Madeleine Albright, who fled the Nazis as a child in her native Czechoslovakia during World War II but rose to become the first female US secretary of state, has died at age 84, her family said.
Albright was a tough-talking diplomat in a United States administration that hesitated to involve itself in the two biggest foreign policy crises of the 1990s – the genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
“We are heartbroken to announce that Dr. Madeleine K. Albright, the 64th US Secretary of State and the first woman to hold that position, passed away earlier today. The cause was cancer,” the family said on Twitter on Wednesday.
US President Joe Biden paid tribute to Albright, saying she was a “force for goodness, grace, and decency – and for freedom”.
“When I think of Madeleine, I will always remember her fervent faith that ‘America is the indispensable nation’,” he said in a statement.
Albright, who had become the US ambassador to the United Nations in 1993, had pressed for a tougher line against the Serbs in Bosnia. But during President Bill Clinton’s first term, many of the administration’s top foreign policy experts vividly remembered how the US became bogged down in Vietnam and were determined to not repeat that error in the Balkans.
The US responded by working with NATO on air strikes that forced an end to the war but only after it had been going on for three years.
Albright’s experience as a refugee prompted her to push for the US to be a superpower that used that clout.
She wanted a “muscular internationalism”, said James O’Brien, a senior adviser to Albright during the Bosnian war.
She once upset a Pentagon chief by asking why the military maintained more than one million men and women under arms if they never used them.
Early in the Clinton administration, while she unsuccessfully advocated for a quicker, stronger response in Bosnia, Albright backed a UN war crimes tribunal that eventually put the architects of that war, including Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and Bosnian Serb leaders, in jail, O’Brien said.
Albright, who was born in former Czechoslovakia in 1937, was nominated to become the first female secretary of state, and confirmed unanimously in 1997. She was in the post until 2001.
During her tenure, NATO responded with an 11-week campaign of air raids in 1999 that extended to Belgrade after Serbs began a programme of ethnic cleansing of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.
A staunch supporter of the idea of American exceptionalism, which critics say is the premise that fuels Washington’s global hegemony, Albright famously said in 1998: “We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future.”
After a UN-commissioned study found that more than 500,000 Iraqi children had died in Iraq as a result of US-led sanctions after the first Gulf war, Albright defended the policy in an interview in 1996.
“I think this is a very hard choice, but the price – we think the price is worth it,” Albright, who was serving as envoy to the UN, said when asked about the deaths of the Iraqi children.
In 2004, she told Democracy Now that she regretted making that comment.
“It was a stupid statement. I never should have made it, and if everybody else that has ever made a statement they regret would stand up, there would be a lot of people standing,” Albright said.
In the lead-up to the Iraq war in 2003, Albright said the invasion was justified, based on allegations that Baghdad possessed weapons of mass destruction. But she argued that the country did not pose an immediate threat to the US and called for keeping focus on defeating al-Qaeda.
She would later come out forcefully against the war. “Iraq is going to go down in history as the greatest disaster in American foreign policy,” she told Al Jazeera in a 2007 interview.
During efforts to press North Korea to end its nuclear weapons programme, which were eventually unsuccessful, Albright travelled to Pyongyang in 2000 to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, becoming the highest-ranking US official to visit the country.
While hailed in some circles as a feminist icon, critics have criticised Albright’s support for US wars and sanctions.
“Madeline Albright was one of my earliest lessons in the bankruptcy of identity politics. It doesn’t matter if you are the first anything if your politics perpetuate the status quo of racial violence, imperial war making, and capitalist extraction/exploitation,” Palestinian-American author and activist Noura Erakat wrote on Twitter on Wednesday.
State Department spokesperson Ned Price called Albright a “trailblazer” on Wednesday.
“The impact that she has had on this building is felt every single day and just about every single corridor,” Price told reporters.
Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the US House of Representatives, eulogised Albright as a “towering champion for peace, diplomacy and democracy”.
“Her historic tenure as our nation’s first woman to serve as our top diplomat paved the way for generations of women to serve at the highest levels of our government and represent America abroad,” Pelosi said.