Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield
U.S. Representative to the United Nations
New York, New York
July 29, 2023
AMBASSADOR LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Russia does not care about humankind. They don’t care about whether people around the world have enough food to eat. Their withdrawing from the grain deal sends a chilling message to everyone around the world.
MR. IAN BREMMER: Hello, and welcome to the GZERO World Podcast. This is where you’ll find extended versions of my interviews on public television. I’m Ian Bremmer, and today we are at the United Nations, looking at the role diplomacy can play in solving the world’s most urgent crises. In August, the U.S. takes over the presidency of the UN Security Council, and America has a lot of priorities for the session, including food security, human rights, and the ongoing invasion of Ukraine.
With Russia and China both permanent veto-wielding members of the Council, how much can it really get done? Is diplomacy broken? Can nations put aside their differences and competing interests to tackle any of the most pressing international security challenges? And what does the United States hope to accomplish during its time at the helm of the Council? I’m talking about all this and more in a special conversation from inside the chambers of the Security Council at the UN headquarters with America’s Ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield. Let’s get to it.
MR. BREMMER: Linda Thomas-Greenfield, so wonderful to have you here.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I’m delighted to be here. This is my everyday workplace.
MR. BREMMER: It is. Right here.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Yes.
MR. BREMMER: And you are about to take over the presidency of the Security Council.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I’m about to take over the presidency of the Security Council from my colleague and friend, Barbara Woodward, the UK PR who has been chairing the Council for the month of July.
MR. BREMMER: During the month, tell me, I mean, just give me a couple of the things that you feel like you really want to get done. What’s the signature for LTG?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Well, the signature for me, it has been my signature since the day I arrived in New York, and that is to deal with issues of food insecurity. So, we will be talking on the 3rd of August about how we end famine, how we address issues of hunger. We will call out Russia, of course, for their pulling out of the Black Sea Grain Initiative, for their attacks on food granaries and food infrastructure, wheat infrastructure in Ukraine. We will call out Russia for vetoing the humanitarian mandate that provides food for the people of Syria. But we will also look at things like climate change and the impact that that has had on food insecurity. We will look at the impact of COVID. I call this kind of the three Cs of food insecurity: it’s COVID, it’s climate change, it’s conflict. And people have now added on the cost of food because of Russia’s war in Ukraine.
MR. BREMMER: Now, fortunately, the cost of food has at least thus far not shot up to the maximums that we had in the teeth of the war, in part because the Ukrainians are able to get a lot of their food out overland by river, by truck. But still –
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: It still can’t compare to the quantities that they were able to get out via ship. And remember, this just ended last week. It did have a minor impact initially, but as this goes on, people in Africa and the Middle East will begin to see the cost and feel the cost of this horrible action by the Russians.
MR. BREMMER: And as you say, it’s on the back of three years of COVID, where, I mean, the numbers of people that are dying of hunger and the number of people that are food stressed was already going up, year after year after year. So, this is the top priority for your month.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: This is the top priority for my month. But clearly there are other issues. We will be dealing with Ukraine. We will be addressing issues of conflict elsewhere in the world. I’m concerned about the situation right now in Sudan. It’s not been getting a lot of press, but the fighting continues, the carnage continues, the two generals continue to fight. I’m worried about the situation –
MR. BREMMER: Sudan does not have a legitimate government right now.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: There is a fight going on between two generals over who will be in power.
MR. BREMMER: What role, credibly, do you think the Security Council can have? How can we move the ball towards peace and stability in that country?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: The Security Council has a responsibility to deal with peace and security around the globe. What is happening in Sudan should be on the agenda of the Security Council. Having these issues brought to the Security Council is always hard. Countries fight being brought to the Security Council. And the reason they fight is that they know they ought to be considered. And the people in Sudan want to hear from the international community.
They want to hear from the Security Council that we have not forgotten them, that we care about the human rights violations that are being committed, that we care about the large numbers of women who are being raped, that we care about the thousands of people who’ve been forced from their homes and forced across the border into Chad and other neighboring countries.
They need to hear that the world has not turned their backs on what is happening in their country, and that’s what we can do in the Security Council. The humanitarian situation is incredibly bad. Getting assistance to people in Chad who have been forced across the border, I think is key. Getting assistance inside Sudan for people who have been displaced from their homes is important as well. So those are things that we want to address for sure.
MR. BREMMER: Now, if Ukraine slash global food, Russia, number one, and I think everyone recognizes it, is Sudan, for you, number two? Is number three Haiti right now?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I would not rank them. The situation in Haiti is equally horrendous. We are very, very proud that we were able to get unanimous support for the mandate of BINUH. That really was a message to the Haitian people and to the Haitian prime minister that the United Nations is standing with the Haitian people. The Haitian government has asked for assistance in setting up some kind of multinational security force. And we’re working on that issue right now, and hopefully we’ll be able to find a way forward to provide that security assistance to them.
