Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield’s Interview with Dan Kurtz-Phelan of Foreign Affairs

Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield
U.S. Representative to the United Nations
New York, New York
August 4, 2022


QUESTION:  I’m Dan Kurtz-Phelan, and this is “The Foreign Affairs Interview.”

AMBASSADOR LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD:  When we look at the coup attempt on January 6, the mass shootings, the narrative of dysfunction, I would say that we see here in the United States, that other people were looking at that and saying, how can you tell us how to deal with our internal problems when you can’t deal with your own?  

QUESTION:  Two years ago, Linda Thomas-Greenfield wrote in Foreign Affairs that American diplomacy is badly broken. She argued that it needed to be not just repaired, but reinvented. Now, as the US ambassador to the United Nations, Thomas-Greenfield is charged with doing exactly that.

The world is facing a series of crises—energy and food shortages, climate change, war in Ukraine, and growing fears of conflict between the U.S. and China. Yet when I spoke with her last week, she made the case that progress is possible, even at a time when tensions have put much of the world  on edge

QUESTION:  Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield, thanks for being here.

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

QUESTION:  Likewise. So, you wrote a piece in Foreign Affairs almost two years ago with now-CIA director Bill Burns, that was in part about the wreckage of the State Department—as you put it—that Trump will be behind. But more than that, the piece gets at the systematic, long term undervaluation of diplomacy as a tool of American power. Why is U.S. foreign policy so consistently underweighted—diplomacy and diplomats? And where do we see the cost in terms of the substance of policy and its effectiveness?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD:  You know, finding a solution to any world problem: the first step is diplomacy. And we don’t value that first step, and we don’t put enough resources into diplomacy. Those resources need to go into people. I regularly raised concerns here in New York that I’ve been asked to counter China’s malign influence, to counter Russia’s disinformation campaign, and engage with 193 countries to get them to vote with us. And yet, I’m still living with the same number of staff that the U.S. UN had 20 years ago. And so we don’t build up our diplomats so that they can address all of the new challenges that we face every day. And I do raise this directly with members of Congress, whenever I’m on the Hill for hearings or I have direct engagements with members of Congress that if they want us to succeed in this multilateral world, the tools that we need are not all here. And one of those primary tools would be investment in our diplomats.

QUESTION:  I want to pick up some of those specifics in a moment. But I also want to linger on that piece—you wrote in it about the persistent lack of diversity in the diplomatic corps. And you’ve spoken powerfully about the challenge of standing up for values globally, even as there’s still so much work to do at home, whether on race or our own politics or inequality or much else. You’ve said that America’s ability to look squarely at our failings and self-correct is a strength. And the premise of the Biden foreign policy has been that domestic renewal has to be the starting point for our global leadership.

But you know, with mass shootings and the lack of unity in response to January 6, then the collapse of our climate agenda at home, domestic renewal is not looking great right now. So how does that affect our international influence? And, you know, how do you do your job when much of the world looks at your own country and asks some version of, “what on earth is going on over there?”

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD:  Yeah, let me be absolutely clear, it does have an impact on our engagements internationally, when people look at what is happening in the United States. And I think we have been able to say in a very clear, and I think effective way, that we know what our shortcomings are. We acknowledge our shortcomings, and we’re working to address those shortcomings. And while we want to push for and support democratic values overseas, it starts at home. When we look at the coup attempt on January 6, the mass shootings, the narrative of dysfunction, I would say that we see here in the United States, that other people were looking at that and saying, how can you tell us how to deal with our internal problems when you can’t deal with your own? But we are dealing with our own problems, and the first step in dealing with the problems, the first step is acknowledging that you have them. And many countries don’t acknowledge those issues—and I think that’s a strength, we know where we need to focus our attention.

QUESTION:  What do you say to a foreign diplomat or a foreign leader when they ask you about January 6, or about the Uvalde shooting or any one of the other signs that we don’t seem to be making a lot of progress on some of these issues?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD:  We’re not a perfect country. We are still evolving. Democracy is a process—it’s not an end state, and our democracy continues to evolve, and sometimes we go backward. And this is one of those incidents where we’ve gone backward. And it just reinforces our commitment to bring about change, whether it’s related to gun violence, whether it’s related to issues of diversity and racism, whether it’s related to backsliding on democracy, as we saw on January 6.

