My Three Encounters with Madeleine Albright

Martin Palouš

When a close associate of Madeleine Albright called me last Wednesday afternoon to tell me the sad news that she had just died, I was about to record a lecture on the concept of totalitarianism for the project “The Europe I Want to Live In: Europe 2050”. I had in front of me the texts I had published so far on this topic and was trying to organize my historical account of totalitarianism and the arguments I wanted to lay out in this lecture, in a way to be understandable to my audience – high school and college students, both Czech and international. The first thing I had to take into account was the fact that their life experiences have been understandably quite different from my own, that they simply belong in a different generation, and that, as the old Roman adage keeps reminding us, tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis (times are changed, we also are changed with them).

The information about Madeleine’s sudden passing – she was my personal friend for decades – obviously disrupted my train of thought and made me turn my attention from the papers on my desk to her life story, just completed. At the same time, however, her death reminded me of an elementary fact eminently relevant to my subject, which I believe should be the starting point for anyone who tries to understand it – and based on this understanding, to imagine the possible shapes of the world of the future; the world in which we, the members of the older generation, will not be among the living any more, and the current students as active players in it will be on their own – with their own reflections, judgments and choices to be made.

There is a fundamental reality, I realized again, to start from in the study of the concept of totalitarianism. It is not just some anonymous historical force acting “from above” that shapes the human world and thus the condition under which life is given to their inhabitants – as totalitarians usually try to convince their subjects in order to deprive them of their liberty. On the contrary, it is the acting people who, by the power of their own intervention, participate in its creation. And it is evident, if we want to illustrate this point by pointing to a concrete example, that Madeleine Albright, born Czech, twice forced to emigrate from her homeland, and a naturalized American in her twenties, was undoubtedly one of such exceptional personalities.

For her family and friends who must now reconcile themselves with the fact that she is not here with them anymore, her death at the blessed age of eighty-four is perceived, of course, as a great loss, a sad personal thing, indeed. But for both those who were close to her and those who know her only as a public figure or a university teacher or a writer, her passing represents a challenge, and, at the same time, an opportunity. It enables all of us to look back on her life as a whole that has been closed, and to reflect on it; to assess her concrete thoughts and deeds, her virtues and shortcomings, her successes and failures from the distance and – first of all, before arriving to any judgment, laudatory or critical – to thank the Lord for the “gift” that has been offered to us in this way and to think about it in good faith and open spirit.

In the last few days, I have had the opportunity to read a number of personal recollections, first of all written by her Czech friends and fellow-travelers, and I hope I will not be carrying proverbial “owls to Athens” if I take the liberty of adding to this chorus also my own little retrospective. It will consist of three specific encounters I had with her over the years that I want to remember in the moment of her passing.

The first encounter

We met for the first time under rather bizarre circumstances, on the occasion of her visit to Prague in the autumn of 1986. I was then a spokesman for Charter 77 and she was a professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. and a foreign policy expert of the Democratic Party – at that moment in opposition to the Republican Reagan administration. With her in Prague at the same time was Republican Senator Larry Pressler of South Dakota, who intended to meet not only with government officials during his short visit, organized by the U.S. Embassy in the framework of the so-called “Helsinki process”, but also with us “dissidents”. That is why I was also invited with my fellow spokespersons Anna Šabatová and Jan Štern to a breakfast in the apartment of the political council of the American Embassy. When I arrived there, I found that I was the only Czech participant in this planned meeting, because the two other invited Czech guests didn’t arrive, being forced to stay at home, blocked, as sometimes happened then to the “dissidents”, by state security agents.

Senator Pressler decided, when we heard about this, to show his principled stance and commitment to the “Helsinki principles” by trying to break the police blockade and visit my colleagues in their homes. The result was that not only he, but also our host and other American diplomats went on this adventurous expedition. Madeleine and I were thus, out of the blue, alone in that diplomatic apartment. We had a sort of getting-to-know-you conversation. Time passed and still no one came back. After about two hours, with no new information, we decided to leave the apartment. But when we went down to the front door and found that we were locked inside. Our conversation then continued on the staircase of that house for about another hour and a half before we were finally freed by the returning American political council and could go our separate ways: me to my daily dissident activities, she to further explore the then-Czechoslovak reality, which had just begun to change subtly in that time, partly because of the “Helsinki process”, but above all thanks to Gorbachev’s reforms in the Soviet Union and the hardening position of President Reagan towards the “evil empire”.

