WASHINGTON, April 28 — President Joe Biden hailed Madeleine Albright at her funeral Wednesday as a diplomatic giant whose rise from child refugee to first female secretary of state represented the best of the United States.

Albright, who also served as US ambassador to the United Nations, died last month at 84.

Reflecting her status on the world stage, the televised funeral in Washington’s National Cathedral was packed with more than 1,400 people and featured tributes from Biden, former president Bill Clinton who appointed Albright to secretary of state, and Hillary Clinton, who likewise served as America’s top diplomat.

Among others attending were former Democratic president Barack Obama and his wife Michelle, and a Who’s Who of senior Biden cabinet members, including current Secretary of State Antony Blinken, CIA Director Bill Burns, and other leaders in the military and foreign policy branches.

US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Biden’s powerful Republican foe Mitch McConnell, who leads the opposition in the Senate, were among the congressional delegation.

Biden praised Albright as someone whose work in the aftermath of the Cold War still echoes as he marshalls the Western alliance confronting Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.

“Madeleine was a big part of the reason that Nato was still strong and galvanised as it is,” Biden said, reflecting on an ongoing “severe confrontation between autocratic and democratic nations.”

The veteran Democrat said Albright “turned the tide of history” through her understanding of “what American power could achieve.”

“Her name is still synonymous with America as a force for good in the world,” he said. “Her story was America’s story. She loved to speak about America as the indispensable nation.”

Bill Clinton echoed this, saying threats to US democracy from within, following attempts by Donald Trump to overturn the 2020 election, also prove what Albright “always knew — that the advance of freedom isn’t either inevitable or permanent.”

“Democracy and the rule of law are not permanently enshrined just because we survived 200 plus years,” Clinton warned.

Child refugee to stateswoman

Albright took the helm of the State Department in 1997, dealing with a post-Cold War world in which the United States had emerged as the sole superpower. 

As the top US diplomat, she led crucial discussions with world leaders on arms control, trade, terrorism and the future of Nato. Not since Margaret Thatcher governed Britain had a woman wielded such a position of global influence.

Albright’s story was all the more remarkable given her dramatic early life.

Born in Czechoslovakia, she fled with her family to London from the approaching Nazis on the eve of World War II. She then entered the United States as a child refugee in 1948, as Soviet communism spread across post-World War II Eastern Europe.

She said that only later she learned of her family’s Jewish roots and that three of her grandparents had died in Nazi concentration camps.

Mourners on Wednesday highlighted Albright’s love of dancing while on diplomatic trips and her refusal to keep quiet in a more sexist era when women were rare in top jobs.

Reflecting on her rise to secretary of state, which came after decades of building influence in Democratic Party circles, Albright herself quipped that previously “the only way a woman could truly make her foreign policy views felt was by marrying a diplomat and then pouring tea on an offending ambassador’s lap.” — AFP