Madeleine Albright, who came to the United States as a child refugee and rose to be the first female secretary of state, shaping American foreign policy at the end of the 20th century, dies from cancer.

Born Marie Jana Korbel in Prague on May 15, 1937, Albright was the daughter of a diplomat, Joseph Korbel.
Born Marie Jana Korbel in Prague on May 15, 1937, Albright was the daughter of a diplomat, Joseph Korbel. (AP)

Madeleine Albright, a child refugee from Nazi- and then Soviet-dominated eastern Europe who rose to become the 1st female US secretary of state and a mentor to many current and former American statesmen and women, has died of cancer at the age of 84, her family said.

In announcing her death on Twitter on Wednesday, Albright's family said she died of cancer and was surrounded by family and friends: "We have lost a loving mother, grandmother, sister, aunt and friend," the statement said.

A lifelong Democrat who nonetheless worked to bring Republicans into her orbit, Albright was chosen in 1996 by President Bill Clinton to be America's top diplomat, elevating her from her post as US ambassador to the United Nations, where she had been only the second woman to hold that job.

As secretary of state, Albright was the highest-ranking woman in the history of the US government. She was not in the line of succession to the presidency, however, because she was a native of Prague. The glass ceiling that she broke was universally admired, even by her political detractors.

Condolences pour in

Clinton called her "one of the finest Secretaries of State, an outstanding UN Ambassador, a brilliant professor, and an extraordinary human being."

"Because she knew firsthand that America's policy decisions had the power to make a difference in people's lives around the world, she saw her jobs as both an obligation and an opportunity," Clinton wrote. 

"And through it all, even until our last conversation just two weeks ago, she never lost her great sense of humor or her determination to go out with her boots on, supporting Ukraine in its fight to preserve freedom and democracy."

"Laura and I are heartbroken by the news of Madeleine Albright's death," said former President George W Bush. "She lived out the American dream and helped others realize it. ... She served with distinction as a foreign-born foreign minister who understood firsthand the importance of free societies for peace in our world."

Madeleine Albright advocated a tough US foreign policy, particularly in the case of Milosevic’s treatment of Bosnia and Herzegovina and NATO’s intervention in Kosovo that was eventually dubbed “Madeleine's War.”
Madeleine Albright advocated a tough US foreign policy, particularly in the case of Milosevic’s treatment of Bosnia and Herzegovina and NATO’s intervention in Kosovo that was eventually dubbed “Madeleine's War.” (AP)

Albright "turned the tide of history," President Joe Biden said.

"Madeleine Albright was a force. Hers were the hands that turned the tide of history," Biden said in a statement.

Touching on one of his own most passionate themes, Biden said Albright "knew personally and wrote powerfully of the perils of autocracy."

"America had no more committed champion of democracy and human rights."

In 2012, president Barack Obama awarded Albright the Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honour, saying her life was an inspiration to all Americans.

Iraq children deaths 

Albright remained outspoken through the years. After leaving office, she criticised president Bush for using "the shock of force" rather than alliances to foster diplomacy and said Bush had driven away moderate Arab leaders and created the potential for a dangerous rift with European allies.

However, as a refugee from Czechoslovakia who saw the horrors of both Nazi Germany and the Iron Curtain, she was not a dove and played a leading role in pressing for the Clinton administration to get militarily involved in the conflict in Kosovo.

She also toed a hard line on Cuba, famously saying at the United Nations that the Cuban shootdown of a civilian plane was not "cojones" but rather "cowardice."

She advised women "to act in a more confident manner" and "to ask questions when they occur and don’t wait to ask."

"It took me quite a long time to develop a voice, and now that I have it, I am not going to be silent," she told HuffPost Living in 2010.

When the Senate Foreign Relations Committee asked her in January 2007 whether she approved of Bush's proposed "surge" in US troops in bloodied Iraq, she responded: "I think we need a surge in diplomacy. We are viewed in the Middle East as a colonial power and our motives are suspect."

Besides tributes on Wednesday, her critics posted her comment about the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children due to US sanctions.

"We have heard that half a million [Iraqi] children have died. I mean, that is more children than died in Hiroshima," journalist Lesley Stahl asked her in an interview in 1996. "And, you know, is the price worth it?"

"I think that is a very hard choice," Albright replied, "but the price, we think, the price is worth it."

Failures in Middle East 

Albright's family fled Czechoslovakia in 1939 as the Nazis took over their country, and she spent the war years in London. After the war, as the Soviet Union took over vast chunks of eastern Europe, her father, a Czech diplomat, brought his family to the US.

As secretary of state, Albright played a key role in persuading Clinton to go to war against the Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic over his treatment of Kosovar Albanians in 1999. In her UN post, she advocated a tough US foreign policy, particularly in the case of Milosevic's treatment of Bosnia and Herzegovina and NATO's intervention in Kosovo was eventually dubbed "Madeleine's War."

Albright helped win Senate ratification of NATO's expansion and a treaty imposing international restrictions on chemical weapons. She led a successful fight to keep Egyptian diplomat Boutros Boutros-Ghali from a second term as secretary-general of the United Nations. He accused her of deception and posing as a friend.

And she once exclaimed to Colin Powell, then the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, who would later succeed her as secretary of state: "What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?"

Powell, who died last year, recalled in a memoir that Albright’s comments almost made him have an "aneurysm."

"I am an eternal optimist," Albright said in 1998, amid an effort as secretary of state to promote peace in the Middle East. But she said getting Israel to pull back on the West Bank and the Palestinians to rout militants posed serious problems.

As America's top diplomat, Albright made limited progress at first in trying to expand the 1993 Oslo Accords that established the principle of self-rule for the Palestinians on the occupied West Bank and in Gaza. But in 1998, she played a leading role in formulating the Wye Accords that turned over control of about 40 percent of the West Bank to the Palestinians.

She also spearheaded an ill-fated effort to negotiate a 2000 peace deal between Israel and Syria under Syria's late president Hafez al Assad. And, she helped guide US foreign policy during conflicts in the Balkans and the Hutu-Tutsi genocide in Rwanda.

Daughter of diplomat 

Born Marie Jana Korbel in Prague on May 15, 1937, she was the daughter of a diplomat, Joseph Korbel. The family was Jewish and converted to Roman Catholicism when she was 5. Three of her Jewish grandparents died in concentration camps.

Albright later said that she became aware of her Jewish background after she became secretary of state. The family returned to Czechoslovakia after World War II but fled again, this time to the United States, in 1948, after the Communists rose to power.

They settled in Denver, where her father obtained a job at the University of Denver. One of Josef Korbel's best students, a young woman named Condoleezza Rice, would later succeed his daughter as secretary of state, the first Black woman to hold that office.

Among current officials who worked closely with Albright are Biden's domestic policy adviser and former UN ambassador Susan Rice, as well as Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and a host of others.

Albright graduated from Wellesley College in 1959. She worked as a journalist and later studied international relations at Columbia University, where she earned a master's degree in 1968 and a Ph.D. in 1976.

She worked for the National Security Council during the Carter administration and advised Democrats on foreign policy before Clinton’s election. He nominated her as US ambassador to the UN in 1993.

Following her service in the Clinton administration, she headed a global strategy firm, Albright Stonebridge, and was chair of an investment advisory company that focused on emerging markets.

She also wrote several books. Albright married journalist Joseph Albright, a descendant of Chicago’s Medill-Patterson newspaper dynasty, in 1959. They had three daughters and divorced in 1983.

Source: AP