Albright Glitters on Gray-Suited Diplomatic Stage

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Tossing out the first pitch of the baseball season and signing autographs are antics usually associated with press-the-flesh vote-stumping, not the rarefied, gray-suited arena of international diplomacy.

But in her four months in office, Secretary of State Madeleine Korbel Albright has often acted as if on the hustings. She revels in crowds that greet her on her domestic travels, sports head-turning headgear, and maintains a "Reaching Out to Americans" site on the Internet, in which she exhorts ordinary folk to e-mail her their opinions on foreign policy (secretary@state.gov).

Combine all this with her status as the highest-ranking female public official ever to serve the country, add the attention won by revelations of her Jewish heritage, and stir in a pinch of chat-show verve. What comes out is a recipe for approval ratings higher than those of her boss, President Clinton. Some followers of international affairs are unimpressed. To them, Ms. Albright's conduct is proof that her appointment has brought a change in style, but not substance, to Clinton second-term foreign policy. Where, they ask, are the new initiatives and geostrategic ideas? Says Josh Muravchik of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank: "She is much more process than substance." Others disagree. They say it is too soon to assess Albright. She is yet to be tested by a major international crisis and has been hamstrung in filling top State Department vacancies by delays stemming from a White House order to intensify FBI background checks. Moreover, many policies over which she presides she inherited from Mr. Clinton's first term. She is, however, getting some credit for helping to win Senate ratification of a global ban on chemical weapons in April and for her role in forging the NATO-Russia charter signed this week. A champion As for her penchant for limelighting, these experts fault her not. They concur with her view that the nation's diplomatic corps, after years of budget cuts, requires fresh resources at a time when the country faces new threats and grows ever more reliant on foreign trade for domestic jobs. The first step in reversing that trend is reawakening popular support for foreign policy, they say. "She made a conscious decision ... to pay early and considerable attention to shoring up the base of Clinton administration foreign policy," says Casimir Yost, director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University in Washington, where Albright once taught. "That base was eroding and eroding badly." That erosion began with the end of the cold war. It was exacerbated by the low priority afforded foreign policy by Clinton in his first term and the secrecy in which it was shrouded by Albright's colorless predecessor, Warren Christopher, experts say. …