Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield’s Interview with Aaron David Miller on the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Podcast “Carnegie

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


QUESTION: Good morning, good afternoon, good evening wherever you are in this world. I truly hope you’re safe and, above all, very healthy. I’m Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and welcome to “Carnegie Connects” – a set of virtual discussions, at least for now, on issues of critical importance to America and to the world.

Today I’m delighted, honored, and very pleased to welcome Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield to the program for a discussion of the President’s foreign policy, last year, and what’s planned for 2022. I should say, Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield, welcome back. You did appear on this show in an earlier capacity when you were Assistant Secretary for Africa at the Department of State. So I know we don’t have a lot of time this morning. You’re busy, and I suspect, sadly, you may even get busier in the days and weeks ahead. So let’s jump right in.

First question: It’s a year to the day, actually, since President Biden assumed the presidency. If you had to identify – and I know it’s difficult – the greatest success or successes in the first year, and having been a part of a half a dozen administrations of both parties – no one’s perfect; I know that from my own personal experience – and the Administration’s greatest failing or failure, how would you go about it?

AMBASSADOR LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I would start by putting that in context, and that is what we encountered when the President was inaugurated on January 20th. The President came in the midst of a pandemic that, unfortunately, we were not as a country dealing with in a way that brought confidence to people. We were dealing with the existential effects of climate change. We were in a place where U.S. leadership was being questioned and our Allies were questioning or lacked confidence in our alliance and in our support.

The President on day one started to address these issues. We immediately rejoined the Paris Agreement. We re-upped our commitments, and we encouraged others to up their commitments in a climate conference that we hosted later in the year.

On health and the pandemic, we rejoined WHO immediately, and immediately took over leadership of the response to COVID. And at this point, we have – we are the largest donor to COVAX and we have committed to over a billion doses of COVID vaccines to over 100 countries around the world. And I have traveled and seen those deliveries and seen the appreciation that people have expressed.

We rejoined the Human Rights Council. Our leadership was sorely missed. I heard it from everyone when I got here about a month later that our leadership on issues of human rights and values on the multilateral stage was missed. And our decision to rejoin the Human Rights Council was seen as a major, major move by the Biden administration. And we eventually got voted back on the Human Rights Council, and our presence has been warmly, warmly welcomed.

You ask about failures. I’ve learned over 35 years in the Foreign Service, having done EERs and being asked by my bosses to tell them my weaknesses, that it’s not for me to tell you our failings but for you to ask me about any you think we may have had. But again, I think we have made tremendous strides in spite of all the challenges that we were confronted with when President Biden took over on January 20th of last year.

QUESTION: I mean, it’s a cruel and unforgiving world. About that there’s no doubt. It’s not the world of the ‘90s when the President was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; it’s not even the world of 2008 when, as Vice President, he was very active in foreign policy. If he were here with us now, I think he would probably say, “You know, there’s probably no foreign policy issue out there that is – poses a greater danger to this Republic, (and he’d probably add “my presidency”), than the three or four crises, challenges that we face at home.” So I take your point, and I think there’s no doubt the Administration has restored to a large degree American credibility, and it was welcomed.

Afghanistan comes to mind. I don’t think we need to relitigate that. I think the decision to withdraw was clearly the right one; the process of withdrawal is another matter. Whether or not that will impinge on our credibility going forward with our allies and offer opportunities for our adversaries, I’m not to say.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Look, I think we ended a forever war. We took off – the burden off of the American people of seeing our soldiers come back in body bags. And while the withdrawal was challenging, we succeeded in assisting more than 100,000 at-risk Afghans leave danger in that country, and many are here in the United States. I’ve visited them in Fort Dix, and I participated on Martin Luther King Day in a program supporting Afghans who have resettled here in the United States being supported by leaders. So we have – while it was extraordinarily complicated, I think as we look back on this – and I think history will be the judge – I think the President’s actions during that period will be judged as successful.

