Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield
U.S. Representative to the United Nations
New York, New York
February 23, 2023
QUESTION: Now we’ve got the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield. Thanks so much for joining.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Thank you, Brian. I’m delighted to be here with you.
QUESTION: So, this past week, President Biden traveled to Ukraine. How unprecedented in modern times was this move for a president to basically enter a war zone, and what message is the White House trying to send here?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Well, it was unprecedented, but it was also extraordinary to have the President of the United States go to Ukraine. And the message was clear. The message to the Ukrainian people is that the United States stands strongly with you, we support you, and we support you so much that the President of the United States is here standing next to your president in Ukraine.
I was there in November. It was extraordinary for me when I went in November, but watching the President move off that train and into Kyiv I think sent a very strong message to the Ukrainian people, it sent a strong message to the world, and it sent a strong message to Russia, that we stand strongly with Ukraine.
QUESTION: With that exact point being said, all of this is happening at the same time that some Republicans have adopted an overt pro-Putin position – both politicians and conservative media members. What’s your response to those people in light of what’s happening in Ukraine?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: What I’ve seen is strong bipartisan support for what is happening in Ukraine. There are some voices out there, but I also saw strong voices from the Republican side in support of Ukraine. There is a Ukrainian American representative from Indiana who has talked about the strong support. I’ve heard various senators and I’ve met with them myself, and I’m hearing still strong bipartisan support for Ukraine.
I think what the world will continue to hear is that our support is strong, we’re committed, and the support is unified for the people of Ukraine. Ukrainians are on the front lines of a war for our values, a war for democracy, a war that supports the UN Charter. They’re standing up to a world bully on our behalf. We’re not sending American troops on the ground. We’re giving them moral support and we’re giving them equipment and funding so that they can be on the forefront of this fight.
QUESTION: The Ukraine-Russia war has been going on for about a year now. Can you give a snapshot of where that war stands as of right now?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: It’ll be exactly a year on Friday, the 24th of February, and the war continues because Putin continues to fight. And I don’t think President Putin thought that he would be still fighting this war a year from now. He thought he was going to go in, in two weeks bring the Ukrainians to their knees, break up the unity of Europe, break up the unity of NATO, and then it would be over and Ukraine would be no more. He failed at that because the Ukrainians have shown their own resolve to defend their democracy, to defend their country.
And so where it stands right now is Russia has a choice: They can end this war right now by walking out of Ukraine and going back to the negotiating table; but until that happens, we will remain unified behind Ukraine.
QUESTION: Realistically speaking, what do you think the likelihood of something like that of happening is? I mean, a lot of what we’re seeing right now from Putin is just based solely on his own ego and not looking like he made a disastrous mistake, which is what he did. But because of that it does seem, as least from a layman’s perspective, like there is very little likelihood of him just basically surrendering.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Yeah, I can’t speak for him, but I can say what we’re seeing. And we are seeing that he is – he’s still continuing his effort to attack the Ukrainian people, to attack their infrastructure, to use winter as a weapon of war. So, his intentions are clear, but we’ve also made clear our intentions to stand with Ukraine, to remain unified here in New York, and to continue to isolate Russia not just here in New York but around the world.
QUESTION: There’s been some evidence of waning interest in the war spurred on by general apathy, and we are living in the TikTok era right now. We have a very short attention span; not known for a long attention span right now. What’s the worry when it comes to waning interest in the war?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: You know, you say that but it’s not waning here in New York. We are on this every single day, and we’ve got 193 countries here. So, we’re engaged on Ukraine all the time. There is no waning interest here, but I don’t think there’s a waning interest anywhere in the world. Europe remains unified, and we hear it every single day. NATO is stronger. Putin said he was concerned about NATO, and what he’s ended up getting is a stronger NATO than he had previously.
So, while everyone wants to see peace, the Ukrainian – we want the suffering of the Ukrainian people to end as soon as possible. But the only person that has that in their hands is Putin. And until he makes that choice, we’re going to continue to give Ukraine what it needs to defend itself, and we’re going to continue to condemn Russia and to isolate Russia every opportunity we have.
QUESTION: You’ve spoken about these efforts to isolate Russia. Can you just – can you expand on that little bit, and what efforts have been taken to kind of isolate them within the international community as a result of this war?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: First and foremost, in March of last year, a month after the war started, we had a vote in the General Assembly that roundly condemned Russia. We got 141 countries to support us on that. We worked in April to get Russia kicked off of the – or suspended from the Human Rights Council. And then later in the year we had another resolution condemning Russia’s annexations or attempted annexations of Ukrainian territory, and we got 143 countries to support that effort as well. And those efforts continue here.
