Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield’s Interview with Anne McElvoy of “The Economist Asks” Podcast

Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield
U.S. Representative to the United Nations
New York, New York
May 19, 2022


QUESTION:  This is “The Economist Asks.” I’m Anne McElvoy, and this week we’re asking:  Is the United Nations fit for purpose? My guest is Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. Ambassador to the UN. She joined the Foreign Service in 1982, rising to become director general 30 years later. She served as the ambassador to the Liberia and, during Barack Obama’s second president term, she was the top official in Africa, where she led the response to the Ebola epidemic. In February 2021, Thomas-Greenfield was appointed to the United Nations and she was tasked by Joe Biden with restoring America’s standing in the organization after the retreat under the Trump administration. On her nomination, she declared, “Diplomacy is back.” Now, under the weight of war and decaying relations, her words are being put to the test.

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, welcome to the “The Economist Asks.”

AMBASSADOR LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD:  Thank you very much, and I’m delighted to be here with you.

QUESTION:  Now, you said in March that if the United Nations has any purpose, it’s to prevent war, it’s to condemn war, it’s to stop war, but clearly war in Ukraine has served to highlight the UN’s limitations in preventing conflict. So what can it do in concert with the U.S. to bring this to an end?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD:  We’ve started that process already, and part of that process is for us to condemn Russia and to isolate Russia. And we have successfully done that in the United Nations. We had 141 countries vote to condemn Russia, and we successfully suspended Russia’s membership in the Human Rights Council, and we are continuing to work with other colleagues in the Security Council but more broadly in the UN to ensure support for Ukraine and for the Ukrainian people. And I think it goes without saying that we have succeeded in that effort. And if Russia has succeeded in doing anything, what they’ve succeeded in is unifying Europeans, they’ve unified NATO, and they have earned the condemnation of the world.

QUESTION:  The one entity that is not unified is the Security Council. Five Permanent Members – Britain, France, the U.S., China, and Russia – can veto any resolution. It’s the muscle; it’s the real strong arm of the United Nations when it comes to the biggest, most decisive questions. The Council demanded Vladimir Putin withdraw troops. Russia vetoed. What’s the purpose of a veto, and in this scenario does it not lead you to think that Russia ought to lose its veto power?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD:  Russia has the veto power, and what we have to do is blunt that veto power, and I think we have succeeded in doing that. Even when they vetoed, 13 countries did not support them. So certainly they have a sense of isolation. And I think the Lichtenstein resolution that we co-sponsored that also succeeded, which requires now that Security Council Permanent Members who use their veto power now have to come into the General Assembly and explain their use of that power – I think that will also blunt the Russian veto.

Clearly, we’re not going to be on the same side as the Russians on this issue. There’s clearly that division. But that division, I think Russia has the weaker side of that division because everybody else agrees that what they are doing in Ukraine is unacceptable, that it is against the core values of the UN system. I know you will say and others will say, “But the war continues,” but we have successfully given the Ukrainians the wherewithal to fight back.

QUESTION:  If we look outside the great Western democracies and those who depend on them or ally with them, there isn’t really a majority for punishing Russia. So is a quagmire the more likely, if regrettable, outcome even if Russia is held accountable for the war through an entity like the UN? It is very hard to see enough push coming from the global community more broadly to bring Vladimir Putin to heel.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD:  The world is uncomfortable with what the Russians are doing, and many of them are making decisions because they’re being intimidated by the Russians. They are dependent on the Russians. But I think we have pretty strong support across the board that what Russia is doing in Ukraine is wrong.

QUESTION:  But what about China? Let’s move to perhaps the single most important power outside that anti-Putin consensus. Now, you could say given China’s havering on the issue of how far it backs Russia, it’s a bit of a score draw that one. How do you read it in terms of the diplomacy and the likely outcomes of Beijing’s position?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD:  Beijing has been very clearly sitting on the Russian side of the fence, but it’s also very clear that they are uncomfortable there. They have been a strong proponent in the UN to support the UN Charter. They are a strong proponent for the integrity of borders and the sovereignty of nations. So the fact that they have aligned themselves with the Russians on this issue, it’s not surprising but I think it’s clear that it’s uncomfortable for them. And so while there are a number of questions about how long we can stay unified, I think there are questions about how long China will continue to align itself with Russia’s aggression. It can’t be a comfortable place for them. It’s clearly not a comfortable place for them as we move forward on this. And I think if this continues for the long term, I don’t know that the Russians can be assured of continued support.

QUESTION:  What do you make, then, of continuing to work with the Russians and how do you continue to work with Russian counterparts given this standoff?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD:  We all sit on the Council together, and Ukraine is not the only issue that we have to deal with moving forward. So we know that we have to engage with all of the members of the Council, including Russia and China, on other priorities where we may have some commonality.

