Under the glare of media attention, Madeleine Albright arrives here early today on the initial leg of her first overseas trip as secretary of state, a 10-day, nine-nation jaunt that will take her both around the world and deep into America's toughest foreign policy challenges.
In an era in which foreign affairs consistently has been pushed to the fringes of the U.S. political debate, no trip by a secretary of state in recent memory has attracted greater media interest. More than 40 news organizations fought for the 12 media seats aboard her aging Air Force 707 aircraft _ seats that in the past have gone begging.
Albright's position as the first female secretary of state, her fresh, no-nonsense optimism and her ability to discuss complex issues in simple language have contributed to the unusual attention. These factors, together with the tale of her personal odyssey from preteen Czech refugee to high-level U.S. official and new revelations about her family's past, have heightened public curiosity to such a level that all five major American television networks are along.
In Europe, Albright plans to meet with government leaders here in Rome as well as in Bonn, Paris, Brussels, London and Moscow.
From Moscow, she goes toAsia, with stops in Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing. In China, she will be watched closely as her well-known sympathies for human rights causes and pledges to "tell it like it is" collide with the enormous stakes that now ride on the Sino-U.S. political and economic relationships.
"There's got to be more than lip service to human rights," Hong Kong lawmaker Emily Lau said of Albright's talks with the Chinese leadership in Beijing. "Trade and human rights can coexist. They (the Beijing leadership) have got to be reminded of this."
Lau's comments come in the wake of developments indicating that Beijing plans to impose new constraints on civil liberties in Hong Kong after it takes over the British colony in July.
Asia is relatively unfamiliar ground for Albright, whose personal and professional life give her a great depth of understanding on European issues. Traditionally, incoming secretaries of state have confined their first overseas visits to quick stops in the capitals of Western European allies.
As aides are quick to point out, however, this is no "get-acquainted" visit for Albright, who already knows most of those she will meet from her tenure as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and, before that, as an academic.