QUESTION: Let’s talk about another crisis, which is both a headline and hopefully not a trendline, but I fear the worst here: Ukraine. It’s clearly the crisis of the day and perhaps the crisis of the next several weeks or months. Secretary Blinken is going to sit down with Foreign Minister Lavrov, I guess, tomorrow in Geneva. There was talk of his bringing some proposal to provide a diplomatic off ramp to the crisis. Can you shed any light on the Secretary’s trip? And how you see the Ukraine situation today?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: First and foremost, the President directed all of us to seek a diplomatic solution to this problem, and Secretary Blinken has been in the forefront of that. His trip to Ukraine and his presence today in Europe and his meetings with Foreign Minister Lavrov are all part of that effort, and our assessment is that we will continue to push for a diplomatic solution until we see that that’s not going to work. But for us, the Russians have two choices: They can accept a diplomatic solution and de-escalation and a way forward to address their security concerns and to address the security concerns of our Allies in Europe; or they can opt for escalation and confrontation and an aggressive response from the United States that will target their economy and have an impact on their country.

So the choice is theirs. I’m still optimistic, and I know that Secretary Blinken is still optimistic or he wouldn’t be in Europe today. We’re still optimistic that we can find that off ramp that will give the Russians the ability to ratchet back their current aggressions. But it’s up to them.

QUESTION: Yeah. If Russia does invade or undertake significant military action against Ukraine, you – I think you told The Washington Post this week in an interview that that would be tantamount to an assault or an attack on the UN Charter. So you’re likely to see a good deal of action in New York. Whether or not it becomes an October 1962 Adlai Stevenson moment or a moment during the second Bush administration with former Secretary of State Powell, how do you see the logic and strategy of an approach in New York should the Russians choose your second option?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: The importance of the Security Council and of the entire platform in New York is that it will provide a platform for us to expose the Russians, to expose their disinformation campaign, to expose their aggression, and to isolate them from the rest of the world. This is – if they make a move on Ukraine, another move on Ukraine, this is an assault on the UN Charter. They’re on the Security Council to promote peace and security, not to promote discord and conflict. So they will be held to account; even if they use their veto power, they will be exposed.

QUESTION: I mean, the Chinese are likely to support the Russians in the Council. That would basically leave the three of the five permanent representatives – presumably the French and the Brits and the U.S. – in some sort of effort to condemn them. But beyond – and I don’t diminish for a minute the importance of creating a box for Mr. Putin diplomatically and politically. I mean, it must be hard, though, because beyond virtue signaling and the theater of the UN Security Council, it does in some respects raise questions about the role of the UN when it comes to preemption, prevention of conflict. And I want to ask you about that.

Dag Hammarskjöld, the second UN Secretary-General, was quoted as saying that “the UN was created not to lead mankind to heaven, but to save humanity from hell.” And the UN has done extraordinary work; it’s saved millions of lives through its relief and development programs, fighting poverty, disease. It’s helped countries newly freed from colonialism govern themselves and play key roles in peacekeeping. But it’s also been a place that has created a haven for dictators and human rights abusers. It’s got a bureaucracy that I’m not sure I could fully comprehend. And it’s been absent when it comes to responsibility to protect interventions to prevent genocide.

As you see it – you’ve been in the job for a year now – where’s the balance sheet in terms of the importance and role of the UN?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: You know, the UN is not a perfect institution. What you have described, there is – there are no questions that there are flaws within this organization. But I do believe that, on balance, the UN has been a forum and has provided an opportunity for those who support peace and security, for those who support human rights to confront those who do not. And I think the human rights violators and the authoritarians who want to be at the UN, the reason they want to be at the UN is because they know that that is a place where they can be exposed but they can also try to use their disinformation campaign. But we can expose it. We can’t leave it to them to control the organization. Those of us who are on the other side have to be there pushing back every single day, and when we push back, the whole world is watching and the whole world is listening at what we say.

So when I speak in the Security Council – and I was surprised to hear – I met with a group of human rights organizations from Myanmar yesterday, and what they said to me is: We appreciate hearing that you have not forgotten us; it gives us strength to hear that you are encouraging us and that you support us; and we know that the other side is pushing back, but if you’re not there then we have no one to turn to.

So I do believe that, on balance, we are able to counter the malign forces, and we make a difference.

