President DeGioia, Dean Hellman, thank you for inviting me to join you on this beautiful day in tribute to our friend Madeleine Albright, in a place that she so dearly loved. It’s an honor to be here with the Albright family … with my very good friend Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield … with Melanne … with several of Madeleine’s “exes” as Melanne said from her time as Secretary of State … foreign ministers past and present — and of course the most important people here, all of you students in attendance and watching online.
As Melanne said, before I came back into government, I was teaching at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. And so whenever I’m on a college campus, or meeting with students which I try to do every place I travel, I can feel my inner professor coming out. Which is why I’m going to start by giving the students an assignment. Don’t worry, it’s an easy one. But I want you all — especially the young women among you — to start thinking now about what question you want to ask me and Linda. I want to make sure when that question time comes that it’s the women who raise their hands first. Madeleine would have wanted it that way.
Because nothing would honor the memory of our friend and your professor Madeleine Albright more than to make this a true symposium — an exchange of ideas, an opportunity to broaden our points of view and to come to new ways of thinking about the world. And I can tell you dealing with the world every day, we need some new ways to think about the world. So although I am going to share some memories and reflections with you, and Linda is going to do the same, at the end of this, most of all we want to hear what is on your minds, what you’re thinking about, what you want to do, what you hope to see, what your ideas are.
I have thought about Madeleine nearly every day — often more than once — in the months since she died. We were close friends, colleagues, and even business partners — we did do the private sector — for more than three decades. And I welcome my Albright Stonebridge colleagues here today. I treasured her expertise, her example, and her irrepressible spirit and wicked sense of humor. As we have watched horrors unfolding in Ukraine week after week, all at the behest of Vladimir Putin — alongside all the other challenges in our world today — we all have had ample reason to miss her diplomatic mind, her insights into authoritarianism, and her profound commitment to democracy and freedom.But I most today want to reflect on what Madeleine meant for women — and what she did for women, throughout her career and her lifetime.
We were a little more than 10 years apart in age, Madeleine and I, but the timing of the women’s rights movement in the United States meant we had very different experiences as young women entering the world. When I graduated from college, there was never any doubt that I would go into the workforce and have my own career. Madeleine, on the other hand, was told that she could not pursue her first choice of work — as a journalist — because her husband was already a journalist. Husbands and wives could not work at the same newspaper, she was told, and the idea of spouses working at competing outlets was absolutely unthinkable.
So, Madeleine forged a different path — through academia to foreign policy and Democratic politics, all while raising three incredible daughters.
Along the way, she learned how to do a thing many women still find challenging — which was to speak up, to interrupt, to make sure her opinion was heard, and not to care too much about annoying the men around her while she did it.
This was by no means an easy thing to do. It still isn’t. There were so few women in foreign policy when Madeleine started working at the White House for then-National Security Advisor Brzezinski — much less women, many fewer, who had spent the last years raising a family. There were more than a few very serious people in the foreign policy establishment who looked askance at Madeleine, who called her unfortunately for them in the Washington Post second tier … that made her Secretary of State … who dismissed her, who didn’t take her analysis or her arguments seriously, because she hadn’t taken the same path that they had.
They couldn’t see that it was, in part, the diversity of Madeleine’s experiences that made her such an incisive, thoughtful, empathetic analyst — and, eventually, leader — in foreign policy. She was a refugee and an immigrant who had watched her mother rebuild their family’s lives time and time again in strange lands. A daughter who watched her diplomat father’s dreams of a democratic Czechoslovakia crushed not once, but twice, while she was still a child. A loving mother who could not quite quiet her curious mind, so she learned Russian while nursing her premature twins to health, and then earned a Ph.D. at Columbia — not an easy get.
But Madeleine knew she had experiences and insights and sources of strength that her doubters did not. And so she refused to let others’ doubts color her outlook. She spoke up and fought for her point of view. She kept at it. And time after time, having Madeleine at the table led to better U.S. foreign policy decisions.
When Madeleine went to the UN as the United States’ permanent representative — the first refugee and naturalized citizen to hold that seat — the 14 other permanent representatives on the Security Council were all men. A master of the one-liner, as I think you all know, she used to comment that her memoirs of her time in this institution should be called Fourteen Suits and a Skirt.
She asked her USUN team to organize a lunch of all the women ambassadors, thinking that with more than 180 nations there should be at least a few dozen. And asked them to find and appropriate venue. They told her she could use her apartment. There were just six others. They fit around one table.
Undeterred, Madeleine immediately formed the women into a caucus, of course, that they jokingly called the “G7.” They all adopted an open-door policy with each other. When a male colleague complained that the ambassador from tiny Liechtenstein had instant access to the United States, Madeleine suggested that he give his job to a woman and then his nation, too, would enjoy the same benefit — which put a quick end to his griping.
Madeleine may not have been the first woman to serve as a UN permanent representative, or even as U.S. Ambassador to the UN, but her determination to bring other women to the table — to elevate their views, to support their careers, and, yes, to urge the men to make room — created a powerful template of leadership for all of us to follow.
Teaching at Georgetown, some of you probably know from your own experience, she used role-playing simulations to get her young women students used to speaking up, to making their voices heard, to using their insights to analyze and solve foreign policy challenges. And there was a secondary benefit, as well, to this approach — which was to get the young men in her classes accustomed to hearing women’s voices holding forth about foreign policy. To listen to them. To respect their opinions and their analysis.
That’s not only important to supporting the next generation of women — it’s important for shaping the next generation of diplomacy. As Secretary Blinken has said many times, we want to build a Department of State that actually looks like America. And while promoting diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility is important on its own merits, it also makes us intrinsically stronger. Institutions of all kinds have more rigorous debates and make better decisions when they take into account a diversity of experiences, ideas, and perspectives. That’s true at the Department of State, at the National Security Council, at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations — really in every corner of U.S. foreign policy.
Because diplomacy is not just about persuasion. It’s also about listening, learning, and growing. It’s about remembering that no matter where you are in the world — whether you are across the table from a friend or from an adversary — you have to be able to put yourself in your counterpart’s shoes. To remember that they, too, are human beings, with their own histories, their own interests, their own points of view even if you violently disagree with them.
That’s the spirit Madeleine brought to her classroom here at Georgetown, and it’s a lesson that I hope all of her students — all of you — will carry with them throughout your lives and your careers.
After leaving government, Madeleine turned her energies — and she had a lot of energy — to many pursuits: to teaching here at Georgetown, to championing democracy around the world through the National Democratic Institute, and, of course, to writing. Her first book came out in 2003, her most recent just four years ago.
At the end of that first memoir, Madeleine rejected those who asked how she wanted to be remembered. After all, she still had two decades of public service ahead of her — and to borrow a phrase from President Clinton, she was determined to go out with her boots on.
But Madeleine wrote the following. Hopefully I’ll get through it, “When the day comes, I hope people will say I did the best with what I was given, tried to make my parents proud, served my country with all the energy I had, and took a strong stand on the side of freedom. Perhaps some will also say that I helped teach a generation of older women to stand tall and young women not to be afraid to interrupt.”
She did all that and more. And our world — our lives, my life — we’re all better for it.