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Albright and Helms - Another model for American foreign policy

By D. G. Martin
Posted Sunday, July 18, 2004

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With the current administration's management of international relations under increasing critical scrutiny, any description of a different way of doing things is a welcome contribution. Those who criticize the management of foreign relations by the current president and his team are more credible if they can show that another approach to diplomacy worked well.

Madeleine Albright, who served as U.S. Secretary of State from 1997 until early 2001, the first and only woman to serve in that post, brings us help in her recent memoir, Madam Secretary, a personal record of the diplomatic successes and failures of the second half of Bill Clinton's presidency.

There is no better example of Ms. Albright's diplomatic approach than her relationship with North Carolina former Senator Jesse Helms.

Ms. Albright certainly describes a different model for the conduct of American foreign relations-one based on careful and continuous attention and cultivation of the "players" on the international scene, both friend and foe.

This careful attention included an effort always to understand the needs and objectives of the other players and never to confront or embarrass them unnecessarily.

There is no better example of Ms. Albright's diplomatic approach than her relationship with North Carolina former Senator Jesse Helms. Helms opposed many key points of the Clinton-Albright foreign policy. But instead of confrontation, Ms. Albright treated Helms with the respect due to the Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. She kept him informed and was sensitive to his interests and goals-always looking for some common ground. Her approach won reciprocal courtesy and respect, so that even when there was fundamental disagreement, it did not get personal. Nor did it lead to the kind of rancor that keeps people from acting in concert even when their interests coincide.

Ms. Albright's approach to international "bad guys" was much the same as her approach to Senator Helms. She visited them, listened to their stories, tried to understand their real goals and their strengths and weaknesses. For instance, while the present administration declares North Korea simply to be a part of the axis of evil, Ms. Albright went to North Korea and visited the country's leader, Kim Jong Il. While others concluded that he "was out of touch with reality," Albright found that the "leader" had a good basic understanding of the status of his country and its needs. Nevertheless, she realized that Kim Jong Il could not "preside over a system as cruel as [North Korea] without being cruel oneself, but I did not think we had the luxury of simply ignoring him."

Albright concluded that the U.S. should "not hesitate to engage in direct talks, and take advantage of North Korea's economic plight to drive a bargain that would make the region and world safer."

Unfortunately, neither the approach taken by Albright nor the subsequent hard-line taken by her successors has yet led to security on the Korean peninsula, leaving open a debate on which pathway is the better one.

While Ms. Albright worked hard to keep communication lines open, she could be very tough when protecting American interests or pushing reluctant leaders to make important decisions. The sources of her toughness and realism in dealing with world problems are an important part of her book. She was the child of a Czech diplomat, who was a victim of both the Nazi and the Communist occupiers of his country. Ms. Albright's strong backbone in standing up to aggression came from a belief that one cannot simply stand by and watch as bad things are happening. Her explanation of U.S. actions in Kosovo shows her resolve to stand up to the Milosevics of this world when they are poised to act against their neighbors.

Ms. Albright candidly discusses some of her mistakes and failures. She agonizes over the lives that were lost in Rwanda because the U.S. and other countries did not act to prevent or stop the massive slaughters. She regrets the failure to push the parties to a real settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or to get the North Korean discussions on to a sustainable track.

Because I found myself learning more from her disappointments than from her victories, I am very grateful for her willingness to be so forthcoming.

As important as Madam Secretary is for shedding light on U.S. diplomacy, I recommend it strongly for another reason.

It is a great pleasure to read.

It is warm and personal. I followed her and her family from Prague to Belgrade, England, and the U.S., as Nazis and Communists chased them from their homeland. I relived her teenage years in Denver (including scenes of young Madeleine and her boyfriend fogging up the windows in a parked Oldsmobile). She took me all over the world, but moved me most in the Czech small town synagogue where she read the names of her grandparents who were lost in the Holocaust.

Albright shared all of this with me as if we were old friends, and by the time I got to the end of her book, we were.


D.G. Martin is the author of "Interstate Eateries" a handbook of home cooking places near North Carolina's interstate highways-available through "Our State" magazine (800-948-1409).

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Albright and Helms - Another model for American foreign policy
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