Honoring the Legacy of Madeleine Albright

March 25, 2022

Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright passed away yesterday, at 84 years of age. Secretary Albright’s family emigrated to the United States from Czechoslovakia in 1948. She did not realize her family’s Jewish ancestry until much later in life and had countless relatives who had perished in the Holocaust.

As a foreign policy expert and diplomat, she became increasingly disturbed by the various forms of religion-justified violence she saw, whether in the Balkans, Africa, or the greater Middle East. In many cases, this violence was instigated by populists using religious and historical symbols to mobilize violent nationalisms, as in the former Yugoslavia under Slobodan Milosevic.

Albright recognized that the secularist approach of U.S. foreign policy made it impossible to fully understand the religio-cultural dynamics of some conflicts. In her memoir, she noted how Cold War dynamics and the secular, materialist worldview of higher education and the diplomatic corps resulted in an almost entirely secular American foreign service. This meant that the average diplomat – despite skill in foreign language and various social science theories – knew little of the lived experience shaped by religion that so many people around the world claim as their own. Indeed, religion was not seen as a contributor to peace or as the motivation for charity and humanitarian aid, but rather as a problem. Albright wrote: “Diplomats trained in my era were taught not to invite trouble. And no subject seemed more inherently treacherous than religion.”

With such a mindset, how then can one make sense of the world as it is? In her memoir, The Mighty and the Almighty, she observed:

When I was Secretary of State, I had an entire bureau of economic experts I could turn to, and a cadre of experts on nonproliferation and arms control…With the notable exception of Ambassador [for International Religious Freedom] Robert Seiple, I did not have similar expertise available for integrating religious principles into our efforts at diplomacy. Given the nature of today‘s world, knowledge of this type is essential. (pg. 75) 

Ambassador Seiple’s post was created by the vitally important 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), signed into law by President Clinton. That legislation also created a number of other important elements prioritizing religious freedom in U.S. foreign policy. For example, IRFA:

  • Declared [that] the right to freedom of religion undergirds the very origin and existence of the United States…as a fundamental right and as a pillar of our Nation…Freedom of religious belief and practice is a universal human right and fundamental freedom…

  • Created an independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) to make recommendations to the president and Congress.

  • Designated an Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom (IRF) at the U.S. Department of State, leading an Office of International Religious Freedom.

  • Mandated an Annual Report on International Religious Freedom to include every country in the world.

  • Provided a menu of options for U.S. government action to name, shame, and punish violators of religious freedom, with a special focus on―Countries of Particular Concern.

  • Called for institutionalized training,  programming, and recognition for U.S. diplomats engaged in this work.

That final point — the need for institutionalized training for U.S. diplomats — was a key recommendation Secretary Albright made in her memoir:

In the future, no American ambassador should be assigned to a country where religious feelings are strong unless he or she has a deep understanding of the faiths commonly practiced there. Ambassadors and their representatives, wherever they are assigned, should establish relationships with local religious leaders. The State Department should hire or train a core of specialists in religion to be deployed both in Washington and in key embassies overseas. (pg. 76)

Unfortunately, as RFI President Tom Farr has noted in a series of policy recommendations to the Biden Administration, U.S. foreign policy has failed to put international religious freedom policy training and the cultivation of such expertise at the center of its training and hiring policies. Despite deep expertise in the narrow pockets of the State Department’s IRF Office and among the staff of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, far more needs to be done to develop such understanding across the foreign service as a whole.

At RFI, we honor the legacy of Secretary Albright in this critical area. American foreign policy leaders must take seriously her admonition to understand better the multi-dimensional ways that religion contributes to the lives of most people around the globe, and the importance of religious freedom as the cornerstone for a successful society, for securing other fundamental liberties, and for promoting human flourishing.