MR. BREMMER: I know the U.S., the Canadians not very interested in sending troops that might be part of such a multinational force. I have heard several African nations have been willing to put that forward. Are you optimistic that can get done in relatively short order?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I am optimistic that it can get done.
MR. BREMMER: So, that would be a serious thing under your month.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: It would be very, very serious. And it’s something that I have focused a lot of attention on. I went to Haiti for the funeral of late-President Moïse, and I saw the situation on the ground. And even before this current situation, the gangs were very much a power to be reckoned with. They have gotten stronger-
MR. BREMMER: And now they’re the state. Now they’re the state.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: They are the state. They have gotten stronger. And we have to work with Prime Minister Henry to help to address this issue and then move toward a political solution to this country. Because, as you know, all of their political institutions are not in existence. There is no legislature to speak of. The Prime Minister was appointed by Moïse but was never ratified by the then-Senate that only had 10 members, and their positions have now expired.
MR. BREMMER: So, it’s good for the audience to understand what we’re talking about here in the Security Council. And your job is to deal with those places where rule of law has broken down, where we don’t have security for people, where human rights are not being respected. I want to ask the tough question right now, which is should Russia be a member of the Security Council?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Russia is a permanent member of the Security Council, but they are not living up to what is required of a permanent member. They have carried out an unprovoked attack on a neighbor. What they are doing undermines everything that the UN stands for. It undermines the Charter of the United Nations, and they are undermining the work of this Council by carrying out this unprovoked war on Ukraine.
That said, I will say it again, they are a permanent member of the Council.
MR. BREMMER: No, there’s nothing you can do about it, I understand. There’s no process. But if you could wave a wand and get rid of that seat –
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: It would’ve already been waved.
MR. BREMMER: It would’ve been waved a long time ago, right? On February 25, you would’ve waved it?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I think on February 25, we were still trying to get the Russians to do the right thing. And I think on February 25, even after the attack started, we were still trying to use diplomatic means to get them back into the right place. But now, two years into this, we know that that is not possible.
MR. BREMMER: Now, as you know, President Biden and many other leaders in the West have referred to Putin as a war criminal. We’ve seen the unspeakable atrocities that continue to be committed in the thousands and thousands in Ukraine. And yet you’re the most senior official in the United States that has regular direct contact with a high-level diplomat from the Russian Federation. You’re an absolutely critical node in that regard. What’s that like? What’s the nature of that engagement? How constructive can it be in this environment?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: It’s extraordinarily contentious, because I don’t believe he has the power to make decisions about where his government is going to make decisions that are important to us in the Security Council. So, when we have contentious negotiations, he always has to go back to Moscow. But he is a channel for us to convey messages, such as conveying a very strong message about the arrest of American citizens. So, I’ve raised the arrest of Evan, of Paul-
MR. BREMMER: The Wall Street Journal journalist.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Yeah, the Wall Street –
MR. BREMMER: The former Marine, yeah.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Yes. And Paul Whelan. And as you know, during the Russian presidency of the Security Council, I brought Paul Whelan’s sister here and had her stand, so that the Russian foreign minister could see her presence here in the Security Council.
MR. BREMMER: And he’s still in prison now.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: And he is still in prison now. So, I do use this relationship, if you want to call it a relationship, but it’s a relationship of fact because we sit in the Council to raise issues of concern.
MR. BREMMER: Now, the Black Sea grain deal was, I would argue, the most successful piece of diplomacy that has been accomplished over this 500 plus days of war. It has now been unilaterally withdrawn from by the Russian government. And further than that, actively targeting the Ukrainian agricultural infrastructure. Its grain, its fuel, and even facilities that are right on the border with Romania, a NATO state. And we’ve already seen 11 rounds of sanctions at this point against Russia by the Europeans, so we’ve got every piece of military equipment the Americans can provide to Ukraine is pretty much being provided. What else can and/or should be done to respond to this?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Well, first of all, the Russian action is evidence to the world that Russia does not care about humankind. They don’t care about whether people around the world have enough food to eat. Their withdrawing from the grain deal and then attacking the agricultural infrastructure in Ukraine sends a chilling message to everyone around the world. And they have been-
MR. BREMMER: They’re telling the Global South, “We will blow up your food.” Is that correct?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: They’re telling the Global South that we don’t care whether your people eat or not. And so that’s a message that I hope that is being understood and accepted, because we don’t have to say it anymore. Russia is saying it through their actions. We have called them out. We are condemning them in no uncertain terms. We’re looking at other ways that we can hold them accountable. But we remain very, very much behind Ukraine’s efforts to defend itself, to fight Russia. And we have continued to provide them with every bit of assistance that we can provide to them so that they can defend themselves.
MR. BREMMER: Now, when you say looking at other ways that they might be held accountable, I mean, theoretically, what kinds of actions might those be?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: You know, President Putin was indicted by the ICC.
