U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright began a world tour in Rome on Sunday, trying to consolidate NATO’s position on its relationship with Russia before she gets to Moscow on Thursday.
She has described her talks in Europe as an effort to add beef to the proposed NATO-Russia charter, which the United States hopes will persuade Russia to acquiesce in a NATO expansion that it cannot stop.
Albright also spent some time Sunday trying to avoid a public spat with France.
NATO is split over a French proposal for an April meeting of the four biggest NATO countries the United States, Germany, France and Britain - with Russia.
The Italians oppose any meeting that would exclude them, let alone other NATO members, from key decisions.
At a news conference in Rome on Sunday, Italian Foreign Minister Lamberto Dini criticized the French proposal, saying, “We don’t favor the idea of a restricted group of countries making decisions for NATO.”
In her response, Albright was more circumspect, presumably bearing in mind that France is next on her schedule. “It is the substance we’re interested in at this stage, not the process,” she said.
Leaders of all 16 NATO countries plan to meet in Madrid, Spain, in July to offer membership to countries of Central and Eastern Europe.
Albright also continued an American effort to get Italy and other European countries to join in isolating so-called rogue nations such as Iran, Libya, Iraq and Cuba.
The European policy of engagement and “critical dialogue” is producing no results, she told Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi, adding, “We really wish Europe would consider decisive action.”
She was no less forthright at the news conference: “We feel very strongly that supporting states that support terrorism is a real problem for us.”
But Italy gets 42 percent of its oil from Iran and Libya and has long historical ties to the region. So the Italian responses to Albright’s criticism were only polite, officials said.
Italian press thrilled
There was some excitement in the Italian press that Albright had chosen to begin her tour of nine countries in Rome, with L’Unita, the formerly communist, now socialist, newspaper, saying, “Italian authorities do not hide their satisfaction that she chose Italy for her first mission abroad.”
The Italian newspapers have lavished attention on Albright’s life story, including recent revelations about her Jewish roots, and have examined her record at the United Nations to see how she might regard Italy.
She has been called “the Iron Lady,” an epithet used to describe former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of Britain, as if any woman of power must be hard as metal.
But Albright is said by her aides to have lived up to that reputation.
Albright’s style is to raise areas of contention and disagreement herself and then to expound the American position in frank terms which may go beyond her talking points.