QUESTION:  Turning to some of the many issues that are keeping you quite busy these days, let’s start with Ukraine and Russia. There’s been a fair amount of criticism of the United Nations and its various component parts since the start of the war. How do you think the UN system has done on Ukraine, both in the Security Council and in all the other parts of a complicated institution? And where do you see the need for it to be better?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD:  It certainly is a complicated institution, I’ll start there. But I think we have had some extraordinary success in isolating the Russians and exposing their narrative and making sure that the world sees them for what they are. So to start with, while they had the power to veto a Security Council resolution because they are a permanent member, something we cannot change, we took it before the General Assembly and we got 141 countries. It was even more than we could have hoped for. 141 countries condemned Russia. Now, would I have liked to have 40 more? Yes, I would like to have had 40 more. But it was only five countries that voted with Russia. Only five. And when you look at who the five are — Iran, DPRK, Syria, Eritrea and Russia — that’s the company that they’re keeping, and they deserve each other.

But 141 countries express their condemnation against what Russia is doing. And you can’t question that that was a success, and Russia saw it as a failure. And so they have ramped up their disinformation and misinformation campaign, to try to blame us—to blame our sanctions, to blame the Ukrainians, to blame anyone but themselves for what is happening in Ukraine and the impact that this is having across the world. They have attacked the UN Charter, they have attacked the border of a neighboring country, they have attacked that country’s sovereignty. This is not about the U.S. and Russia, it’s about Russian aggression against Ukraine, a smaller neighbor, Russia’s aggression against the UN Charter.

QUESTION:  The messaging campaign that Russia—with some help from China—has waged in the developing world especially has been a complicated part of this. And there are lots of complaints that I’m sure you hear all the time about the hypocrisy of the U.S. response when it comes to Ukraine versus Iraq or Ethiopia or anything else about the food and energy crisis and the effect that’s having. What is the challenge of working with some of what people are calling the “new non-aligned movement”? How are you making the case to counterparts in Africa or South Asia or elsewhere, you know, who have not exactly been perfectly aligned with the U.S. and its allies on this so far?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD:  Well, I would counter that with the strengthened partnership that we have developed with our European colleagues and with like minded countries. I do not think Putin thought that Europe would unify, that NATO would unify against Russia’s actions, and that we would bring others along in supporting our efforts. So their so-called “new alignment” is a counter offensive that’s still on the back foot. They are still trying to push a narrative that’s based on lies. So they have argued strongly and aggressively that the food insecurity crisis is a result of our sanctions.

What they have failed to acknowledge and we’re putting out there is that there are no sanctions on Russian agricultural products. There are no sanctions on their fertilizers. They can move their grain just like they are moving oil that has sanctions. So we realize we have to do a better job in getting the message out. And that’s what we’re doing. So I will be taking a trip to the African continent next week, where I will be engaging our African partners on what their priorities are, and how we can address the priorities that they’re facing, particularly as it relates to food insecurity, as it relates to responding to COVID, climate and the energy issues that they’re all facing, and we’re facing ourselves in the United States. But looking at the solutions, not pointing the finger of blame, it is clear that these issues existed before the Ukrainian War. But it is also clear that they were exacerbated by Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine.

QUESTION:  You’ve been critical of some of your counterparts in the UN system when it comes to some of the big issues in Africa. Last year, you tried to get the Security Council to act on Ethiopia, but didn’t get beyond a few statements. This year, there are worries about the Sahel. You’ve described the leadership in many African countries as a “boys club,” noting that they refrain from criticizing one another. What would you like to see the UN system do? And do you think the UN can still play a significant role in Africa? What will you be trying to do when you travel there?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD:  You know, the UN already does play a significant role on the African continent. When we look at the humanitarian crises that so many African countries are facing, the UN is at the forefront. And we’re with them side by side as the largest humanitarian donor to the UN humanitarian agencies, and African countries know that they cannot address the humanitarian issues they’re facing without the United Nations.

But the message that I want to deliver and share with my African counterparts is that Africa has to take the lead on addressing some of the issues and challenges that are being faced across the African continent. When I look at the energy crisis, for example, all you have to do is look at the map and see how many African countries are all producers. Look at Nigeria, a huge oil producer, they’re flaring gas still, when Europe needs gas; so how can Nigeria recalibrate, to become a solution to the issues we’re addressing, and not a problem?

