Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield’s InSTEP Discussion with Myron Brilliant of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce

Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield
U.S. Representative to the United Nations
New York, New York
January 20, 2022


QUESTION:  Good afternoon, everyone. I know we’re three weeks into the new year, but let me begin by wishing you a happy and healthy and prosperous 2022. I’m delighted to kick off this InSTEP series this year with one of our finest diplomats, Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield. She now serves, as everyone knows, as the UN Ambassador, the Cabinet representative to represent the United States in the UN, and we’re delighted today to talk to her about a range of challenges and the complexities that the United States faces.

Certainly the power competition struggle with China is on our minds, but front and center will, of course, be also the Russia-Ukraine dynamic. I’ll ask Linda her views about those two topics.  We’ll get into areas around the role of business in working with the UN and her sense of what the UN mission is in light of our sense and identity that America needs to really step up to the world stage at this point and lead. We are still, I hope, the indispensable nation that we talk about, and certainly I’m sure Ambassador Greenfield will have some perspectives on that issue as well.

Those of you who are not familiar with the InSTEP series, this one is on the record, and those of you who are with us from the press are able to quote from this session today. We are going to have a great year. Following Ambassador Greenfield, we’ll have Admiral Stavridis next week, on the 26th. Please do read his book, “2034.” You will find it fascinating.

This series today will, as I said, focus on some of the big geopolitical challenges our country and our global community face together. And it begins with someone who has decades of experience in foreign affairs. She is not just wrapping up her first year as chief diplomat of the UN; she’s continuing her long, distinguished career as a diplomat for the United States. And let me just say that while she was confirmed in February of 2021, she has not been allowed to rest at all through this very difficult period of time. Her 35 years of service includes serving as assistant secretary of state for African affairs, director general of the Foreign Service, as well as ambassador to Liberia and serving in posts all over, including Pakistan, Kenya, Jamaica, and Switzerland. I should footnote this that she also served on the board of the U.S. Chamber’s Africa Business Center, and I acknowledge the great work she did with myself and with Scott Eisner, who runs our program, and many others.

Many of you may be familiar with the term “gunboat diplomacy.” Well, Ambassador Greenfield is a practitioner of something called “gumbo diplomacy,” not to be confused by the movie “Forrest Gump.” So let me just jump in right there. What does it mean to say that you are a practitioner of gumbo diplomacy? And welcome to the show.

AMBASSADOR LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD:  Thank you very much, Myron, and Happy New Year to everyone. I’m delighted to be here with you on this program.

The gumbo diplomacy moniker sort of took a life of its own. When I was introduced as the nominee for this position, I talked about the fact that I use my making of gumbo – gumbo  diplomacy – to engage people, to practice diplomacy, to bring people around the table and bring a mixture, as you would do in gumbo, of differences and diversity, and when you mix it all up you come out with something incredible – whether it’s an incredible bowl of gumbo or an incredible relationship that builds on common values and builds on common goals. So making gumbo and making diplomacy for me are basically one and the same.

QUESTION:  Well, let’s relate that to today’s events. You said early on that one of your objectives at the UN was to restore credibility and integrity in America’s leadership around the world. President Biden has talked about that often and talked about it actually yesterday at his press conference, how America is back, how we have restored credibility on the world stage. But there’s still a gap. Let’s be honest: There’s still a gap between public views and where we would like to go. How do you think your messaging in the UN is being well received in this regard, and what does America mean when it says we have restored credibility? What things have happened that give you confidence that we are making the headway that we need to on the world stage?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD:  First and foremost, we’re at the table. We’re engaged not just with our allies; we are engaged with our opponents, with our adversaries. And I will tell you when I arrived here in New York, I was warmly embraced by both sides, because even your adversaries want to engage with someone who they can trust, they can hold a conversation with, they can have a diplomatic engagement and a disagreement with that can be trusted and can be respected. And so being back at the table means bringing our voice back, bringing our leadership, but bringing our values. And I would say that’s even – that’s even more important: bringing our values back to the table when we have discussions with our colleagues both in the Security Council and in the General Assembly.

QUESTION:  So, Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield, when you talk about U.S. leadership and values, it’s being tested in this theme around democracy and autocracy, right? You have China and Russia challenging the United States in very significant ways, and right now front and center on your plate is the Russia-Ukrainian dynamic and the escalation of troops on the border, the potential of an excursion into Ukraine from Russia. The challenges that our government is confronting, and working with the Europeans – h ow is that going? Obviously, Secretary of State Tony Blinken right now is in Europe working these issues. The President has spoken on these issues forcefully yesterday. What can we do to try to discourage Russia’s actions, and how is the UN contributing to this issue?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD:  Yeah, the President has been clear in his guidance to us. He wants, first and foremost, to find a diplomatic solution to this issue. So we are intensifying our diplomacy. That’s why Secretary Blinken is in Europe today and will be meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov tomorrow. It’s why I have engaged with members of the Security Council on – and other member states – on a daily basis to brief them on the situation and to get their buy-in and unity in dealing with Russia on this situation. I have engaged with the Russian PR as well as the Chinese PR to let them know where we stand on this.

