The globalised world that defined her project in the 1990s is no more
When Madeleine Albright, the former American secretary of state, sold a dietary supplement, she sold it with style.
In an advertorial interview with the CEO of Herbalife, Michael O. Johnson, Albright said:
Herbalife, the manufacturer of these supplements, is a multi-level marketing company; it has narrowly dodged the label of a ‘pyramid scheme’ and agreed to pay its sellers millions in compensation after reaching a deal with the Federal Trade Commission in 2016.
Not many other former American cabinet secretaries would have signed up to advertise such a product. But Albright, who died this week aged 84, was different.
Hers was a strange and very American life, with some of the quirks characteristic of some of America’s migrant communities. Albright was born in Czechoslovakia before the Second World War, and her family emigrated to the New World after the war had destroyed the old. Like many pre- and post-war immigrants to the States, Albright was bright and hardworking. After a stint in academia, and work for a number of Democratic party heavy hitters, Albright was made US ambassador to the United Nations, a post that even by the early 1990s had degenerated from diplomacy into PR.
Having fled Europe in between the Nazi tyranny and the newly emergent Soviet one, Albright was like a number of émigré foreign policy brains in the United States, including her mentor Zbigniew Brzezinski and Henry Kissinger — tack-sharp minds with often sharper tongues.
When the Castro regime shot down two aircraft belonging to a political campaign run by Cuban exiles in 1996, Albright the ambassador called it an act of “not cojones, [but] cowardice”. Bill Clinton subsequently promoted her to secretary of state.
Albright was a curious mixture of idealist and realist. During the Clinton years, she sought to use the power of American might (referring to the States, along with others, as ‘the indispensable nation’) to secure deals with adversaries that could prevent the worst.
But she outlived these deals, and her idealism came to characterise some of the utopian delusions of the late 90s, including failed diplomacy with, for example, North Korea (which Albright officially visited in 2000 — a visit unmatched until Donald Trump’s meetings with Kim Jong-un in its strangeness).
The former secretary of state’s life post-power left her free, in the American way, to cash in: doing the aforementioned adverts and, in 2018, during a period of Trump-inspired Nazis-under-the-bed hysteria, Albright wrote a fashionable book about the prospect of American fascism.
It is almost fitting that she has died at the very moment when the post-Soviet globalised liberal era which defined her time in office itself is passing into history.