Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield
U.S. Representative to the United Nations
New York, New York
February 16, 2023
QUESTION: Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield serves as the United States Ambassador to the United Nations as well as the United Nations Security Council. And first off, thanks for being on, here on the Madison Show. Good morning.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Good morning. I’m really delighted to be with you.
QUESTION: Oh, I’ve been looking forward to this ever since you came out of retirement to take this position. So that’s really my first question: What brought you out of retirement after a 35-year career with the U.S. Foreign Service?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: It was a commitment to service. Who says no to the President of the United States? The President asked me to take on this responsibility, and I felt I had an obligation to do it. I couldn’t say no.
QUESTION: One of our interns who is a little shy, and she’s only been with us a little while, but she said I’ve got this question, and it is: As a Black American, Black American diplomat working in Africa, are you concerned about being pigeonholed? And we told her, that’s a legitimate question. Don’t – your answer?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Yeah, it is a legitimate question, but it was not a legitimate question for me. I’m an Africanist. I studied Africa. I lived in Africa when I was in college. Africa is my passion. It is what I do. It is what I am an expert on. So I was not pigeonholed, although in the earlier days of our Foreign Service, African Americans were pigeonholed to assignments in Africa. But that didn’t apply for me. I wanted to be in Africa, I enjoyed being in Africa, and I think my expertise there is unquestioned.
QUESTION: And your expertise, Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield, your expertise has to deal with a continent that is huge and has so many different components. How does the United States – how does it approach it? Northern Africa is a lot different than Southern Africa or Sub-Saharan Africa. It can be extremely complicated.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: It is complicated. And for ordinary Americans, they look at Africa as a country, and – but we know it’s a continent. It’s a continent with 54 countries. And actually, we divide it; we divide Sub-Saharan Africa from North Africa. So my expertise was in Sub-Saharan Africa where I served as the Assistant Secretary of State for African affairs. North Africa is in our Middle East program.
But it is a complicated continent, and that’s why when I was Assistant Secretary I had so many people working for me who had expertise – regional expertise across the continent of Africa.
QUESTION: You may or may not know, I ended up getting involved in the civil war in southern Sudan years ago and was involved with the slave trade in that one. And I must tell you, I am somewhat concerned – and maybe I should go ahead and use the word disappointed – in what has happened in South Sudan, the newest country on the continent of Africa. The war, the fighting just seems to continue, the starvation. I don’t even know where to begin on how to address it other than to ask: What does southern Sudan need primarily from the United States?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: You are among a long list of people who are disappointed in what we see happening in South Sudan. We were jubilant when they achieved their independence.
QUESTION: I was there when that flag, when they rose the flag. I’d never been to a birth of a country before. It was quite an experience.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: And they’ve been going downhill ever since, and the people of South Sudan are suffering immensely by the continuous conflict. And I would say that the leadership of South Sudan needs to refocus its efforts on the people of South Sudan. That’s what’s needed.
What they need from the United States – we have given them everything. We are committed to this country. We are the largest donor both on the humanitarian side and on the development side. We helped to birth this nation. So for us, watching what is happening in South Sudan is like a parent watching – feeling like you have not succeeded in giving your children what they need to survive. And we have done everything possible, but as a parent sometimes you can do everything possible and you still don’t have children that will live up to the expectations that you have of them. And I’m not referring to the country as a child, but they are the newest —
QUESTION: No, I know. Yeah.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Yeah. They are the youngest country. They’re the newest country, and expectations were so high because what they fought for was right.
QUESTION: And such great potential – oil. I remember being in southern Sudan and someone was saying to me they literally could be – and correct me if I’m wrong – the breadbasket of basically Sub-Saharan Africa.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: They could. They are farmers. They know how to farm the land. South Sudanese refugees who come to the United States are succeeding. Many of them are working in areas across the United States. They love to go to areas where there are large farms.
I was in Nairobi a few weeks ago, and I met refugees who were getting ready to be resettled in the United States, and there were several from South Sudan and they were so excited about coming to the United States. They had that same excitement about their own country, and now they are forced to flee their country to seek refuge.
So it’s a huge disappointment. We all invested so much of our energy, our compassion, our love for the people of South Sudan. And all of us want to see the country succeed.
QUESTION: My guest is Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, serves as the United States Ambassador to the United Nations as well as the UN – on the UN Security Council.
Now, most recently – I think I’m right about this – you had just returned from Ghana, Mozambique, Kenya. What was your mission there?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: And Somalia.