And we’ve been clear. Russia has two choices. It can go the diplomatic route and de-escalate and find a solution and a way forward, or it can go the escalation route and confrontation and deal with the strong response that we have told them they will receive should they go in that direction. We’re still hopeful that diplomacy will work, and we’re hopeful that this situation will be one that we can all look back on and write about the importance of diplomacy. But we’re prepared if diplomacy does not work.

QUESTION:  Just one quick follow-up on this. Obviously the UN is about consensus, and in the Security Council particularly China and Russia are large actors. What role is China playing on this issue? Are they playing a constructive role and helping mitigate the fallout of the potential Russian incursion into Ukraine? Are they helping us try to work with the Russians constructively? And how far have the Europeans come in terms of their own approach with the United States, in your view?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD:  I can’t speak for the Chinese. I am hoping that they are playing a constructive role because they have been always clear that they do believe in the sovereignty of the state. And if Russia makes another incursion into Ukraine, it is a demonstration that the Russians do not respect the basic tenets of the UN Charter and that they are compromising the sovereignty of the state. So my expectation is that China is quietly having conversations with Russia to discourage Russia from making this mistake.

In terms of our conversations with Europeans, we have been unified and we have been consistent in our approach. We have been clear that we will not have any discussions about Europe without Europe, we will not discuss NATO without NATO, and we will not discuss with the Russians Ukraine without Ukraine. And our position has been one that we have pressed over the course of the past few weeks. We’ve had close to 100 meetings across the board and across the U.S. Government to impress upon Russia and on our colleagues that we have to find a diplomatic solution to this problem.

QUESTION:  Well, Linda, I hope we do get that diplomatic solution because that’s ultimately the best result here. It will be complex and of course Russia, and Putin, does not make it easy.

But I want to get back to this theme of democracy versus autocracy. There’s no question that this was the central theme of the summit that President Biden had in the fall when we brought in nations that share our democratic values. But does that prism of looking at it from a democracy-versus-autocracy viewpoint, does that create conflict in the way that we have to engage China and other nations? Because the world will not be a safer place if we don’t have collaboration on issues like the pandemic health situation, on climate, on so many other important issues. How do we both promote our values but also work with countries that have different economic and political models?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD:  First and foremost, the summit was about bringing democracies together to reinforce and to strengthen our commitment to democracy. It was not about a conflict with autocrats. It was about engaging with each other to strengthen our commitment. We know, Myron, that we have to engage with our adversaries. We have to communicate with our adversaries. We sit in the Security Council on a daily basis with the Russians and with the Chinese, and we find areas of cooperation, areas where we can work together. For example, we were able to work with the Russians to get the Syria resolution passed and extended for a year, and no one expected that we could do that with an adversary. We’re able to work with the Chinese on issues of climate change. And even early on, we were able to come to some agreements on statements for responding to the situation in Myanmar. That has broken down somewhat now, but early on we gave unified and strong Security Council statements on these issues.

So there are areas where we can work together, and we know what those areas are and we reinforce those areas. But it does not mean when there are areas where we have conflict or differences that we don’t fight back hard on those differences and call out authoritarians and call out others for authoritarian actions. And that’s where the UN and the Security Council I think plays an important role, because we have a platform for responding to disinformation, responding to aggressive actions, responding to human rights violations, and we can do it in a way that allows people to understand what is happening in New York and we can expose these violators, we can expose authoritarians for what they are.

QUESTION:  Linda, you make a very valid point about the need to look at our own values and propel them and project them in the UN and other institutions. So let me talk about there is rising tensions in the U.S.-China relationship, and the administration is giving a lot of attention to these issues. You’re part of that. Certainly that plays out also in the context of how you work in the UN to work on some of the issues you talked about. You talked about human rights issues. You have talked before about the rule of law, transparency, and the importance of these principles in governing our actions and the way we engage stakeholders and governments around the world.  Certainly you have a lot of experience in Africa, where China has been extremely aggressive in its posturing in Africa.