QUESTION: Before we get to a sort of lightning round on various hot spots around the world – I followed your brief – I wanted to ask you a question, a bureaucratic question. It’s been at the discretion of various presidents whether or not the UN Representative, you, would be a member of the Cabinet. Reagan, Clinton, Obama – yes, UN Reps were. Bush 41, 43, and Mr. Biden’s predecessor at least with one UN Rep, Nikki Haley, she was a member of the Cabinet; Heather Nauert* was not. You are a member of the Cabinet as well as being the Perm Rep to the UN. How does all that work?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I – until I got in the job, I didn’t understand how important it is for the USUN Rep to be a member of the Cabinet. But as a member of the President’s Cabinet, all of my colleagues in the UN know that I have a direct line to the President. They know that I am engaging with the President, that I am getting my guidance and my instruction from the President of the United States. And I think it gives me an upper hand. It gives me a stronger voice, as the U.S. Representative, to be a member of the President’s Cabinet.

QUESTION: I mean, I think that’s critical, frankly, not just abroad, but at home as well.


QUESTION: I remember Secretary of State James Baker, who had an exceptional relationship with the first President Bush. I mean, when we showed up places, people knew that Jim Baker was speaking for the President. There was no doubt about it. So that validation, I think, is critically important.

So let’s – I know your time is short – so let’s try a lightning round. I have three or four hot spots, and rather than cover the waterfront, I will pose a question in each of them.

First, Afghanistan: How do we reconcile or balance the critically important question of aiding the Afghan people, particularly now, when food insecurity and starvation and winter are combining to create a huge humanitarian crisis on one hand, without letting the Taliban off the hook on the other? I know some steps have been taken. But has enough been done to head off what the folks who are in development believe could be a huge crisis in the next several weeks and months?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Responding to the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan is one of our highest priorities at this time, and we know that they are on the verge of a crisis. And we have been working very, very closely with the UN humanitarian organizations as well as NGOs to ensure that they have the funding that they need to get the job done. And we are the largest funder of humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan.

We were able to successfully pass a resolution that provided a waiver for organizations to work inside of Afghanistan, and that was very much appreciated by the humanitarian organizations. And we are ensuring that the funding that we have available to us is not – no funding is going directly into the hands of the Taliban. We’re putting funding into the hands of – directly into the hands of Afghans, and the organizations that we work with are very careful about ensuring that that funding goes directly to the beneficiaries and not to the Taliban.

Certainly the fact that Afghan civilians are being cared for is an advantage for the Taliban because if there was a complete humanitarian crisis and people were starving, they certainly would be held accountable by their own people for that. But we’re not in any way providing any direct funding to them. We have told them we will judge them on their actions, not their words, and for the time being, their actions have not given us any confidence that we should be providing them any recognition or any direct support.

QUESTION: That’s particularly the case, tragically, with respect to the treatment and well-being and future of women and girls —


QUESTION: – in Afghanistan, which is a critically important issue.

Okay. So let’s go on to another simple issue: Iran. My former colleague and friend Rob Malley is still in Vienna negotiating indirectly with the Iranians, the eighth round of negotiations. It appears that this is a critical period, that if negotiations don’t progress at a greater rate than Iran’s efforts to continue to enrich, that you’re going to end up with no agreement, no concessions, and then the options for drift and deterioration and conflict are great. What’s your take on this?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: We’re still willing to put an effort into the negotiation process, and Rob is – there’s no better person that Rob Malley to carry out those negotiations. The fact that we’re on the eighth round, you can look at it in two ways: one, it’s gone on a little too long, and the other is that the Iranians are still coming to the table so they want a deal. But to be clear, we have two goals: One, to go back to compliance, and we – and the President has been clear that we will go back to compliance if the Iranians go back into compliance; but the other is that we will not stand by to allow the Iranians to gain access to a nuclear weapon. And the President has been very clear on that point.

These negotiations can’t go on forever, and at some point the negotiations will either come to a successful conclusion or they will have to end, and we will have to look at other measures for addressing the situation with Iran.

QUESTION: Right. And those other measures – if diplomacy is not an option, you’re really only left with two others. One is some form of deterrence short of military action, and the second is military action.

Okay. Another simple issue: North Korea.