QUESTION: Oh, and Somalia. Yes.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: And Somalia. So it was really a very productive week-long trip. First and foremost, I visit the countries who are elected members of the Security Council to hear what their priorities are on the Council and to share with them our priorities and see how we can work together.
So Ghana is a current member, elected member of the Security Council, and Mozambique is a current elected member of the Security Council, and Kenya had just left the Council and I wanted to thank them for their very productive and successful two years on the Council.
So that was first and foremost. Secondly, I wanted to really raise the profile of what we are doing on the humanitarian front on the continent of Africa, particularly working with Mozambique but also working with Somalia, a country that’s still fighting, having an internal fight, and hopefully moving in a positive direction. Thirdly, to talk about issues of UN reform: how we can make the United Nations work better to support the needs of African countries.
And then fourth, I wanted to focus on climate and what is happening in these countries related to climate change. And again, I thought it was an extraordinarily successful visit. I spent some time looking at climate conditions in Mozambique. They have some of the last surviving mangrove forests in Maputo, and so I volunteered with activists there to replant mangrove trees and clean the beach. In Kenya I visited an electric vehicle factory that was making electric motorbikes and electric buses to deal with climate change there.
And then on the security side, I had intense discussions in Ghana concerning their security concerns related to the Sahel, in Mozambique related to security concerns coming out of Cabo Verde*. Kenya is in the center of security concerns across the continent. They are dealing with the situation in Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan that we just talked about, Somalia, where Kenya also has troops on the ground – and then Somalia, of course, fighting against al-Shabaab.
QUESTION: You know, and I – I have to – as you were talking, I just want my audience to realize they need to go an atlas and see how close these countries are. I mean, as you were talking, it’s like Mississippi and Louisiana and Florida. That’s how close these countries are. You can just literally walk across the border, can’t you?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Well, some of them. Ghana is in West Africa, but I will tell you, when I was in Kenya in the ’90s, there was a point when I was up on the border of Kenya and I stepped into Ethiopia on one corner and Somalia on the other corner. They’re that close together. We’re talking about countries where borders were really artificially drawn and they crossed through families and ethnic groups.
QUESTION: How important – Ambassador Greenfield, how – and I know this sounds like a naïve question, but for the sake of my audience – and we debate this often – how important is the continent of Africa, as diverse as it is, to the United States?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Africa is extraordinarily important to the United States. We just held an Africa Leaders Summit in December where we invited heads of state from across the continent, and they came for three days of intense engagements with U.S. officials. President Biden announced during that summit that we were going to really ensure that all of our cabinet officials have the opportunity to engage with Africa. So Secretary of Treasury Yellen was on the continent a week before I was there, I went, and of course this wasn’t my first trip. I’ve gone numerous times, and of course served as the Assistant Secretary for Africa. But I traveled to Africa. We have Secretary Buttigieg going to the Summit of Democracies that will be taking place in Zambia.
This continent is important. We have invested about $45 billion in a program called the African Growth and Opportunity Act, where African countries are allowed to export products to the United States duty-free, and we are exporting products into Africa. It creates jobs for Africans but it also creates jobs for Americans.
And then finally, we have a huge African diaspora. I’m sure many in your audience are from the diaspora. There is no country on the continent of Africa where there are not hyphenated Americans, and that population is truly important to our relationships with Africa. Their advocacy, their support for their countries and their families that live in those countries – that’s truly important. And we ignore Africa to our peril.
QUESTION: Yes, we do. And that’s why I wanted to have you on, and hopefully you’ll come back, because we just don’t give it as much attention as we should. So we’ll do our part.
Now, I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you about the Chinese spy balloon fiasco.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Everybody asks about that. It’s a bilateral issue that we are dealing with directly with the Chinese. We have been clear with the Chinese that what they did was unacceptable. The President has made that very clear in his statements, and the Secretary has as well. And we will continue to defend our sovereignty, but in the context of that ensure that the Chinese understand that they cannot carry out those kinds of actions against the United States.
QUESTION: And so this does come up at the United Nations, it did come up –
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: It has not, it has not come up, interestingly.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: It has not. Again, it’s a bilateral issue. We’re certainly monitoring closely, and I get asked questions passing in the hallway, but it has not come up in an official way at the United Nations.
QUESTION: Wow. I must say, I’m surprised, I really am. I thought you were going to tell me you’d be giving one of those speeches, “When hell freezes over.” [Laughter.]
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Not yet, not yet.
QUESTION: [Laughter.] All right. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, thank you for coming on the Madison Show. Thank you so much.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Well, thank you so much. Delighted to be on it. I’ll look forward to another invitation.
QUESTION: You’re invited, you can count on it. Thank you.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Thank you.