The possibilities of agriculture on the continent of Africa are immense. Countries can grow their own food. It may not address the needs of hunger today, but what can we do looking five years down the road so that Africans can produce the food that they eat, and become net exporters of food like Ukraine? And these are some of the issues that Ambassador Power will be looking at during her trip to Africa—I think she’s there now or she may have just concluded her trip. But she has been looking at how we can build the capacity of African countries to be responsive to their own needs and be a net exporter.

At the same time, the big “C” that Africans tend not to address as aggressively—and I think we all have to do better on—that’s conflict. So you look at conflict in the Sahel, you look at the conflict in Ethiopia, look at the situation in DRC. Conflict is a driver of food insecurity. And we have to be able to address that and call out African neighbors when they are contributing to conflict across the continent. And I always say, you know, I don’t want to be the lead voice on these issues. On these issues, we want to be supporters. We want to be followers. But when I saw that we weren’t responding particularly in the early stages of the situation in Ethiopia, I felt that I couldn’t continue to sit on my hands and wait for my colleagues to take the lead.

QUESTION:  Is the role of China in sub-Saharan Africa making all of these tasks harder? I mean, that’s the frame through which I think most of the broader foreign policy community looks at some of these challenges in Africa right now. How do you see U.S.-China competition on the continent as exacerbating some of this?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD:  Our focus on Africa is to assist and partner with Africa. There’s a tendency to see that approach as being in competition with China. But our history on the continent is completely an open book. We have always been a partner to Africa; we have always provided humanitarian assistance, we’ve provided development assistance, and we’ve engaged with African countries politically. I have spent more than half of my life now on the African continent. I went first in 1978 as a student, and never stopped focusing on Africa, becoming the assistant secretary for Africa and engaging with 54 African countries on the continent. They are really important, and the Chinese have come to the conclusion that they need to focus attention on Africa as well. It is, in a sense, a competition, because what we see China doing on the African continent is putting many countries in debt, providing infrastructure that is not long lasting, and in some cases, using their power to intimidate countries. That’s not the approach that the United States has taken. And one strength that we have—that I remind my colleagues of every day, and I remind China of—is, we have a diaspora. There’s a huge African continental diaspora in the United States, people from all of the countries of Africa who can promote, advocate for their countries, but also engage with their countries. It’s a strength that I think we have to talk about much more, because it is an important tool that we have in our relationships across the continent.

QUESTION:  The competition with China has also become a frame through which people look at the United Nations. And there has been lots of fear, of course, over the growing influence of China within some international institutions. How does U.S.-China competition look where you sit? And do you see any chance of some kind of detente or modus vivendi, even as we contend with crises like the seemingly imminent one over a potential Pelosi visit to Taiwan?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD:  Look, we have made clear that it is important for the U.S. to be at the table in the United Nations, regardless of what agency it is. Because where we leave gaps, where we leave space, the Chinese fill that space immediately, and they’re focusing a tremendous amount of resources on the United Nations—building their capacity to promote their own agenda in this organization. So we have to play a much more aggressive—I would use that word guardedly—role in competing with China, and ensuring that our values are brought to the table.

We’ve invested so much in this organization, and the Chinese, their understanding, or their approach to the UN is an approach that focuses on only their self-interests. They promote the interests of the state over the interest of the people. We’ve been clear that we profoundly disagree with them on issues related to human rights, and that human rights play a role in everything that the United Nations does, wherever they are in the world. They certainly do not agree with that. And we also think we have an opportunity in New York and in Geneva, within the UN system to call China out for his its human rights violations in its own country, as it relates to the Uyghurs in Tibet, in Hong Kong and to condemn their violations of human rights and genocide against their own people. If we’re not sitting in on the Human Rights Council, we can’t do that. So we absolutely have to see China for what it is here in the United Nations, and do everything to invest all of our diplomatic tools into competing with them here in this multilateral platform.

QUESTION:  You’ve been disappointed with the UN system’s lack of a clear response on the situation and with the Uyghurs in Xinjiang?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD:  We were clearly disappointed. I can say that without any equivocation. We made clear that we did not support High Commissioner Bachelet’s trip to China; we felt that her visit would be manipulated. And it was. She came out of the trip with a narrative that did not expose the situation on the ground there. We’re continuing to push for the High Commission to issue the report that they drafted. And we’re hopeful that she will issue that report because we think that the NGOs—despite the fact that, at the time the report was drafted, they were not on the ground—provided a lot of data that is important for the world to see.