MR. BREMMER: The International Criminal Court.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: And it is important that that indictment is recognized around the world.
MR. BREMMER: Stopped him from going to South Africa for the BRICS Summit, for example.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: It did. Russia is isolated, and we need to ensure that that isolation continues. We are doing everything possible to hold them accountable here in the Security Council, but also broadly in the General Assembly. So, when they veto resolutions, they have to go in front of the world to explain why they are vetoing a resolution such as the Syrian resolution two weeks ago.
MR. BREMMER: Have you seen a shift? I mean, in the early days of this war, NATO very closely held together, the G7 very closely held together. The Global South, not so much, much more neutrality. Do you see that playing out here at the Security Council? Are you seeing the Global South starting to say, “Okay, enough is enough here, we’ve got to do something about this conflict”?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: We saw 13 countries, including the three African countries, support the resolution on Syria and condemn what Russia has been doing as it relates to Ukraine. And I know some countries are conflicted, they want to take a neutral stance. But when you look at the countries that actually support Russia, the countries that vote with Russia, we know who they are. Six, seven with Russia itself.
MR. BREMMER: Belarus, Syria …
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Yes. Belarus, Syria, Iran, China. We know those countries. And so, they have not been able to increase the countries that are voting with them. And they have not been able to win any support broadly, either here in the Security Council or in the General Assembly. They have to use their veto power. They can’t win anything without using their own veto power.
MR. BREMMER: Now, is China now pretty much a given, guaranteed vote for the Russians, no matter what? I mean, certainly their public position in talking about recognition of the territorial integrity of Ukraine, which would include Crimea, Xi Jinping reaching out directly to Zelensky, they did have what seems to be a fairly constructive bilateral conversation together, though it was late. How would you gauge that?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: This war is not in anyone’s interest. It’s not in China’s interest, and China knows –
MR. BREMMER: It’s not in Russia’s interest, but that’s a different story.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: It’s not in Russia’s interest either, but China knows it’s not in its interest. When we’ve had votes in the Security Council, many times the Chinese will abstain. And we’ve seen that happen over and over again. They abstained on the resolution on Syria, for example, that was put forth by the penholders, Switzerland and Brazil. They did vote with Russia on Russia’s resolution. So, I see them as conflicted, but I would not put them fully behind Russia’s efforts in Ukraine.
MR. BREMMER: So, Israel, we’ve just seen a passage of a piece of the judicial reform that has been so contentious on the ground. We saw Volker Türk, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, coming out immediately and condemning this decision. You agree with the UN High Commissioner on this, something we shouldn’t have seen from Israel?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Look, what we want to see happen in that region is that neither Israel or the Palestinians take any actions that would interfere with the possibility of achieving a two-state solution, which is what we want to see happen in this region. So, this current action in Israel, the Israeli people have stepped up to say their piece on this-
MR. BREMMER: For months, absolutely.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: For months, and we’ll let that play out. But my concern here as the representative in New York is that we deal with the issues of peace and security and find a path to a peaceful solution for the Palestinian and the Israeli people. And we work on that every single day.
MR. BREMMER: Last question for you. The United States is here, and you are here. Your history has been so wrapped up with the promotion of human rights. How much harder is it for you to do that when the United States is facing such a challenging and divisive political environment at home?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: You know, one thing of many things that is great about our country is that we are able to acknowledge our weaknesses, we can acknowledge our internal conflicts, and at the same time defend the rights of others. And that’s what I do here in New York. I don’t come to apologize for what is happening in the United States. I talk about what is happening here, but people also want to hear the United States’ voice on what is happening elsewhere in the world. And if we’re not talking about human rights elsewhere in the world, no one else will. I know that when we were not sitting on the Human Rights Council, when we were not exerting our leadership here in New York, what I was told when I arrived here in February of 2021 is that people missed us, and they needed us. They needed our presence, they needed our voice, and they appreciated that we were back.
And so that gives me just a clear path, a mission to make sure our voice is heard on all of the issues related to human rights, on issues related to humanitarian assistance, which is part of my background. To bring issues that support people, to bring the people into this space. I travel a lot. I engage with refugees; I engage with people who are living in IDP camps. I talk to NGOs. I talk to people who have been the victims of violence and the victims of persecution, and I bring their voices here. And they appreciate that, and I know that others appreciate that they can depend on the United States to be the voice of the people.
MR. BREMMER: Linda, the U.S. created this body after World War II. Is that something that should be one of our most proud accomplishments?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: It is certainly one of our most proud accomplishments. And I always quote Madeleine Albright, the late Madeleine Albright – it’s hard for me even to call her the late – Madeleine Albright who said, “If we didn’t have the United Nations, we would create it.” This is an entity, an organization, the United Nations, that is an important part of our history, but it’s also an important part of our futures.
MR. BREMMER: Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, so good to see you.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: You too. Thank you.