Full steam ahead for the Albright express

America's iron lady goes to work as chill thaws in east Europe

Madeleine Albright began her maiden voyage around the world as the new United States secretary of state with a stop in Rome, where the press promptly dubbed her "the Iron Lady" - an image which sheds more light on Italian anxieties about females in high office than it does on the character of the most powerful woman in American history.

By the time "the Albright Express", in her own whimsical words, concludes its 10-day, nine-country tour of Europe, Russia, China and South Korea the comparison with Margaret Thatcher will be wearing rather thin.

Yes, she wears her patriotism in her sleeve. Her belief that "America truly is the indispensable nation" is drenched with the gratitude of one whose family discovered in the US a safe haven after the storms of Nazism and Communism had buffeted her native Czechoslovakia during the Second World War.

And she is more than grateful, amazed - more My Fair Lady than Iron Lady - at the bounties the land of opportunity has delivered. From her public pronouncements ("I am kind of this American story") one senses that she has to pinch herself sometimes to convince herself it is true that she, this mother of three who left it until her forties to leave home and start a career as a researcher, has achieved such phenomenal success.

The reason she has done so staggeringly well is that she shares with Baroness Thatcher another quality, a dogged resolve to get her own way - as demonstrated most recently by the single-minded aggression with which she hounded Boutros Boutros Ghali out of the United Nations. And she has a tendency to lecture people, the Italians having received an earful on Sunday for doing business with "rogue states" like Libya, Iraq and Cuba.

But here the Iron Lady analogy abruptly ends. Mrs Albright is a woman with a sense of humour. Lecture she might but a smile is never far from her face and she always has a self-effacing pleasantry at the ready. Imagine Lady Thatcher confessing in an interview, "I'm not that smart. I work very hard." Or, as Mrs Albright candidly remarked to reporters accompanying her on her coming-out world tour, her style is "friendly", "It's a very people-to-people style, everybody has their own style and I am trying my own out".

Style is not a word one would associate with her diffident, owlish predecessor Warren Christopher whose lack of "people" skills was one reason why the Clinton administration found itself so often at odds with Capitol Hill on foreign policy.

Mrs Albright's greatest strength is her capacity to project a confident, assertive personality without provoking antagonism. No member of President Clinton's cabinet elicits support across a wider base. She has charmed Jesse Helms, the Cold War dinosaur who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, while winning the admiration of the feminists and other "liberals" whom Senator Helms and his conservative colleagues deplore.

For now, at least, the world may take comfort in the knowledge that when Mrs Albright speaks she does so, on most important issues, on behalf of the US government as a whole. It was a constant source of frustration to allies and foes alike during the first Clinton term that the White House was saying one thing and Congress something else. That led to paralysis, for example, on Bosnia.

Within the convoluted world of Washington politics Mrs Albright will emerge as the closest one can find to a coherent voice. And voice is the word. She is, as has been observed, the queen of the soundbite, a public attribute that combined with her winning ways in private make her the ideal saleswoman of American foreign policy.

Her weakness is that she is not a policy maker, as one of the rival aspirants to her job, Richard Holbrooke, would have been. But there are benefits here too. Mr Holbrooke, whose abrasiveness as assistant secretary of state for Europe, was what was needed eventually to bring the Bosnian Serbs to heel would undoubtedly have led to running spats with the Pentagon, the CIA and the White House.

Mrs Albright is a team player, utterly loyal to the president who made her queen. When foreign leaders meet her they need not nag themselves with the troubling doubt that she might be speaking for herself alone.

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