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.

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'
A model of a Neanderthal man on display at the National Museum of Prehistory in Dordogne, France
Dawkins: 'There’s a very interesting reason why a prince could not turn into a frog – it's statistically too improbable'
newsThat's Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome
Malky Mackay salutes the Cardiff fans after the 3-1 defeat at Liverpool on Sunday
footballFormer Cardiff boss accused of sending homophobic, racist and messages
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Amis: Taken to task over rash decisions and ill-judged statements
booksThe Zone of Interest just doesn't work, says James Runcie
Life and Style
life – it's not, says Rachel McKinnon
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architectureWhich monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Corporate Tax Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: CITY - HIGHEST QUALITY INTERNATIONAL ...

Relationship Manager

£500 - £600 per day: Orgtel: Relationship Manager, London, Banking, Accountant...

Marketing & PR Assistant - NW London

£15 - £17 per hour: Ashdown Group: Marketing & PR Assistant - Kentish Town are...

Senior Network Integration/Test Engineer

£250 - £300 per day: Orgtel: Senior Network Integration/Test Engineer Berkshir...

Day In a Page

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home