Editor’s Note: Elmira Bayrasli is the director of the Bard Globalization and International Affairs Program and the CEO of Interruptrr, an organization dedicated to empowering women’s voices. She served as a presidential appointee in the Clinton administration from 1997 to 2000. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
Madeleine Albright was in New York on the day in 1997 when the US Senate voted to confirm her to become the first female US Secretary of State. At that time, she was the US Ambassador to the United Nations.
We sat together at the ambassador’s residence at the Waldorf Astoria, watching the vote on C-SPAN. “Isn’t this weird?” she said to me. I nodded. Weirder for me than you, I thought to myself. She was confirmed unanimously.
I came to work for then-Ambassador Albright in 1994 at the US Mission to the UN. It was a temporary three-month assignment during the UN General Assembly, when world leaders descend upon New York and revive talks of multilateralism.
I had just returned from a summer internship at the US Embassy in Ankara. Armed with a security clearance, I got a part-time gig answering phones and fetching lunch. Albright and I exchanged few words beyond “good morning,” “good night” and “thank you.”
I didn’t even think Albright had noticed me. Yet, she had. After the three months were over, she made sure I continued to work on her team. I became a “political appointee” – a coveted role for the powerful and well-connected. I was neither.
As the daughter of working-class Turkish immigrants, my parents knew nothing about Washington, DC, or foreign policy. For Albright, that didn’t matter. What she recognized was my dedication and hard work.
As a political appointee, I was a staff assistant who took care of supporting Albright, keeping track of her personal correspondence and schedule. In this role, I had a front row seat to the workings of international diplomacy. Now, some 25 year later, I realize that I also witnessed the early makings of feminist foreign policy, which though initially focused on the issue of gender, has evolved to ensure human rights, democracy and, most importantly, stability.
While women’s issues were a top priority for Albright, she is most often painted as a “hawk” – an advocate for US intervention in global crises. As a refugee to the US from then-Czechoslovakia, she very much believed in America’s role as “the indispensable nation” – a nation based on the values of advocating for the oppressed and actively upholding human rights. Of course, that sometimes meant using the might of the American military to stand up for those values.
Her political philosophy also put her at odds with those who didn’t believe the US should get involved in wars that did not directly impact the US, including the one that broke out in the crumbling Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, where Serbs resisted the creation of independent Bosnian and Croatian states.
As former Secretary of State James Baker framed it, “We don’t have a dog in the fight.” Then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell said he thought he would have an aneurysm when Albright, advocating for military intervention, asked, “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?”
For Albright, the widespread atrocities – particularly the rape of Muslim women and girls and the Serb-perpetrated ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims – justified intervention. It was part of her “doability doctrine” – you do what you can and “just because you cannot do everything does not mean you should do nothing.”
It was the same rationale that drove her to distrust Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein throughout her tenure as Ambassador to the UN and Secretary of State, and to continue to apply economic sanctions to ensure he didn’t acquire weapons of mass destruction. And again, in 1998, when she called for the use of force following former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic’s attack on Kosovo.
In an interview on PBS’ “Frontline,” she noted, “We learned a lot of lessons in Bosnia, where we waited too long to do something – that, as foreign ministers, we would be judged very harshly if we allowed something like this to happen again, and that an intervention might necessary a political solution.”
It is a mistake, however, to see Albright exclusively as a “hawk.” She was an active board member at the National Democracy Institute, which supports democratic institutions worldwide, and firmly believed in the US Agency for International Development and the role it played in, as she said, fighting poverty, improving medical care, enhancing respect for human rights and laying the groundwork for democracy worldwide.
“The agency is grounded in the belief that US foreign policy is shaped by not only what we are against but what we are for,” Albright said in a video message to the agency. “USAID shows how freedom and development reinforce one another,” she added.
Foreign policy has long been a man’s game, played with the good ole boys in oak-paneled rooms. Women who get involved in it are often forced to forgo emotion and project strength. And while Albright often had to do that, she also, in her own assertive way, planted the roots for what is emerging as a foreign policy that recognizes the importance of acting when human rights and democracy are threatened. That may mean flexing military muscle, but it also includes widening the lens to take into consideration migration, global health, extremism, climate change and autocracy.
As the Biden administration and Western allies work to end the war in Ukraine, they’d be wise to follow in Albright’s footsteps. And rather than categorizing her approach as “interventionist,” it’s important to see it as pragmatic. Albright understood that foreign policy doesn’t happen in grand halls or world capitals. It happens with and to everyday people, with men and women striving for peace, progress and stability.