How do we work with China to confront these issues in a collaborative fashion when at the same time there is rising competition and there’s rising tensions? What’s the role that you see for the UN to be a place where China and the United States can actually work together on these global challenges?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD:  When we have areas of collaboration with China, we collaborate and we collaborate well. But when we have differences, we don’t shy away from raising those differences. We have been working very, very closely with our African colleagues to highlight the differences of approach that the U.S. has as it relates to Africa and compare it to China, where we are a country that always puts people first – we put human rights first; we put press freedoms first. China will always call for the rights of the state – the rights of the state to commit violations of human rights against its own people. That will never be the case for the United States. And the people of Africa understand that more than any other people around the world.

QUESTION:  I know right now, Linda, that Russia and Ukraine are getting a lot of your attention, as they are of the whole government. Tell me about North Korea. North Korea has recently tested ballistic missiles again. It’s making noise behind the scenes. It’s maybe not the front-page story that it has been in the past, but it’s still an area of great concern for world stability. What’s the sense that you have coming out of the UN of work that can be done in a constructive way with China to address the North Korea dynamic?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD:  You know, I just left the Council a minute ago to come here for our discussion. And at the Council, we were discussing DPRK and how to respond to their aggressive actions over the course of the past two weeks. They have carried out four ballistic missile launches over the past few weeks, and we spoke about it in the Council on the 10th of January and we have brought it to the Council again today. We think we have to call them out for their aggressions. We have to hold them accountable for their aggression. And that is an area where we have had some disagreement with our Chinese counterparts, where they still are insisting on giving the DPRK a pass for breaking Security Council resolutions, for not adhering to sanctions and resolutions that the entire Council in unity agreed to. So as we speak right now, my colleagues are in the Council raising concerns about DPRK.

QUESTION:  Well, I’m glad to hear that. I’m limited in time today with you, Linda, because I know the Russia-Ukrainian situation and North Korea is occupying a lot of your time. So I want to be efficient here in our remaining time. I want to hit a couple areas.

First, I want to lean in on you on what you see to be the most significant humanitarian crisis and what you would appeal to a very broad audience that’s watching today that we should be paying attention to. Obviously, there are situations in Africa that are concerning. There are obviously hotspots in the Middle East. If you think about the COVID situation and you think about some of the humanitarian crises, what do you want the business community and other stakeholders here today listening to be focused on that may be not front-page news but is nevertheless very important?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD:  Fortunately, many of them are front-page news. We are watching the situation very closely in Afghanistan right now where they are on the verge of a humanitarian crisis. We are working with the UN and with NGOs to provide assistance, and the U.S. Government, as you know, is the largest contributor of humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan. And we just got through a resolution in the Security Council where we were able to provide a waiver for humanitarian assistance to be provided directly to the Afghan people that does not support the Taliban.

I’m also very worried about the situation in Ethiopia. It does not get as much press, but we do have a humanitarian crisis there that is a result of the conflict that is taking place in this country.  And we’ve put a tremendous amount of our own effort into supporting the efforts of the region to get to a ceasefire so that humanitarian assistance can be provided to all sides so that we don’t have a famine in this country.

I was just in the Sahel in November and visited Mali and Niger. The impact of climate change there in addition to the impact of conflict has caused a huge humanitarian concern in that region.  And that does not get the press coverage that it should get, and we should be paying more attention.

And then finally, I’ll mention Myanmar. I met with a group of NGOs and human rights organizations and humanitarian organizations from Myanmar yesterday, and they highlighted that the situation there was worsening as the conflict worsens. And they asked that the international community not forget Myanmar. And it’s really important that we continue to engage.

And then finally, Myron, just on the relationship with the private sector, there is so much that we can do with the private sector. And in my first year here in New York, we have not had as much engagement with the private sector, but it is my plan in my second year to really reach out to the private sector to see where we can work together, not just on humanitarian programs, but how can we work on cyber issues? How do we address some of the technology issues that countries are facing? How do we promote freedom of expression over social media in countries where any time there’s a criticism, they might shut down social media? And these are all issues that I know are important to your members, but important to the American private sector.

I’m really proud of what the American private sector does when it’s overseas. We know that you do a much better job of engaging with populations and ensuring that you provide the right environment for employees to work, and that you represent the values of America in a way that makes us all proud. And as I talk to countries around the world, they much prefer to have American companies there. And what I say to them is they have to – they have a responsibility to provide the right operating environment for American companies to come because American companies will not abide by environments that promote corruption, that promote human rights violations. And they are listening to us, and I’m hoping that we can work together with the American private sector to get more engagement overseas.

QUESTION:  Well, first of all, that’s music to my ears and hopefully music to a lot of people’s ears. Ambassador, you’ve worked in government for a long time, but you also know the private sector well. You’ve worked with the private sector, and you know when the private sector and the government are working hand in hand, we can accomplish a lot more. And I think you mentioned a lot of areas where the U.S. Chamber, where our affiliate, the Center for International Private Enterprise, and many others would like to make a contribution.

