Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield’s Interview with Ben Rhodes on “Pod Save the World”

Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield
U.S. Representative to the United Nations
New York, New York
May 25, 2022


QUESTION: I’m very pleased to be joined by the United States Ambassador to the United Nations, a member of the Biden cabinet national security team, long-time outstanding diplomat for our country, Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield. Thanks so much for joining us.

AMBASSADOR LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Thank you, Ben. I’m really delighted to be here. It’s great to see you.

QUESTION: So, you know, there’s so much going on up there, and obviously you – and the U.S. has had a little extra work, too, as chair of the UN Security Council. Obviously Ukraine is where people are focused on. I want to get to a couple of elements there. But I just wanted – you know, people follow the developments on the ground in Ukraine, they follow military developments, but I’m just curious if you could lay out for our listeners, what is the center of gravity on Ukraine at the UN? What are you focused on up there? What aspects of the war are crossing your desk or crossing the attention of the Security Council?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Well, certainly what we’ve worked on last week was food insecurity. That is a huge, huge issue. The food insecurity issue was an issue before Ukraine, but it has been made ten times worse by the war. I’ve learned just over the course – it’s only been three months, believe it or not – but that Ukraine is really the breadbasket of the world. World Food Program purchased 50 percent of the wheat that they use for humanitarian programs in Ukraine. And Ukraine provides wheat to a number of countries in the Middle East as well as Africa that depend on – somewhere around 35 to 40 percent of their wheat requirements come from Ukraine. Some come from Russia as well. And both Russia and Belarus are the main source of fertilizer. So that has become a huge issue in the midst of this horrific war, this horrific, unconscionable attack on the Ukrainian people that we’re watching on a daily basis.

And we have engaged on this issue in the Security Council, and you may be aware we actually took the vote to the General Assembly and got 141 Member States to condemn the Russians, 140 states supported Ukraine for humanitarian assistance, and then we were able to successfully suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council. These are all extraordinary achievements. They have isolated the Russians here in the Security Council, and we’re working with our partners and colleagues in the Council, as well as in the General Assembly, to continue to put the pressure on the Russians to stop their unconscionable attack on the Ukrainian people.

QUESTION: On the food insecurity issue, a couple of questions: The first is, are there particular countries, regions that are facing, kind of, really acute challenges, risks of famine? Or places in the Horn of Africa or Ethiopia where there’s already conflicts where this could make it worse? Or what keeps you up at night in terms of the places that are most vulnerable to these disruptions?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Well, we’re certainly – just to look at the Middle East, Lebanon is in critical condition as a result of this war because they depended on the majority of their wheat from Ukraine, and the situation there has gotten decidedly worse since this war started. Somalia is another country in the Horn of Africa where we are on the verge of famine because of the lack of wheat. Ethiopia, in the midst of a conflict, depended upon Ukrainian wheat, as well. So there are a number of countries and regions that have been impacted.

We hosted a ministerial in New York, chaired by Secretary Blinken, and brought together about 30 countries who signed onto an action plan to address food insecurity. And again, we know food insecurity has been impacted by the pandemic. It’s been impacted by climate change, but the impact that this war has had is extraordinary. For example, there are 22 million tons of wheat sitting in silos in Ukraine that can’t move. Eighty-four ships sitting in the Black Sea – that the Russians have blockaded in the Black Sea that can’t move. They’re trapped in the ports – in Odesa port. So this is having a serious, serious impact on food insecurity.

QUESTION: And in terms of solution, I mean, you’ve got the Russians, literally, as you said, blocking wheat and other material from getting out. Then you’ve got, I think, a challenge from some countries that tend to hoard their food supplies, particularly when there’s global shortages. And then there’s just a question of – is there any ramp-up in capacity they can come from other places? I mean, what is the formula that you all are pursuing globally to try to address these shortages? And what tools do we have to bring to bear for that?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Well, first and foremost, we’re encouraging countries not to restrict exports, not to shut down their exports. There a number of countries that have taken those decisions, and we’re engaging with them on a regular basis to discourage them from taking these decisions. Secondly, we are looking at other sources of product that might come from other regions and encouraging countries to look at those other sources. And then, as more of a response to the crisis, we have ramped up our humanitarian assistance in response to the situation in Ukraine. As you may have heard, the President just signed a bill providing $44 billion* in assistance, and a significant portion of that will be going toward humanitarian assistance, while some of it, of course, will be supporting the Ukrainians’ effort to defend themselves against the Russians.