QUESTION: Now, on that point, the UN General Assembly voted in favor of a resolution affirming Ukraine’s territorial integrity this past week. Is that effectively the world saying that there will be no negotiation as far as the rewriting of Ukraine’s borders are concerned?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Look, the issue of negotiations – this is going to be a decision for the Ukrainians to make, for President Zelenskyy and the people of Ukraine to make, whether they are ready to sit down at the negotiating table with the Russians. But the Russians have heard the voice of the world that we are condemning their actions, and we want to put Ukraine in a place where – in a stronger place so that when they go to the negotiating table, they go to the negotiating table from a position of strength. And we will continue, as the President has said over and over, to stand with Ukraine as long as they need. When they themselves decide that they are ready to go the negotiating table, we will support them.
QUESTION: On a related note, are there any worries at the UN about an impending attempt by China to do to Taiwan what Russia is doing to Ukraine? And have you spoken to your Chinese counterpart about that?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: This is why we’re standing so solid in support of the UN Charter, so that countries understand that they can’t just toss the Charter aside in their ambitions to overtake other territory without feeling the wrath of the international community.
So, we have engaged with the Chinese on Taiwan. Our policy is clear. It has not changed. We have a “One China” policy, and we don’t support any effort by either side to change the status quo of Taiwan. And we’ve been clear that we are prepared at any point to have discussions with the Chinese, but they need to understand that we will not be deterred from our ability to move around the South China Seas.
QUESTION: Global food insecurity has been a major byproduct of this war. How do you convince the Russians to compartmentalize food security as a separate issue from the war effort? And I ask that because they’re doing this at a time where they’re launching attacks against innocent civilians in Ukraine. And so how do you – how do you kind of convince them to care about the issue of one people – to care about the issue of people eating at the same time that they don’t seem to care about the issue of people surviving?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Yeah, that’s the dilemma that we all face here, but we have been able to impress upon the world, first of all, that one of the major impacts of this war is on food insecurity. The Secretary-General has started an initiative that includes the Russians that allows food that was trapped in the Black Sea ports to get out to the rest of the world.
And just to be honest about this, it’s in Russia’s interest as well because they export food, and they want to be able to sell their food. But it also allows Ukrainian wheat, Ukrainian food oil, to also be exported to the rest of the world. So, it is a – it’s a contradiction here. It’s a dilemma, but it’s one that we have been able to have some success through the Black Sea Grain Initiative to get both Russian grain as well as Ukrainian grain to the market.
QUESTION: Can you also speak on the issue of Russia selling energy to the world and how that effort is going? Because a lot of the profits that they were able to make just by virtue of selling oil, for example, has funded that war effort. Can you give kind of a snapshot of where we are right now just on that whole issue?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Look, Russian oil is sanctioned, but what they are doing is selling it below market value, and there are some countries who have purchased that oil. But I want to be clear it is sanctioned, the companies that are engaged on export of oil – it’s sanctioned. And we’re looking at ways to help countries both in Africa as well as in Europe to find alternative sources for oil so that they’re not dependent on Russia.
QUESTION: Okay, so I want to go on a – in a little different direction here. At the UN, you’re with people from every country; people are obviously so different around the world. Do cultures ever clash there? Like, does anything ever go down just by virtue of how different all the people, all of the cultures are?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: People – countries really send their best and brightest to New York. I am always amazed at the level of expertise among all the missions, even smaller countries, where they’ve sent people here over and over again, so they’re very experienced, they know how the UN system works. And there can be cultural discussions and differences, to be sure, but they never get to the point – at least in the two years that I’ve been here, they’ve never gotten to a point where they have kept us from moving forward on finding solutions.
I will give you Afghanistan as an example. The Taliban vicious and really horrible decision to stop women from going to school, and their argument is it’s cultural. But if you talk to any Muslim country here, none of them agree that this is cultural or that it even reflects what is in Islam. The Indonesian government has taken a strong position, have taken the lead on engaging with the Taliban on this. UAE has – they have engaged regularly with the Taliban on this issue.
So, while there are cultural differences for sure, I think in the end we all believe in the charter and we try to work in a way that supports human rights for people across the world regardless of our cultural differences.
QUESTION: Let’s finish off with this. You’ve coined the term “gumbo diplomacy.” Can you explain what that is?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Well, it’s a cultural thing as well. For me, it’s about using my culture – I’m from Louisiana, and most people from Louisiana are very – we are very proud of our cuisine. And I have used that cuisine to help me promote relationships, to develop relationships across the board. And what it’s about is sitting at the table, having a good meal, but having that meal open up opportunities for us to have broader discussions. And so, I coined it “gumbo diplomacy” because it really is a tool of diplomacy to sit around the table. And other countries do the same things with different cuisines that they have. And I’ve learned this over 35 years of being in the Foreign Service, that there’s no better place to come to a meeting of the minds than over a hot bowl of gumbo or good food from anywhere in the world.
QUESTION: Yeah, so the key is not to have lunch before you go the UN General Assembly meetings.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Exactly.
QUESTION: (Laughter.) Thank you so much for taking the time. I appreciate it.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Thank you so much, Brian. It was great speaking with you.