Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield’s Interview with Christiane Amanpour of CNNi

Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield
U.S. Representative to the United Nations
Washington, D.C.
September 22, 2021


QUESTION: Ambassador, welcome to the program.

AMBASSADOR LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Thank you very much. Delighted to be here.

QUESTION: So it’s your first UNGA, and it is the first one face to face, by and large, since COVID. And you mentioned that you were worried it might become a super-spreader event. Sure enough, true to type, the president of Brazil publicly announced that he refuses to be vaccinated. Then his health minister says he’s got COVID. And then he’s shaking hands with everybody. How worried are you? I mean, what kind of message does this send from one of Latin America’s biggest countries on this serious issue?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Look, it is incumbent on every leader from every country in the world to take this pandemic seriously. The United Nations has taken some mitigation efforts that we know will help improve the situation. They’re doing intensive cleaning after each speaker. We worked with the city to put a van right outside UN Headquarters to do testing and provide vaccines to those who wish to have vaccines. And we will continue to work with the UN and with the city to ensure that this does not become a super-spreader event.

QUESTION: Would you urge the President not to shake hands with Bolsonaro? And not just as a petty gesture, as a diplomatic gesture to show that enough, enough on this?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Well, you will notice if you see pictures of us in – at the United Nations that we’re doing elbow bumps. We’re doing fist bumps. We’re putting our hands on our hearts. There is very little shaking of hands, but if we do somehow shake hands, there is hand sanitizer everywhere, and people are being encouraged to use it.

QUESTION: So let me ask you about other substance – because COVID is clearly substance. President Biden saying we’re not going into a new Cold War with China. We want to lead. We want to work with alliances. President Xi saying in his taped address that, no, don’t talk to us about democracy; democracy is not just the preserve of one country.

The Iranian president – himself sanctioned, one of the biggest violators on the international stage of human rights – talking about American tyranny and mentioning the anti-democratic forces that stormed the Capitol on January 6th. Where do you see the United States being able to lead here? And are you concerned that there is a growing dysfunction between all these big power centers?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Their views were predictable. It is not something that we didn’t expect. But our view is that the values of democracy stand strong. And President Biden displayed that very, very aggressively at the United Nations, noting that we’re going to lead with diplomacy, with our values. And we are going to lead by our example. We don’t run away from our shortcomings. We acknowledge those, but we know that we are stronger as a nation if we stand with other democracies and stand with our allies. And that’s the position that we took at the United Nations. It’s the position that President Biden laid out very, very strongly in his speech. And I will tell you that his speech was well received by all of the countries that we’ve engaged with. He got resounding applause for the speech that he gave. And our return to the multilateral stage was most welcomed.

QUESTION: I wonder if it was warmly received by the French. I’m being a little wry here. You obviously are in the middle of a great big spat with one of your oldest and longest allies, the French. President Biden and President Macron are speaking on this day. And I wonder whether you think that this relationship could be put back on track after the submarine crisis, and what it will take.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I would describe it as a bump in the road. Our relationship with France is strong. They are our longest ally, they’re our strongest ally, and they are a friend and we work closely with them at the United Nations and around the globe. And this is a bump in the road that will be smoothed out, I hope, with the conversation that President Biden will be having with President Macron. But again, I think there’s no doubt that our friendship will remain a strong friendship moving forward, and we will find ways to continue to work together on common interests and work for the common good.

QUESTION: Yes, the United States describes it as a bump in the road. It would. It is the superpower and it wants to get past it. The French say they’ve been betrayed, that’s it a crisis of trust. The substance is that the United States also was considered to have betrayed or blindsided their alliance over Afghanistan. Are those justifiable concerns?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: We’re in a new day and a new world, and we have new challenges to deal with both internationally and in our bilateral relationships, and we’re taking these into account. But I can assure you, we are consulting on a regular basis with our allies. We’re working closely with our allies. And we’re looking for ways to work with those who we’re not always aligned with so that we can find a path forward to deal with all of the challenges that we’re facing.

We’re facing a global pandemic. Climate change is upon us every single day. We’re looking at attacks on democracy across the world, increasing coups, authoritarianism. There’s a lot of work to be done, and we know that in order to accomplish things we have to work together. And that’s what we’re trying to do at the United Nations. It’s what we’re trying to do with NATO. And it’s what we’re trying to do in our bilateral relationships.

And again, it’s not always a smooth path, and we try to smooth out those bumps when we come across them. And I think we’ve succeeded in doing that. President Biden has been clear that we are going to lead relentlessly with our diplomacy, and we’re going to lead with our values, and we’re going to lead with our example. And I think everyone saw that on display when the President gave his speech yesterday.

QUESTION: So let’s take COVID, about leading relentlessly. Yes, the President has said what he said. Yes, there are hundreds of thousands of American doses of vaccine going around, but not nearly enough. This is what the head, the Secretary-General of the United Nations said about this terrible inequity that persists to this day.