QUESTION:  How can you have commonality with Russia? Sorry to break in on that, but I do find it quite difficult to see how, for instance, one could have meaningful talks about climate change. Almost all roads lead back to this situation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, don’t they?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD:  It does, but we still have to work on those other issues. So one of my priorities right now is to focus on getting the Syria resolution extended that keeps the one last border crossing between Syria and Turkey open, and I plan to take a trip there in the coming weeks, and we have to engage with the Russians on that issue. We did it last year. My message to them is that it is in your interest to keep this border crossing open. It feeds and provides humanitarian assistance to millions of Syrians, and this is the last channel for that humanitarian assistance. And for us to keep it closed*, we’re going to have to have some engagement and hopefully some agreement on moving forward.

QUESTION:  I think that does play to a view, and it may be that this is the best that can be achieved in all fairness, that the UN is becoming a giant humanitarian relief organization, and that a lot of its other reach into conflicts – as we saw with the dreadful outcome of the Syria conflict – that it’s sort of really retreating from big-time geopolitics simply because this formula of the UN, the format of it and the way its checks and balances work, aren’t sharp or effective enough in the world as it is. Your thoughts.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD:  The UN is what we have, and we’re all members and we have to work every single day to ensure that this organization functions and that it provides the platform for ending conflict. It is the one place where we can all sit at the table together. It is the one place where we can have discussions on peace and security. And it is the responsibility of the UN to work to prevent the scourge of war. That’s what it was created for. And so we have not given up on the organization. We’ve not given up on the goals of the organization. And we will continue to put every effort that we have into working to ensure that this organization works and that we find ways to end wars, to provide a reason for people to see the Security Council and see the UN as a platform for them to bring their grievances, and for, eventually, to resolve those grievances.

QUESTION:  You said, Ambassador, that the UN is what we have, but a lot of critics accuse it of failing to represent some regions of the world. There isn’t a single Permanent Member of the Security Council for an African or Latin American country, for instance. Do you believe that the structure established after World War II is now outdated? It very clearly represents the great alliances and the great power battle of the Cold War. And how would you go about it without diluting its power even further?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD:  There are intense discussions in New York about Security Council reform, and those discussions are ongoing and we’re participating in some of those discussions. The fact of the veto resolution in the General Assembly I think was one example where we’ve succeeded in bringing about a level of reform that had not been there before. Right now we have three African elected members of the Security Council; elected members from Latin America – Brazil and Mexico; we have India on the Security Council, and UAE; as well as currently three European elected members of the Security Council. And discussions of reform moving forward will continue. And we’ve noted, and I’ll note it here and we’ve noted in the past, that we’re willing to actively participate in those discussions with the aim in the end of coming to some conclusion, some decisions about how we operate moving forward. But in the time being, we have what we have and we have to operate with what we have.

QUESTION:  Let’s turn to America’s handling of the crisis. One subject which I think has really raced up the agenda in the last week or so is that the U.S. has been sharing generous amounts of intelligence with Ukraine during the conflict. It’s clearly having a decisive effect on Ukraine’s battlefield success. We’ve written about that extensively at The Economist, and indeed, the sharing of information about the location of the Moskva, the warship that was sunk, and the movement of Russian troops and whereabouts of Russian generals.

Now, President Biden says he doesn’t want to provoke Mr. Putin into waging a wider war, but at what point does this sharing of vital battlefield intelligence mean that the U.S. is de facto an active participant and you’re on the road to an active war?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD:  Well, let me first say we declassified and shared intelligence with the world before this war started to try to convince all that – what the Russians were doing, and that was extraordinarily effective. We are working with the Ukrainians to help give them some advantages. We’re not telling them where they ought to target. We’re sharing broad intelligence with them, but their targeting decisions, they’re made by them. The President has been clear that we’re not going to engage in a sense that we somehow become a party to the war. But what we want to do is give the Ukrainians enough support that they can defend themselves and that they’re in a better position to negotiate when they go to the negotiating table.

QUESTION:  This is a bit of a Jesuitical distinction, isn’t it? If information is given, and the stakes are so high for Ukraine and basically the information is passed across as to where targets are, the implication is very clear that Ukraine is going to act on that. I’m sympathetic to the thinking behind it and the desire to assist Ukraine with all possible means, but I do wonder whether to then say, well, this is really – it’s only the Ukrainian side is then deciding what to do with it – that feels like a bit of a suspension of disbelief.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD:  We’re not giving them targeting information.  We’re giving them intelligence. As they decide how to use that intelligence in the best interests of their defending their own sovereignty, defending their democracy, and defending themselves against the attack from the Russians, that is again a decision that the Ukrainians make on a regular basis.