QUESTION: So, I wanted to ask you kind of a broader question, which is that, you know, the eight years I was in government, the Russians, in particular, became more, I think, aggressive in utilizing their veto and their role in the UN system to obstruct progress, including on Syria, which I was going to get to in a second here. But you know, Ukraine, I think, has really spotlighted this – and there’s nothing that you or anybody could do about the fact that, you know, literally the day the invasion starts, I think we all remember, the Russians are, like, sitting in the chair of the Security Council. It kind of embodies –

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: As the president of the Security Council!

QUESTION: – yeah, exactly. Right? And it – nothing could more starkly demonstrate the way in which the international system that was built to prevent these kinds of conflicts, to prevent the kind of famine that is coming out of these conflicts – the Russians are just sitting there, throwing wrenches in the gears, stopping it from doing what the United Nations is supposed to do. Is there, like, a conversation about – is there reform that can deal with that? Is there a process by which the UN can free itself, to some extent, from this? Or does that just require such a radical redesign of something that is 75 years old that it’s difficult to think of on a day-to-day basis?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Not so radical. I – two things have happened since this situation occurred. One: we have, in a sense, marginalized the Russians. We’ve blunted their veto power by going to the General Assembly, and we’ve seen the General Assembly actually rise to the challenge. And none of us, I will honestly admit, expected that we would get 141 Member States supporting a condemnation of the Russians. When we went into the room, our goal was to get 100, and 141 was extraordinary. And then we were able to maintain that by getting 140 countries to express support for the Ukrainian people.

The third thing that has happened that is unusual in the area of Security Council reform, the government of Liechtenstein proposed a resolution that called for members of the P5, when using their veto, to have to come to the General Assembly and explain to other Member States why they found it necessary to use their veto. And we co-sponsored that – along with other countries – we co-sponsored that resolution. And so it puts pressure on the Russians to have to come and explain themselves before the General Assembly. So I think that kind of action may not have been possible prior to this Russian attack on the core values of the UN system. And there are other discussions that are taking place related to UN reform, and we think those discussions have gotten a bit more exposure and support because of the current situation that we were in in the Security Council.

But what has happened is, again – I use this over and over – Russia has been isolated. They went into this war thinking that they would defeat the Ukrainians in a matter of two weeks. They thought they would divide and break up NATO and that they would divide the Europeans broadly. And what they’ve done is actually bolstered NATO’s resolve. They have strengthened our alliances with our European colleagues, and they have, kind of, given the Ukrainians a lot of courage. And the Ukrainians have been able to defend themselves against this onslaught in ways that the Russians didn’t expect, and I don’t – I’m not even sure when the Ukrainians went into this that they realized the strength and resolve and courage that they were going to bring to this fight.

QUESTION: Yeah, you know, just – that’s an interesting adjustment in the international system that bears watching is just trying to find ways to move the center of gravity to the General Assembly, other parts of the international system. You know, ad hoc coalitions, obviously – they include NATO – really featuring in the Ukraine context.

I wanted to ask you about Syria, because I know you’ve been focused on this. I know there was a lot of work you did diplomatically to keep a degree of humanitarian access open into Syria. I know that the U.S. has been pledging additional humanitarian assistance. People, I think, have, you know, lost sight of this conflict and the suffering of the Syrian people given all of the other world events that consume our attention. What is the current state of the U.S. role in Syria? And what have you been focused on through the UN?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: You know, we have not forgotten about Syria. The dire humanitarian situation facing millions of Syrians remain a significant priority for us. And, as you know, last year I went to Turkey to the Syrian border to, one – just get a sense of the situation on the ground. So I met with NGOs, I met with the UN, I met with the White Helmets, I met with refugees and really was able to come back to New York grounded in the situation. We were able to succeed in negotiating with the Russians to get them to agree to a 12-month extension of the one last border, Bab al-Hawa. And that border extension is going to expire on the 10th of July, so I am planning to go again before the extension expires to update myself on the situation on the ground.

One thing the Russians asked for last year – that we gave them – was an agreement that we would do more cross-line distributions of humanitarian assistance. And that effort has worked somewhat. We’ve had four efforts and we were able to access about 40,000 people, but that only is a mere complement to the millions of people we’re feeding cross-line** and so we have to keep cross-line** open. And what I’ve said to the Russians – and I will say to the Syrians – is that this is in their interest, because they don’t want to see millions of people go into starvation because they’re going to feel the impact of this as much as others have. I also – just a few weeks ago – was in Brussels, and we announced an additional $800 million in humanitarian assistance to NGOs and the UN working on Syrian humanitarian programs.

So we have not forgotten Syrians, even in the face of dealing with Ukraine on a daily basis. Syria keeps me awake at night, along with a lot of other world issues I also certainly think about every day – what the DPRK is going to do and how we respond to that. We’re engaging on a regular basis with all of the Security Council members – to include Russia and China – on how we respond to that situation.