SECRETARY-GENERAL GUTERRES: “A surplus in some countries; empty shelves in others. A majority of the wealthy world vaccinated; over 90 percent of Africans still waiting for the first dose. This is a moral indictment of the state of our world. It is an obscenity. We passed the science test, but we are getting an F in ethics.”

QUESTION: That is very, very strong from a UN secretary-general, using the world “obscenity,” failing the ethics test. How do you substantively expect the President’s COVID Summit today to change anything on the distribution, the ramping up of vaccine doses for those very countries who have received almost nothing?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: That’s the whole purpose the summit today is to encourage countries, companies, NGOs, the world to come together to find a way to address this pandemic. The U.S. has given 600 million doses of the vaccine. We’ve already delivered over a 160 million. We gave to COVAX $4 billion. And we do plan to give more, but the purpose of the summit is to encourage others to give more. It is also to look at how we can strategize to address this.

And it’s not just producing vaccines in our own country and delivering those vaccines free of charge without strings to other countries. It’s also finding ways to produce the vaccine in other countries. And we have been looking at working with the Africa CDC, for example, in Africa and working with countries in Africa to produce the vaccine.

It’s a challenge. I don’t disagree with the Secretary-General. He laid out that challenge before us, and our job is to find a way to address it. And we can’t sit on our hands. So we’re going to have this summit today that the President will be hosting. I will be there with him co-chairing a panel. And we will be bringing leaders from around the world to recommit and to make even stronger commitments to getting vaccines in the arms of every single person in the world.

QUESTION: Ambassador, doing all this stuff requires, as you’ve laid out, global cooperation amongst leaders. You sit at the UN in the Security Council. There are the U.S. and its allies, and then there’s China and Russia that seems to veto or abstain or say no or obstruct just about everything the democratic forces of the world want to do. What exactly is your relationship with your fellow Chinese ambassador, or the Russian, when you sit in that room and you know that on COVID, on climate, on all the things you’ve just been talking about, you actually need cooperation? Is it even possible?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: It is absolutely possible, and we’ve had some successes. It’s not a perfect world in the Security Council, but we do know that we have to work together to deliver to the people. We were able to get a resolution on continuing to maintain a border opening in Syria, and the entire Security Council voted for it. It was a complete 15-to-0 vote. We were able to get a resolution on Afghanistan. And while the Chinese and the Russians abstained, they didn’t veto.

So we do have areas where we can work together, and we try to reinforce that – those efforts. But I’m not Pollyannish here. There are some challenges, but we’re continuing to make some progress.

QUESTION: What exactly is the Biden doctrine?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Our doctrine is to work with our allies to make the world a better place for everyone. And we will lead by our example. We will lead with our values – our values related to human rights, our values related to democracy. And we will consult with our allies. We know that we can’t do – we can’t do it alone. We have to work with others. And I think they all see it and they all believe in it. And I think as you look at what we’ve been able to accomplish, it’s been a success.

QUESTION: Okay. You’re grading yourself there, Ambassador. We’ll see. But let me ask you now, you’ve got something very real to decide, I guess, as a UN. The Taliban has requested accreditation. Do you expect the Taliban to be accredited to address this session of the UN General Assembly?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: This is a decision that gets made by the Credentialing Committee. We’re on that committee. I doubt that a decision will be made over the coming week. The Credentialing Committee, I think, is scheduled to meet again in November, and that’s when I would expect that they will take this up to address.

QUESTION: Do you think they should be recognized? In other words, should a UN body or the UN recognize them in order that you all can help Afghanistan, the people of Afghanistan? In other words, pragmatic, operational relations.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Look, our position has been clear, and it’s been unified with the rest of the international community: We will not recognize the Taliban until they earn recognition. And they earn recognition by their deeds, not – and by their actions, not by their words, which we will be watching closely: whether they provide free passage for Afghans and others to leave the country; whether they allow for humanitarian assistance to be brought in and delivered directly to the people of Afghanistan; whether they give rights to women to work and rights to girls to go to school.

QUESTION: And finally, because it’s happening on your border at this time. You see that there’s been a crisis of abuse, as the Department of Homeland Security has said, by Border Patrol against Haitian migrants, and it’s just escalating right now. I wonder what you think about that. We were told by immigration experts that it’s a particularly cruel targeting too often of black migrants, and in this case they’re Haitians. And what do you say when other world leaders either ask you about it or put you on the defensive about it or wonder what you’re going to do about it as a country?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: First, I was appalled to see it. Secondly, I was embarrassed to see that happen. You heard what Secretary Mayorkas said on CNN yesterday: that he was investigating and he would hold people accountable. As I’ve said regularly at the United Nations, our country is not perfect, but we work every day to perfect it. And we don’t run away from our shortcomings.

So while we were appalled by this and we were embarrassed by it, we are going to deal with it and look for ways to improve how we address the situation on the border. And I think you will see things change very, very quickly as it relates to what we saw on television earlier this week.

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

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Thank you very much for having me, and I look forward to talking to you again.