QUESTION:  And recently – because I can see it becoming more of an issue here in the United Kingdom, which is also a key ally which also has very good military intelligence and has been helpful, obviously, alongside and working with the U.S. and France and other allies – don’t you think that this is going to become a dividing line between the Western alliance, or at least the pro-Ukrainian alliance, to the extent that for some people it does come dangerously close to an act of war? And of course you also have a nuclear threat on the table courtesy of Mr. Putin.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD:  The Western alliance has been unified in its support for Ukraine. The Ukrainians have been very much appreciative of that unity. They’ve been a strong voice that has contributed to our ability to be unified in supporting them. But the President has also been clear we’re not going to cross that line, and while the Russian disinformation campaign is that we’ve crossed the line and that any support we give to Ukraine is an act of war – I saw that the Russians are saying even Ukraine becoming a member of the EU is a red line for them – we can’t let the Russians define our red lines.

QUESTION:  I want to turn to another consequence of the war, and that’s a spike in global food prices. The coming food crisis will be The Economist’s cover story this week. You’ve warned that this could cause “tidal waves of suffering” and “desperate hunger in places like Libya, Yemen, and Lebanon.” They’re strong words that you’ve used there, Ambassador. What are the best- and worst-case scenarios in terms of food inflation and the impact on hunger worldwide?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD:  We’re already seeing the results of this war of aggression, the impact that that is having on food security. We’re seeing it even here in the United States. But we’re worried about the impact in the Middle East, the impact in Africa, countries who have depended on Ukrainian wheat, who have depended on food exports from Russia, who have depended on fertilizer exports to support their own agricultural efforts. That is something that is tremendously worrisome to countries around the world.

QUESTION:  India announced an export ban on wheat. Do you worry that we will see a rise in protectionism in response to food security fears and what the consequences might look like?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD:  We have seen that countries have become more protectionist, and we’re discouraging that because as they close off their exports, it’s just going to make the situation worse. So these are discussions we’re having across the board with countries to ensure that they don’t make decisions that will contribute to the food insecurity crisis that we’re already facing.

QUESTION:  In practical terms, what do you think you can do to mitigate the damage and protect the most vulnerable? We’re talking at a time when trade is already freezing up. There are difficulties in the global trade system. So what are you putting on the table? What are you going to advocate for?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD:  First and foremost, we have to coordinate and collaborate with countries who are impacted by this and those who can help address this. So we’re looking at how we can put on the table solutions to this issue, one of them being unblocking the movement of food out of Ukraine, pressuring the Russians to stop their attacks on Ukrainian silos and stopping Ukrainian farmers from producing. We’re also looking at how we can help other countries start to address their own food security issues. I’ve said on a regular basis to my African colleagues, Africa could also be the breadbasket of the world. And I know this is not going to address the immediate needs, but in terms of the long-term needs, seeing how we can promote better agricultural production in countries across the continent of Africa is one of the other things we will be doing.

QUESTION:  I can’t let you go without asking, as a career diplomat you’ve held postings all around the world, and what have you learned from your career and any ups and downs along the way in the geopolitics all around us about the power of diplomacy and how to wield it effectively in a time like this?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD:  I have always believed in diplomacy, and so the power of diplomacy is a key component of what we’re able to successfully achieve in the United Nations. But the one thing that I’ve learned through almost 40 years working in this field is that people matter and that every country matters. So when you’re here in New York, it’s one vote, one nation. So what that means is you can’t ignore a single country. You have to engage with people. You have to talk to people. And most importantly, you have to hear them. So that engagement is not just you making your case; you also have to listen to them making their case.  And we have heard over the course of the past few weeks from a number of countries, as I’ve done listening tours with countries across the globe, that food insecurity is an issue and it’s an issue that they’ve been addressing even before Ukraine.

So this is an issue that is ongoing, and we need to hear countries’ concerns and also address their concerns. And until they understand that we’re listening to them, we’re not going to be effective.  And I think we’ve gotten that message.

QUESTION:  What do you see when you look into the eyes of someone like Sergey Lavrov, who is a diplomat albeit from another political system to yourself, but one which the great powers and those around them always have to end up in some kind of conversation? Do you look to him and to Vladimir Putin beyond him and see a way out?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD:  I’m not meeting with Lavrov here in New York.  I’m meeting with my counterpart, the Russian PR here.

QUESTION:  I should say that’s the permanent representative in this context.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD:  Yes, permanent representative, as I am. He’s a career diplomat as well. He understands the need to engage. I think any career diplomat is looking for a way out, but he’s going to be promoting his country’s national interest and I’m here to support my country’s national interest, to support our values, and to engage with every country to get their understanding of where the United States is coming from as we try to find a diplomatic way forward, and that is what we all are working on. And we have different approaches, but eventually we come together.

QUESTION:  Linda Thomas-Greenfield, thank you very much indeed for joining us.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD:  Anne, thank you so much for having me.