The second encounter

Our second meeting took place at the beginning of 1990, in radically different circumstances. In the second week of January, Ivan Havel (the brother of the newly elected Czechoslovak president) and I were sent out as representatives of the Civic Forum on a kind of exploratory journey across the Atlantic Ocean. The Americans, especially our friends among them, were understandably very curious about what was going on in our country and what consequences could be expected from these happenings. And so, us two “Velvet Revolutionaries” took off one morning from Prague’s Ruzyně airport and, after stopovers in Frankfurt and London, landed late at night at JFK. After a first, roughly one-week stay in New York, where our old American acquaintances were leading us around like bears on a chain (although with the best of intentions and for good reason), presenting us to their friends and acquaintances and forcing us to answer questions to which we could hardly give any reasonable answers, we arrived in Washington, D.C., where, of course, the same thing was repeated.

Whether Madeleine and I also bumped into each other in the whirlwind of all those events and meetings with American political leaders and cultural personalities I’m afraid I cannot say for sure, because I don’t remember. In any case, we communicated intensively in the New World just a few weeks later in early February, when I arrived in the United States for the second time, as the head of an advance team preparing the official visit of President Václav Havel and his delegation, the aim of which was to lay foundations for a renewed transatlantic partnership, crucial to our transition from totalitarianism to democracy. President Havel met President Bush at the White House under this occasion and delivered his major address at the special Joint Session of the United States Congress.

This visit has been commented on and described multiple times by many other participants, so I will skip here my own account of it. I will only add a note on what Madeleine and I were specially involved in: the preparation of the accompanying program that was organized in Washington, D.C. for the very large, diverse and therefore difficult to manage Czechoslovak delegation. There was a certain political problem here, the importance of which I, as someone unfamiliar with the American political environment, was not at all aware of and appreciated Madeleine’s help in solving. In February of 1990, the Republican Bush Administration was in power, and so the Democratic Party, at the head of whose “National Democratic Institute” (NDI) Madeleine was, had to accept the fact that it could play no more than second fiddle in the official program of a head of foreign state. And I must say that the NDI, under her leadership, rose to the occasion brilliantly. It organized a series of meetings and training sessions for the members of the Czechoslovak delegation, and enabled each of them to make important contacts that later proved to be crucial in our newly embarked journey from totalitarian dictatorship to renewed democracy.

The basic message we thus received in the United States, thanks to Madeleine, was clear: not only the current administration, but both major American political parties, both Democrats and Republicans, were unequivocally behind us and were prepared to become our common supporters, advisors and helpers, despite their internal political disputes and differing ideological perspectives. This, actually, was confirmed in June of that year, when two Americans participated as international observers in the first free Czechoslovak elections after the fall of communism: Madeleine Albright as president of the NDI and Senator John McCain, president of the equivalent International Republican Institute.

The third encounter

In 1998, I was asked by President Václav Havel to accept the offer of the then-new Foreign Minister Jan Kavan to return to the Czernin Palace as his Deputy. Madeleine was then serving in the Clinton administration as Secretary of State, and, as it has been reminded again by many people in the last few days, it was to her personal credit that the process of admitting the Czech Republic (along with Hungary and Poland) to NATO was in its final stages at that point.

