Meeting Madeleine Albright: If You Can Make a Difference, Do You Try?

by Sarah Collins on November 1, 2012

Palos Verdes Peninsula High School students waiting to hear Madame Secretary

On Friday, October 19, I had the privilege of going with my fellow Palos Verdes Peninsula High Model UN Secretariat members to the Bowers Museum in Orange County, California to hear Madeleine Albright, former Secretary of State and Ambassador to the United States, speak about her experiences. She was promoting her brooch exhibit and new book entitled Read My Pins: Stories from a Diplomat’s Jewel Box, a compilation of all the pins she wore to different United Nations conferences—her signature look.

“My whole life, I’ve been interested in foreign policy,” she told us. I admiringly glued my eyes to the woman in blue wearing statement red high heels (at seventy-five!) and, of course, a shining pin.

She began speaking about her childhood and growing up. “Other families may talk about other things at dinner, all we ever talked about was foreign policy,” she remarked, giving the audience a laugh. Of her high school years, she dished, ““I started international relations clubs wherever I went and made myself president. I forced everyone to talk about foreign policy all the time.

She felt very thankful, indeed, to receive her positions. “I really hit the jackpot when President Clinton came into office and made me Ambassador to the United States, which I loved, and then… the first woman Secretary of State.”

She then told us her thoughts on being active. “I try to make foreign policy less foreign, and have people feel that they can really understand what’s going on. I so believe in the importance of American engagement abroad and foreign policy and people understanding the relationship between what happens in our daily lives and foreign policy itself.”

Madame Secretary then opened the floor to questions.

One boy said, “I understand women’s rights in foreign policy is very important to you, and I was wondering if you could speak about that.”

She responded, “I put women’s issues central to American foreign policy when I became Secretary of State, not just because I’m a feminist, but because I believe societies are more stable when women are economically and politically empowered. In [these societies], the education is better, health care is better, cultural values are passed down, people get along better, and I think that it’s just something that is good for stability of countries.

Another girl asked, “Out of all the famous people you’ve met, who has been the biggest inspiration in your life?”

“Well, there really are three people that I’ve met that have been huge inspirations, pretty much for a similar reason,” she said. “The first person….was Václav Havel…he was the president of the Czech Republic. He had a great moral standing. And the second person I met was Nelson Mandela. He was completely amazing in terms of his ability of being in jail for a very long time, studying very much who his oppressors were, and then being able to work with them. He brought freedom to the people of South Africa, and in so doing showed the path to freedom for many, many other people. The third person is Suu Kyi, who is the Burmese leader. She had been under house arrest for decades and somehow kept up her strength and her desire to make her people free. The main thing about them to me that is very inspirational is that they all forgave the people who had maligned them or arrested them or kept them from speaking in any shape or form. Great personal bravery, morality, knowing what they believe in and then being able to forgive those that punished them is respectable.”

“What inspired you to go into the United Nations and what was your experience like?” someone asked.

She replied, “I kind of grew up with the idea of the United Nations, and then when I was a sophomore high school in Denver, I actually won the United Nations contest of the Rocky Mountain Empire…and I think the reason I did was because I was able to name the countries of the UN—there were fifty-one at the time—in alphabetical order. Now that there are 193 I couldn’t do it. I was always interested in the UN and so I was really thrilled when President Clinton asked me to be Ambassador. I got to be Ambassador at a great time, in the Nineties, where the UN had kind of become unfrozen after the Cold War and there were so many things that we could do.”

I went up and asked the following: “When I’m competing in Model United Nations conferences I often find that those who receive awards are typically those with the loudest voices who often drown out others. Do you think this quality bodes well in the actual United Nations?”

“What is interesting about the United Nations is it’s one country, one vote,” she told me. Even though everybody has one vote, it clearly is weighted in a way that gives more power to certain countries. And the way the UN is set up, some of the issues include the way that the Security Council exists. It is dominated by what were the major powers at the end of World War II. And so there are always discussions about how to change the Security Council. There are many things that make it difficult to change it. I do think, unfortunately, it is often the country with the loudest voice. But sometimes what happens is discussions are hijacked by somebody who has no power, anyway. Despite the fact that it’s one country, one vote, it’s a peculiar voting system.”

“Do you have any advice for those who are pursuing a political career in international relations?” a girl asked her.

She said, “I have said that the whole international opportunities are bigger and bigger. It’s a growing industry. And frankly, because you are all growing up in a globalized world. And so practically everything fits into international relations. Now, the whole field of international relations includes science in a number of different ways in terms of the environment or health issues, obviously business, and a variety. So it’s a huge area. And, first of all, I think you really do need to have a good education. [Students] should, of course, know geography. It is also absolutely essential to learn other languages. It makes such a difference to know different languages, whether you’re in diplomacy or in business, because there always are translators, but it gives you time to think as you’re listening to what they’re saying. So, broadening education, learning languages, and then considering the field as a very, very large field. I just say everything is international relations. I think that it’s endlessly interesting.”

“What do you feel your greatest achievement as Secretary of State was?”

“I thought we could make a difference in Kosovo. We managed to actually end the war [there]. It was horrible when the war started. The weather was bad, and we hit the wrong targets. Everything was going wrong and they called it Madeleine’s War, and then when things were right they called it something else. Anyway, I now know there’s a whole generation of little girls whose first name is Madeleine. It made me realize that it was the right thing to do, and it is something that I feel the best about.”

After the hour-long discussion, we had the opportunity to meet her and take a photo with her. Though she was more petite in height, I awed at her titanic achievements. She proved to me that it is possible to shatter the glass ceiling and pursue a successful career in foreign relations as a woman. I am thankful that such an astounding lady paved the way for future generations.

Following the talk, we had a chance to view her pin collection a day before it opened to the public. I traced my fingers along the glass as I read the stories behind each unique pin. Some of my favorites included the bug Madame Secretary wore after she discovered the “bug” the Russians had planted to eavesdrop, as well as the huge, cheeky American flag she wore while meeting North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-il.

As I was exiting the museum, a sentence from Madame Secretary replayed in my mind: “If you can make a difference, do you try?”


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