I will just add to that, saying a lot of the work in the UN that is being done on climate and sustainability can’t be accomplished without a strong private sector hand, and we want to be helpful to you and others at the UN in this regard.

Second, clearly in the area of pandemic preparation and in addressing the health challenges coming from COVID, I currently have COVID, which is why I’m where I am right now, not at the Chamber but at home. But I would simply say to you that thinking through how we work with you on the health challenges, and there are so many areas that you outlined, so we take up the challenge of further engaging with you.

But I want to, before we conclude, ask you two final questions. One is: You’ve spent a lot of time thinking about inclusion and diversity, and the importance of diversity in our service to our country, and diversity as it’s represented to the business community, and many other facets. How do you think we’re doing as a country to get more people of color and variety of backgrounds and experiences into government to serve our country, to serve overseas, to help us continue the road of being that indispensable nation? What can we do more of there?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD:  Thank you so much for that question because that is truly an important issue for me, but it’s an important issue for the administration. The President, in outlining his priorities when he took over the administration, one of those priorities was diversity and inclusion because we know that diversity brings strength. It is a strength. And it shows our strength, and it shows our values. And we are working diligently to improve diversity, but we have to do more. We have to put more effort into the commitment. We have to reach out to HBCUs. We need to reach out to communities that we don’t normally reach out to.  We need to engage with people at a very, very young age.

When I was Director General of the Foreign Service, I said that we needed to start recruiting Foreign Service officers when they were in eighth grade because we need to start preparing them to build their skills throughout their lives, and build their commitment and their understanding throughout their lives. And then once we bring diverse individuals into our environments, into the State Department, into the private sector, they need to be mentored. They need to have coaches and sponsors who will support them. And it’s no different than what has happened among other groups in the United States. And they may not refer to it as mentoring, but they’re engaging and supporting each other.

And we have to do that so that diversity is not just diversity in name’s sake, but diversity is inclusion. And sometimes we forget the inclusion part. We bring people in, and then they’re not included. And they feel it, and suddenly they’re gone. So we have to do both at the same time.  And this is something that the administration is committed to, and it has shown that commitment in the diversity of our Cabinet. I’m very, very proud to be in the most diverse Cabinet that the White House has ever had. And the President shows it every day in the actions that he is taking for the American people.

QUESTION:  Well, Ambassador, we welcome the opportunity to be a partner with you on this area of great, I think, need and great desire. And the Chamber has its own equal opportunity initiative, and I think there’s many ways that we can help you in getting out that message to important stakeholders. But part of it starts with civic education. It starts, as you said, not when people are out of college, but when they’re growing into the educational system and learning the value of America’s role around the world. And I know you’re a proponent of that.

I’ll end with just an obvious final question, which is: What do you think can be realistically accomplished in this year, with everything on your plate, if you were to look at what you hope is accomplished through your UN role this year? And where do you think we can help and partner with you on that?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD:  We are still a work in progress. As I noted, we found tremendous challenges when the President came on board on January 20th last year. And we tackled those challenges face on and head on, and we have accomplished a tremendous amount in dealing with the pandemic, in dealing with climate change, and in bringing back U.S. leadership around the globe.

But there is still so much that needs to be done in terms of reasserting our leadership and reestablishing confidence in our leadership. And so for me, working here in New York, engaging with more than 180 countries every single day, it is important that I get out the message to those countries what it means to have American engagement.

And then I’ll add a second part of that. We need to do a better job of engaging with our own people and getting out to the American people so they understand the importance of the United Nations and what it is that we do for America here. And so my goal this next year is to accomplish both of those, to be a voice to the American people and then be a voice for the American people here in New York.

QUESTION:  Well, it’s an important journey, and one that we want to help you with in every aspect. I will just say that time is short with you today because you do have high priorities that you need to get back to. But I want to thank you for spending a few minutes with us today for our InSTEP program. You have been an incredible diplomat for our country, and now you’re serving us in a role at a critical time in the global community and a critical time where everyone needs U.S. leadership.

And the fact is that the important issues you touched upon will not be played out in a series of weeks or months, but the goal is to move the world better, to a safer place. And there are challenges ahead, but I am confident, with you in New York, that you’re serving our country, our people, with great distinction and great honor. And I hope you come back more often and that we get a chance to bring you out into our community. But we’re grateful for you to be here today, share some of your reflections, and we’ll continue to work with you and your team at the UN.  And thank you very much on behalf of the whole audience.

Stay tuned. Next week we’ll have Admiral Stavridis for the next InSTEP session. I hope you enjoyed this. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield is one of our finest diplomats, and it’s a pleasure to have her on our show today.  Thank you all for being with us.