more than matched by the strength of her ideas.  She was, in the best sense of the word, diplomatic.  An idealistic realist; a realistic idealist.  More than ever, we need such people to lift things up and move them along.