QUESTION:  Of any senior U.S. official, you probably spend the most time working with Russian and Chinese counterparts day-to-day within the UN, which is part of the value of the institution. Is there more happening on the diplomatic front than meets the eye to most of us in the foreign policy world? Do you see any path back to a somewhat normal, constructive diplomatic relationship with both China and Russia?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD:  Yeah, we certainly hope that and as you know, the President has engaged directly with President Xi. He’s had a number of direct phone calls and discussions with him. Secretary Blinken has met with Foreign Minister Wang Yi on several occasions, and we continue to engage there. And of course, we have our ambassador, Ambassador Burns in China, to engage directly with the Chinese side. Not the only channel of engagement, I’m an important channel of engagement with the Chinese. But we’re using every possible tool, every possible channel that we can have, so that we can engage and move toward a normal relationship with the Chinese.

I think it’s in both of our interests not to be in a relationship of conflict, both with the Chinese as well as with the Russians. Of course, the situation now—with the Russian unprovoked attack on Ukraine—the Chinese have aligned themselves tightly with the Russians. They bought into the Russian narrative. They’re feeding that narrative to the rest of the world, and what is so extraordinary is that what the Russians are doing in Ukraine goes against what the Chinese have themselves expressed as a value, and that is the sanctity of borders and the sovereignty of nations.

QUESTION:  Do you see any role for diplomacy in ending the war in Ukraine? Is there a U.S.-Russia channel that is going to be constructive here?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD:  President Zelensky has indicated that he wants to rely on diplomacy as a way of moving forward. And this is a diplomacy that needs to take place between Russia and the Ukrainians. President Biden has said over and over again, we’re not going to have any discussions with the Russians about Ukraine without Ukraine. Ukraine has to be at the table. We pursued a diplomatic path before Russia initiated this attack. We have continued to push for diplomacy. The Russians are responsible for not coming to the diplomatic table. They are bent on continuing with this war. And what we’ve decided is important is that we have to support Ukraine. We have to give them the wherewithal to defend themselves so that when they go to the negotiating table, they’re sitting at the table with strength.

QUESTION:  Do you have any hope that we could get to the negotiating table sometime soon? Or do you see this as a long, drawn out conflict that will take some time before there’s any chance of a diplomatic solution?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD:  I think we’re all—including, I would say, the Secretary General—we’re all pushing for a diplomatic solution. But the ultimate decision maker here is President Putin; he has to stop promoting war against the Ukrainians.

QUESTION:  Let me let me close by trying to take our attention away from the things that are consuming headlines, and probably most of your time. What issue are you most concerned about that is off most people’s foreign policy radars right now? What’s not getting the attention it deserves?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD:  You know, there’s so many issues, and we always talk about how we can’t ignore what is happening elsewhere in the world, because of what is happening in Ukraine. But I think as we look at the impact of climate change on the world, climate is contributing to food insecurity. Climate is contributing to conflict around the world. Climate is contributing to misery. And Special Envoy Kerry has been devoting all of his energy and time into bringing all of us together to address this existential threat that we’re all dealing with. But I think we have to pay more attention to addressing the immediate impact of climate on the world, but also the long term impact of climate on the world. And that is the issue, I think, the issue that we will be addressing, and it’s the issue that gives me sleepless nights.

QUESTION:  And is the international system up to addressing it? The competition in the war and their response in Europe and in the developing world to the energy crisis in recent weeks surely adds to your sleepless nights.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD:  Yeah, I mean, I think the climate agreement signed in Paris was a huge step forward. So it was very disappointing to the entire world when the U.S. pulled out of that. And the entire world was welcoming when we came back. And so again, I think we are moving in the direction of addressing all of these issues. But as we address that broader issue, we still have issues of conflict in the Sahel. We have the attacks on MINUSCA, in DRC. With the situation in Haiti, this country is crumbling right in front of our eyes. We have a situation in Burma, where the government executed democratic activists. So there are a lot of issues that fall under this, that we all have to continue to work on every single day. And we can’t leave any stone unturned here at the United Nations. And I do think the UN, while not perfect, is the venue for us addressing all of these issues.

QUESTION:  All we’ve got, on some level.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD:  It’s all we’ve got, and we have to continue to work to make it better, and support the efforts where they’re doing a great job.

QUESTION:  Well, thank you for taking the time amid a long list of crises and urgent problems. So very much appreciate your doing this and everything else.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD:  Thank you very much, Dan. It’s great to see you again.