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The Madeleine Awards: once more unto the brooch

In her years as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Madeleine K. Albright popularized the jeweled brooch as an instrument of foreign policy: a sly use of a fashion accessory to deliver messages to America's friends and foes.

Now Albright's habit of encoding diplomatic messages in a pin has become an inspiration for other foreign diplomats. The Interpreter blog at the Lowy Institute, a foreign policy think tank based in Sydney, Australia, is accepting nominees for its second annual Madeleine Awards. The top prize will be awarded for the "best use of symbol, stunt, prop, gesture or jest in international affairs," according to a posting by one of The Interpreter's bloggers.

 

Albrights' coiled gold snake pin -- which she donned after then Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein called her a serpent -- began a tradition of using jewelry to telegraph her mood or convey a harsh or friendly diplomatic message.

For instance, she pinned on a wasp, like the one she wore in a meeting with then Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, when "she wanted to do a little stinging and deliver a tough message." Balloons, flowers and butterflies signaled optimism about the prospects for fruitful negotiations.  She drew from a fleet of multicolored turtles to indicate frustration over the slow pace of Middle East negotiations. The grief that followed the Al Qaeda terror attack against two U.S. embassies in East Africa was communicated with a golden angel.

Albright's nearly 300 pins have already been the subject last year of museum exhibits in New York and Washington and of a book by Albright entitled Read My Pins: The Madeleine Albright Collection, not to mention numerous newspaper articles and radio and television spots. But the organizers of the Madeleine Award want to encourage nominees to create their own personal style for drawing attention to their nation's cause.

Last year, the Madeleine was awarded to government ministers from the Maldives who dressed in scuba diving suits and held a cabinet meeting on climate change under water. But another early entrant was Nepal, according to Graeme Dobell, founder of the prize, for "dispensing with a centuries old tradition of having five virgin girls bid the head of state goodbye as he left on a foreign visit." Indeed, Dobell, noted, "you can become a Madeleine contender for not doing something symbolic."

Frankly, I think the awardees have missed one of Albright's most memorable diplomatic stunts -- one that may not have improved relations between the U.S. and its long time adversary Cuba -- but which probably helped Albright become US Secretary of State. Let's just call it her "cojones" moment.

On February 24, 1996, two Cuban Air Force MIG-29 fighter jets shot down a pair of unarmed Cessna planes operated by members of an anti-Castro exile group, setting the stage for the Clinton administration's most serious confrontation with Cuba at the United Nations.

Shortly after the incident, Madeleine K. Albright, then the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., oversaw a presentation of radio intercepts of one of the Cuban pilots boasting, in the English translation, "We took out his balls." Referencing the Spanish word for testicles, Albright delivered perhaps her most memorable quote.

"Frankly, this is not cojones; this is cowardice," she told reporters. Albright's statement put her on the political map in Washington and aided her in securing her next job as the country's first female secretary of state. U.S. President Bill Clinton would later say her cojones remark constituted "probably the most effective one-liner in the whole administration's foreign policy."

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

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