What brought the two of us back together, however, was not only the ongoing dialogue on transatlantic security issues, but also the question of human rights, namely, the Cuban resolution, which had been proposed every year up to that point by the United States in the annual sessions of the Geneva-based Commission for Human Rights, criticizing the state of human rights in Cuba, particularly the systematic persecution and imprisonment of Cuban dissidents. In 1998, however, the United States lost the final vote on the Cuban resolution – apparently because the new member of this United Nations body was South Africa, whose President Nelson Mandela had maintained very friendly relations with Cuban leader Fidel Castro – and at that point it seemed that the matter had been finally settled to Castro’s satisfaction and that critics of the Cuban authoritarian regime were simply getting cold feet in multilateral relations. However, as a newly appointed Deputy Minister, whose portfolio included human rights, I was approached by their Cuban defenders with a request that the Czech Republic, which was also a member of the Commission on Human Rights at the time, should try to put the ball back in play, so to speak, and submit the Cuban resolution again. Without any hesitation, I nodded, convinced my boss that we should do it, and easily won the support of President Havel for this project – without, of course, knowing at the time what an adventurous enterprise I had just plunged Czech diplomacy into.

The problem was that the American, European, and Latin American perspectives were quite different in this matter, and, in particular, when it came to the connection between Cuba’s compliance with its human rights obligations and American economic policy towards Cuba, the approach of the three parties was completely contradictory. As the head of the Czech delegation, I found myself in a kind of perpetually turbulent ‘Bermuda Triangle’, in which our small diplomatic boat, whose crew was to negotiate the text of the resolution, was in danger of sinking fast. We fought with our limited resources and experience against a very effective, well-organized global network of Cuban diplomacy, and at first it looked like a “mission impossible” situation, but in the end, a miracle happened. Our arguments, backed by the authority of Czech President Václav Havel and our experience from the Charter 77 era, proved strong enough to overcome the transatlantic divisions on the Cuban issue – this could only have happened through a delicate balancing of communication between opposing views and a constant reminder of the importance of international solidarity on this matter – and we finally managed to get the resolution through, to everyone’s surprise.

In the course of negotiating, I also had a number of rather sharp clashes with the American delegation, whose crucial help in obtaining the necessary number of votes was sorely needed. I wonder what must have been going on in Washington, D.C. in those days, what dispatches and instructions must have been coming from there to Geneva in deciding the further course of action of the American delegation, but I have no answer. In the end, however, everything turned out for the best, and I felt great joy and great satisfaction when Madeleine called me in Geneva immediately after the adoption of the Cuban resolution from the State Department, acknowledged the correctness of our point of view, acknowledged the efficacy of our diplomatic endeavors, and thanked me sincerely from the bottom of her heart.

A general look back at the end

As I am writing this text, of course, more and more memories of her are coming to my mind – during my time at the Embassy in Washington, D.C. (2001-2005), at the Permanent Mission in New York (2006-2011), and for roughly the past decade as Director of the Václav Havel Program for Human Rights and Diplomacy at Florida International University. I have tens of official, semi-official, friendly, and even private situations with her in front of my eyes and many of them would be worth mentioning here.

What is especially coming to mind are our many encounters when Václav Havel was already a retired president and Washington, D.C. and New York were among his favorite destinations. I remember very well Madeleine’s worried face when she accompanied him to the emergency room of New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital in May 2010, after he suffered a stroke and his life was in imminent danger, and then, in turn, her laughing and dancing at the party that followed a few weeks later in Philadelphia at the Wilma Theater after the premiere of Havel’s last drama, titled Leaving.

But to conclude, let me return to where I have started. Madeleine Albright was a great woman who had the courage to expose herself to the storms of this world and enter its history. With her passing, her life story has come to its end, and it is safe to say now that it was a good and powerful one. In my view, the time is not yet ripe for a truly complex and critical assessment of her work and her diplomacy. There will surely be many opportunities to do so in the future, and there will be many scholars or journalists who will take up this important task. There is one thing, however, to be seriously worried about as we remember her today: a lack of interest in the issues that Madeleine Albright dealt with throughout her life with the professionalism and deep conviction of a party politician: a dull capacity for coordination given the circumstances in which we are doomed to live, and a thoughtless opportunism in characterizing the reactions to the emergence of totalitarianism even in many “good” European societies – which must be perceived and studied not just as the most deadly political and spiritual disease of the past, but as an ever-present threat to contemporary humankind – the phenomenon that she was confronted with in her life and fought against to her last breath.

Madeleine, thanks for everything, and rest in peace!