Armed with only an academic’s intellect and a diplomat’s toolbox, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright outmaneuvered the post–Cold War Russians, members of NATO and even some in her own government to lead the effort to bring an end to a ghastly campaign against ethnic Albanians in Slobodan Milosevic’s Kosovo. Her critics and boosters alike had a name for it: Madeleine’s War.
The episode marked the high-water mark of American humanitarian intervention in the post-Soviet world. Albright worked the phones and her Air Force jet to hold together the NATO alliance to build pressure on Moscow and to avoid even the slightest of differences among allies. When possible, she employed her counterpart’s native tongue because, after all, she speaks six languages.
In the end, Moscow acquiesced to NATO’s stepping in to launch a “humanitarian war,” and Milosevic backed down. For Albright, the mission had an added personal element: as a child, she fled the regimes of Adolf Hitler and, later, Joseph Stalin. She already had seen what unchecked regimes could accomplish—and also what Americans at their best could. —Philip Elliott
This article is part of 100 Women of the Year, TIME’s list of the most influential women of the past century. Read more about the project, explore the 100 covers and sign up for our Inside TIME newsletter for more.