QUESTION: And what is it like when you have an issue like North Korea, like you mentioned, where, you know, you’re working, as you say, kind of with Russia in a group? I mean, how has that changed since the war in Ukraine started? And maybe – is it frostier? Is it more difficult on other issues? Like, has the war in Ukraine spilled over into other issues? Maybe it should, frankly, given the fact that the Russians have placed themselves so far outside of any international norms.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I mean, we’re not engaging business-as-usual with the Russians, but we know we have to engage with them because we’re sitting at the table with them in the Security Council. They’re a member of the Security Council, that’s a fact. It’s a fact that we can’t change. So we have to work with them on some of these difficult issues. And I’m hopeful on the issue of Syria that we will get them to agree that it is important that we continue to keep this one border crossing open and that we consider reopening a couple of the other crossings that were closed previously, because this is important. And so I’m willing to engage with them on this issue despite – or in spite of – our disgust with what they are doing in Ukraine.

QUESTION: And just as we wrap up here, a couple of broader questions of just – is there an issue that you feel, like, particularly passionate about pursuing through your role at the UN that may not be getting the headline attention globally? I mean, I do remember so many things that had a center of gravity at the UN where you could really make a difference on either addressing a crisis or just trying to make affirmative progress, you know, whether it’s on LGBT rights or whether it’s on some other aspect of, you know, just trying to take a country that needed that extra assistance from the international community. I mean, what are the one or two things that you would like people know that you’re working on that are escaping attention?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Well, you know broadly, Ben, I am really grounded in the humanitarian space. And so I do focus a tremendous amount of attention on humanitarian issues, on engaging with NGOs and making sure that NGOs get the recognition that they deserve here in the United Nations. So whenever we have events where we are in the chair, we make sure that we have NGOs that are recognized to come and brief the Security Council. We want to make sure that women are also invited in a consistent way. So we hosted, for example, one of our signature events early this week on digital technology. And we had an amazing young woman in the tech field from Kenya come and brief the Security Council.

So when I look at what is important to me, in addition to all of the things that are important to all of us, I want to make sure that we don’t let any humanitarian situation be left unnoticed, and that we deal with the situation in Ethiopia, that we continue to focus attention on the situation in Burma, that we focus attention on what is happening with the Uyghurs in China, that Yemen not be forgotten. So it’s a huge, huge agenda of humanitarian issues. And for me, every single one is important.

So I find myself running on a treadmill, because I try to do it all, because I don’t think anything should be forgotten. And Secretary Blinken coined this acronym: ROW-ing – the Rest of the World. We cannot forget the rest of the world. And I take that very, very seriously that Ukraine is important, but the rest of the world is important, as well. And what is happening on the humanitarian front, and in Africa, and Burma, and Yemen, all of these are issues that we have to keep in the forefront.

QUESTION: Yeah, oftentimes, the rest of the world ends up falling into the leadership of the UN ambassador when White House gets consumed with things, so glad to hear that perspective. Are you liking the job? Are you making gumbo for your counterparts? Are you enjoying living in New York City? How is it?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I love the job. I’m still getting used to living in New York City. It’s been an adjustment coming to New York. I came in the middle of COVID, so the first six months everything was done remotely. So I didn’t meet my team, I didn’t meet my staff, I chaired my first presidency of the Security Council remotely. So that has required some adjustment.

But I am making gumbo and looking forward to sharing it with you and others because I think it’s an important way of engaging with people when you can sit, again, over a good meal and talk about tough issues. So people relax, and they are particularly impressed when they know that I’ve cooked the meal myself and didn’t have it catered or didn’t use my really wonderful chef that comes with the apartment. It impresses them that I actually make a meal and serve to them.

QUESTION: Yeah, well, that’s good. It’s great to hear that, and I have to tell you, I’ve taken a stab at gumbo a bunch of times, and getting that first, you know, that first bit right, it’s [laughter]

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Well, there’s a recipe –

QUESTION: – the roux –

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: – there’s a recipe in The Washington Post. It’s my recipe. I actually – when I gave The Washington Post the recipe, I made it up as I was – I made it up to send to them, and then I tried it after I sent it.

QUESTION: Oh, that’s a risk.


QUESTION: Good, good.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: It was good, and many people have written to me to say they tried the recipe, including Senator Kaine from Virginia who said he tried it. He just didn’t know what to do with all the gumbo, because you can’t make gumbo for four, you’ve got to make gumbo for 12. Try my recipe in The Washington Post. It’ll work for you.

QUESTION: Alright, I’m on it. Thanks so much for joining and really appreciate it and best of luck with everything going forward.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Thank you so much, Ben. I really appreciate the opportunity to speak with you.


* $40 billion
** cross-border