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US Envoy's Enchanting Evening


The conduct of international diplomacy certainly requires tact. Smarts don't hurt, either. The way Madeleine Albright practices statecraft, it also takes some brass.

On the evening of July 28 in a hotel ballroom near Kuala Lumpur, the US secretary of state took the stage wearing a black, sleeveless dress, red lipstick, and flowers in her hair.

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Before her sat about 500 diplomats and government officials, most from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), whose annual meetings close with a gala dinner where countries perform skits. America's top envoy sang a song she had helped write, set to the tune of "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina," the hit from the musical and movie "Evita."

Her voice isn't Madonna's, but it isn't bad.

"Some countries might sue me for libel," she crooned, an obvious prick at Singapore, whose leaders are famous for suing journalists.

"In others I'd risk house arrest" - a jab at the Burmese, whose leaders have forced opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to stay home for much of the past decade. Then came the song's biggest laugh line:

"But I confess to

Having said that,

ASEAN men,

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Are Asia's sexiest."

The crowd, mostly men, roared and clapped, momentarily overlooking an advance American warning that the lyrics were purely in jest.

Mrs. Albright, in a word, had enchanted her Asian counterparts. "Wonderful," beamed Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas as he stepped from the ballroom. "She was quite a star."

It used to be that US diplomats didn't need to concentrate so hard on getting officials from other countries - particularly those with developing economies - to like them. Americans relied on the power they represented and the imperatives of the cold war to persuade foreign governments to go along with Washington. Nowadays, as Albright's musical and diplomatic performances here suggest, it takes charisma to push the policies of the global superpower.

South Korea's foreign minister, Yu Chong Ha, saw a good deal of Albright when they both served as ambassadors to the UN. "Sometimes US views are not welcome" when certain nations get together to discuss things, he says. "But she brings a great deal of charm and strength."

State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns describes the fine line his boss walks: "There is a feeling in this part of the world ... that the US sometimes comes in and lectures. She doesn't want to do that. She wants to have good, respectful relationships with these leaders." At the same time, he adds, "She has never been shy about saying what she believes, but there's a way to do that in diplomacy where you work with people."

Albright's lack of shyness came through during a July 27 meeting of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) - a 21-nation group that discusses security in Asia - when the Burmese foreign minister offered a status report on his country's political situation, in which he described progress toward democracy.

Albright responded by listing some American assessments of Burmese affairs, saying in part, "Burma is the only nation in ASEAN where it is illegal to own a fax machine, where the police arrest legitimate business people to stop currency fluctuations, where public schools are routinely closed to prevent political unrest." All of this about a country - called Myanmar by its ruling military junta - that ASEAN had admitted to its ranks just days earlier.

Officials from Australia, Canada, the European Union, and New Zealand also criticized Burma, causing the chairman of the session to break for lunch in order to dispel the frosty atmosphere, according to a European diplomat.

This barrage, and Albright's comments in particular, did not sit well with some ASEAN members, who value staying out of each other's internal affairs. "If we had been the target [of the criticism], we wouldn't have stayed still," bristled a top diplomat from one of the most important countries in ASEAN, which groups all the nations in Southeast Asia save Cambodia. But this same official gave a thumbs-up sign after her serenade. "The best," he smiled.

"She really hit the Burmese hard in the ARF," comments the European diplomat, who like the Southeast Asian official demanded anonymity, "but the song really patched things up."

American officials seem to be taking the leaders of smaller nations a little more seriously in the post-cold-war era. In recent days, Malaysia's prime minister, Mahathir Mohammed, has been attributing Southeast Asia's currency troubles to "rogue speculators," naming the US financier George Soros in particular. US Undersecretary of State Stuart Eizenstat fired back July 28, saying such charges were "not supported by the evidence." Mr. Soros has also denied the charge.

ALBRIGHT also spoke in one of her meetings to criticize a proposal put forward by Mr. Mahathir that the United Nations revise its Universal Declaration on Human Rights to account for changes in the world scene since the document was created just after World War II. He says the rights it enshrines reflect a Western bias. Albright, a former US ambassador to the UN, promised relentless US opposition to such an effort.

Mr. Burns rejects the notion that these retorts are exchanges that American officials of an earlier time might simply have risen above. "We would never ignore Mr. Mahathir, because he's too important," he says.

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