Proof that a woman's touch can help in global games

November 7, 2003

Madeleine Albright, the first female US secretary of state, believes that women have certain advantages over men in the world of international diplomacy, although they are still thin on the ground. Rob Singh reports

When Condoleezza Rice informed Madeleine Albright that she was a Republican, Albright was shocked: "Condi, how could that be? We had the same father." Rice, as it happened, was the favourite student of Albright's father, a respected scholar of international relations. "We clearly interpreted his teaching differently," Albright notes. That Rice should succeed her as the most powerful woman in the history of US foreign policy is an irony not lost on her. "Nobody asked whether she (Rice) could do the job when she was named. My own daughter said: 'It's thanks to you, mum, because you showed that it could be done.'"

As US ambassador to the United Nations from 1993-97 and as secretary of state from 1997-2001, Albright was a key, if controversial, player in the Clinton administration and a historic selection. Her candidly comprehensive memoirs, Madam Secretary, faithfully reflect both a remarkable life story (Czech refugee, asylum seeker, politician, academic) and the turbulent years tackling problems from Kosovo and Iraq to North Korea and Nato enlargement. Interweaving politics and personal life, the book attempts "to make foreign policy less foreign" through a "pretty good story that would keep Americans engaged about foreign policy". Equally at ease at explaining the dilemmas of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations as those of brooch selection and the art of diplomatic kissing, Albright takes an unconventional approach to autobiography.

As both academic and practitioner, her words possess particular resonance. She notes the pronounced "disconnect between theoretical international relations and real work", recalling a Carter administration meeting (when she served in the National Security Council) after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan: "Academics' ideas bore no relationship to the reality of what was accomplishable and the operational people working the problem had no time for analytical capability beyond reading each others' memos."

If this remains so, Albright nonetheless holds that one positive change has been the improved presence of women in international politics, facilitated partly through more dedicated training programmes and partly through - in the US - innovations in academic curricula to accompany the much-broadened agendas of foreign policy. (Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, for example, where Albright teaches, runs joint programmes with the health, law and business schools.) But, at the upper levels, the "glass ceiling" remains mostly intact. A self-imposed segmentation of younger women's lives, with marriages deferred and children delayed (for Albright, "women can do everything, but not all at the same time"), has facilitated a greater female presence in the low and middle ranks of decision-making, but the very atypicality of Albright and Rice - the former rising to national office after a divorce and with her children grown, the latter thus far unmarried and childless - remains powerfully suggestive of the profound barriers that inhibit female penetration of the highest reaches in the foreign policy process.

Moreover, the US experience is not unusual. Albright observes of her female peers elsewhere that "we had, it seemed, to work doubly hard to be taken seriously, and triply hard to actually push our agendas through".

Perhaps it is all the more curious that such a historically neglected resource should remain so today since, in Albright's view, certain advantages accompany women active in diplomacy. She is clear, for example, about the existence of a distinctively female "ethic of care". "Some of the instinctive qualities that women have are helpful - the classic negotiation is to try to put yourself in the other person's shoes. To some extent, women are better at thinking about relationships," she says. An ability to "switch signals" is also beneficial. As a woman, her ability to "go into a refugee camp and hold children and to be very humane and human, and then go into a meeting and be very tough" could place erstwhile antagonists off-guard. Moreover, the respect engendered by her position as US secretary of state meant that she encountered fewer problems with men in highly traditional cultures than some in Washington.

But for all her memoirs' emphasis on gender - replete with cartoons of an underestimated Madeleine invariably triumphing over assorted global sexist foes - it was ultimately bureaucratic rather than gender roles that proved central to her political effectiveness. For example, Albright's experience of pressing for military action in Kosovo partly reflected her personal narrative but also echoed the experiences of previous secretaries of state urging, and the Pentagon resisting, the deployment of US forces abroad. "When I started writing my book, I thought that some of the bureaucratic problems that I was having were gender based. But, if I watch Colin Powell, (I see that) they're not."

Not least among these are the volume and diverse set of actors in the incomparably fragmented US national security process that vastly complicate and blur any formal lines of political responsibility, influence and, at times, coherence. As she relates, foreign policy formulation and implementation are, more than ever, "a bureaucratic game".

Famously feisty and frank, Albright emphatically rejects descriptions of an imperial US as "just wrong", but her two weeks of book promotion in Europe have caused her to take anti-Americanism more seriously. Dismissing the notion that Europe should balance the US as "futile", she asserts that "the US is so powerful that it has to limit itself". But that possibility is not assisted by the unique coincidence of European anti-Americanism and American anti-Europeanism, deleterious transatlantic developments that go beyond being merely the price of hyperpower. "I was the one who talked about the 'indispensable nation' all the time, because I saw it. You don't have to sit in 15 Security Council meetings to know that the US is a needed catalyst. But I never said 'alone'. And I think it is better to try to mitigate it. It is the price of being the rich guy on the block but there is the rich man on the block who feels more secure if he's not isolated but is part of the community in which the whole place is located."

What is striking, though, is less the familiar discontinuities between the Bush and Clinton administrations than the shared tenets. For instance, Albright is at pains to record the priority that combating terrorism assumed under Bill Clinton ("we did everything we could"). She says: "In terms of fighting terrorism and trying to find the tools for fighting it, there is a continuity; in how we assess the intelligence and what to do, there is a difference. We didn't say there was an 'axis of evil' and that countries could be divided into black and white; we didn't put Iraq, Iran and North Korea in the same box. We thought they were all problems but had to be dealt with differently."

True enough, but in the October edition of Foreign Affairs , she endorses George Bush's view that terror is "something you are either for or against" and urges the US to "be relentless in shaping a global consensus that terrorism is fully, fundamentally and always wrong. No exceptions, no excuses". What Albright regretfully concedes was not a priority during her tenure was a theme recently embraced by Rice - promoting Middle East "democratisation". This process involves neither the export of the US model nor even, necessarily, elections, but calls for "the existence of an opposition class and the opportunity for that opposition class to get an opposition party or movement into office". That such a possibility might yield radical or theocratic regimes is a danger but - citing the reformist currents in Iran - Albright speculates that such closed and authoritarian states may equally be simply a "phase that we're in". In the event that a "Taliban-lite" regime does come to power then, as with China, international pressure can profitably be used to encourage internal reforms.

That sharp differences with Bush remain is self-evident. For Albright, a lasting commitment to nation-building in Afghanistan should have substituted for war on Iraq, even if the latter were "justifiable" on the basis of Saddam Hussein's defiance of the UN. "I've understood the 'why?'

but not the 'why now?', the 'what next?', and the 'why next?' - we had Afghanistan, I did not buy the Iraq-al-Qaida connection - and the 'what next?' didn't make any sense. It seemed very rudimentary to me, given what I knew, what had to be done in Kosovo - not only Nato forces on the ground, but also involvement from the European Union, UN and Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The (Iraq) plan, which involved the coalition and then turning the country over to the Iraqis, with no particular time line - I didn't understand that."

Albright also advocates that the doctrine of pre-emption should "disappear quietly from the US national security lexicon" even as countries retain a right to self-defence. "What is essential is to have a discussion of what it (pre-emption) means. It was a mistake to call it a doctrine and, the truth is, I don't know what it means."

The twin legacies of 9/11 and Iraq may yet be prompting a greater convergence on "their" father's teachings than perhaps either Albright or Rice would acknowledge.

Rob Singh is senior lecturer in politics at Birkbeck College, London. Madam Secretary: A Memoir is published by Macmillan, £20.00.

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