QUESTION: Yeah. It was a half-serious comment. So Kim Jong-un now presides over – we would never recognize it, but presides over a de facto nuclear weapon state. It’s not a question of a threshold state; he has deliverable nuclear weapons, some of which attached to missile systems that can reach the continental United States. I understand the logic of sanctions. But do you think it’s time to stop talking about North Korea and start talking to North Korea? I mean, the Trump administration made an effort. What do you think about the prospects of diplomacy with North Korea?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: We have been clear from day one that we are willing to go to the negotiating table with the DPRK without any preconditions. So yes, we are prepared to talk to them if they are prepared to talk and to listen. So that has always been on the table. In the meantime, they have continued to test their missile program and ramp up their aggression in the region. And so we will – in fact, this afternoon we will be discussing a response to their latest test in the Security Council. And we have to respond to them. We have to let them know that their actions are unacceptable. It is jeopardizing peace and security in the region. The countries in the region feel very insecure about the tests that they have done. And we are coordinating with countries in the region as well as with other members of the Security Council on how we will respond to them.

Most recently we did increase the number of individuals on our sanctions list, and we have taken them before the 1718 Committee, and that is something that we will be discussing more about this afternoon.

QUESTION: I mean, we don’t have time to talk about China, which probably is, other than the pandemic and climate, probably the most critically important issue to the Administration. But Chinese cooperation seems to be the sine qua non for doing anything with North Korea. And I pose a question – we don’t have time to – I don’t think you have time to answer it – is simply – and I understand the compelling logic. Every American president in the modern period has talked about democracy, supporting – promoting democracy around the world. But there’s another reality which collides with that one. And democracy is the best form of government when you consider all the others. But the other reality is you have countries with whom cooperation on critically important issues will be necessary. We can’t deal with climate without talking seriously with China. We can’t deal with proliferation without talking to the Russians and the Chinese. And we can’t deal with the pandemic without talking to all of the bad actors. And that’s certainly true on North Korea with respect to China. So somehow a way has to be found, even while we divide the world into authoritarians and democracies, to figure out how to deal, or if we can deal, with authoritarian powers.

We’re running out of time. I –


QUESTION: I mean, if you could offer a comment, that would be great. I do have a final question.


QUESTION: I’m trying to – I’m trying to do what I’m told and abide by the time limits. But if you have a comment on China; otherwise, we can go to my final question.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Just one short comment. We see China as both a competitor and an adversary. We know that there are areas where we can work with the Chinese on climate. We look for those opportunities. And in areas where we have differences we reinforce those differences, such as the Chinese human rights violations in Xinjiang. We don’t hesitate to raise those concerns when we have discussions with the Chinese, but when we find areas where we can cooperate, we do.

QUESTION: The last time you were on – final question – the last time you were on “Carnegie Connects” you were Assistant Secretary for Africa at the Department of State. So I want to ask you an Africa question. Again, another former colleague and friend, David Satterfield, is off to Sudan, I guess even this weekend or in the last couple days –


QUESTION: – to see what can be done in the wake of the military’s coup. But on both Sudan and Ethiopia, governing is about choosing. Presidents can’t do everything. America can’t do everything. With all due respect to one of my former bosses, Madeleine Albright, America cannot be the indispensable power. Bill Burns talks about – a friend of yours and mine – talks about America as a pivotal power, which I think is, frankly, a better description. We can’t do everything. What kind of leverage can we actually bring to bear in the situation in both Sudan and another situation where I know you’re quite involved, Ethiopia, to make that situation better?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: We can’t ignore these situations. And while we’re not always the one to find the solution, if we ignore a situation, if our voices are not raised in these situations, the populations and the governments see that as a signal that we don’t care. And so we have to add our value, our power, and our expertise to any of these crises to help find the solution. We don’t have to lead, but we have to be there at the table. And I know that David, as he goes to Sudan and Ethiopia, they both will see the importance of having the U.S. presence at the table or behind the scenes, supporting the efforts to find a solution.

And ordinary people want to see us there. I get thousands of emails and tweets from people begging for the U.S. to raise its voice. So we cannot stay quiet when we see things happening in other parts of the world where people are being abused, people are being killed.

QUESTION: Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, I want to thank you for coming on “Carnegie Connects.” I hope you’ll join the program again, and I wish you nothing but the best in the days and weeks ahead. I’m sure you’re honored to have taken this position, but I would remind you that no good deed goes unpunished.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Well, thank you for that.

QUESTION: So good luck. Good luck in the weeks ahead. And I can think of no one better positioned or better equipped to represent America in New York, because that’s essentially your brief, and you do it extremely well.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Well, thank you very much.


*Kelly Craft