Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield
U.S. Representative to the United Nations
November 15, 2022
QUESTION: I mean, there’s no need for me to introduce you. I’m Jonathan Capehart, associate editor at The Washington Post. And after that spectacular video, you know who this guest is. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the United States Ambassador to the United Nations, welcome to The Washington Post.
AMBASSADOR LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Thank you, Jonathan. Great to be here.
QUESTION: So, before we get to the topic at hand, we have to – I have to ask you about the breaking news over – within the last hour about something happening inside Poland. Either it was a missile that landed inside Poland. The Russians are denying that it was them. The United States government officially is saying they’re looking into it. I would love to get your reaction to the possibility of Russia having done something inside Poland as part of its war with Ukraine.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Look, we’re still gathering information, as you’ve heard. So, I don’t have any new news to share confirming this, but we’re concerned about the reports and we’re working with Poland, with our allies, to gather more information. And once that’s done, we’ll see where we move after that.
QUESTION: We also know that the Polish government is in an emergency meeting. You’re at the – you’re at the United Nations. Any indication as – before we came out that the UN Security Council might meet to discuss this?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Well, again, this just happened. I – so – and I’m not in New York. I’ll be headed back to New York tonight. And once we have determined what the information is, then the Security Council can determine whether it’s needed to call a meeting. Normally what would happen is Poland might ask for a meeting or we may decide to call for a meeting ourselves.
QUESTION: Okay. Well, Madam Ambassador, you’ve spent more than 30 years as a career diplomat, and these diplomatic circles historically have been overwhelmingly led by white men. What has your experience been like not only as one of America’s top diplomats, but as a woman of color advancing the basic rights of other women around the world?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I never walk into a room feeling as if I’m in the room as a Black woman. When I walk into the Security Council, I’m the U.S. Permanent Representative to the Security Council. And that’s what I tell young women when I meet them: Don’t wear other people’s problems on your shoulders. You know what you’re there to do and do what you are there to do.
But we still have an issue in our Foreign Service. We’re still not diverse enough. Diversity is our strength. It is important that the face of America is reflected in our diplomatic corps. And I still go to embassies overseas and sit in a country team meeting and see overwhelming white males.
QUESTION: How does that go over?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Sometimes I actually will comment. I’ll say there’s something uncomfortable about this room. (Laughter.) There’s something that’s weird about this room. And people will all look around, and they never come up with what it is. (Laughter.) Like, oh, it’s really cold. (Laughter.) And usually it is or – but other times people will notice. I was at one mission, and we were literally in a room with 50 people, and there were only two women: me and the DCM, the deputy chief of mission.
QUESTION: And you grew up in the segregated South. Briefly, how has that experience informed your work as a diplomat and particularly as the top American diplomat at the UN?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I am proud of how I grew up because I think it shows where America has come, how far we’ve come. And I think it is a sign to the world that while America continues to address these issues, we are addressing them. The fact that I made it to where I made it, when I look at where I came, I think is a message to the world, and it’s also a message to other young people who come from diverse and underprivileged backgrounds that where they come from does not necessarily have to define where they’re going.
QUESTION: And so, when you’re traveling around the world, do you hear – (applause) – do you hear from or do people in other countries come up to you and talk to you about being a symbol to them?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: They do, and it’s very – I feel uncomfortable being a symbol, but also, it’s a responsibility and it’s a privilege, and it’s a bit of a burden being a privilege because you always have to be on your Ps and Qs because the expectations of you are so high. So, I always tell young people, and particularly young people from underprivileged backgrounds, that they have a burden. They have a burden to sometimes overperform. They can never underperform. They can never have a bad day.
So that burden can sometimes be overpowering, but they need to know that because their failure – when I went to Louisiana State University, no one thought I was going to succeed. And they were all sitting back, even people in my own community, waiting for me to fail. And so, I had that burden. I couldn’t have a bad day. I wanted to hang out with my friends and party and get drunk and do all those things – (laughter) – that young people do in college. But I never, ever felt that I could do that.
QUESTION: The burden of perfection is what I wrote down.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: It’s the burden of perfection.
QUESTION: You’ve noted that women are becoming more political around the world, from Iran and Afghanistan to the United States, as we’ve just seen in the midterm elections. What do you attribute that to?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Well, it’s long overdue, and women have been pushing against those I would say nail-shut doors for a long time, and they just burst through and they’re showing the power that 50 percent of our populations across the globe – we’re showing the power that we have. And that’s important.
QUESTION: I didn’t want to – you gave me that look of –
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Yeah.
QUESTION: – thinking that I was going to stop you, but I wasn’t.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Yeah.
QUESTION: Keep going if you want to keep going.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: No, I’m good.
QUESTION: Okay. (Laughter.) We have seen incredible protests of overwhelmingly women, young women, in Iran. What – I’m trying to remember the story, the other story, big story that was happening today that one of the protesters was – if I’m remembering correctly, sentenced to death and now there’s concern that the same thing will happen to the thousands of others who have been detained or arrested in Iran. What is the U.S.’s message to those young people in Iran who are continuing to demonstrate weeks after the initial incident?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: First, let me just say this person being sentenced to death is one more of over 100 people who weren’t sentenced but were killed in the streets. So, the death sentence just shows the extent to which this regime will go to stop people from demanding their rights. And what we say to them is we stand with you, we understand, but we also have to understand that these women, these young people, are being extraordinarily courageous because they could be sentenced to death. They could be killed in the streets. We’ve seen the injuries that many of them have suffered. And we need to send a message to them to let them know that we’re there for them, we hear them, that their voices are not – while the police on the street are trying to stop us from hearing their voices, we actually are hearing it. We hear what they’re doing. We see what is happening and we support them.
QUESTION: And is that one of the reasons why the United States is trying to remove Iran from the UN Commission on the Status of Women? How did they get there in the first place?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: That’s a good question, and they don’t deserve to be there because the Commission on the Status of Women is about women’s rights. It’s about human rights for women. It’s about promoting and protecting women. And inside this organization is basically a country that is actually fighting women and trying to block women from achieving their human rights. So, they don’t deserve to be on the council, and we have to work with our allies, with our friends, with the supporters of Iran, to remove them.
QUESTION: And still speaking of Iran, is there any path forward for – do you think, for a nuclear deal with Iran while the regime continues its persecution of women?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Right now, there are two things on our minds related to Iran: their attacks on women in the street who are peacefully protesting – attacks on them; and Iran providing missiles and drones to the Russians to kill civilians in Ukraine. So that’s what we’re focused on right now.
QUESTION: I want to come back to Ukraine in the six minutes and 42 seconds we have left.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Okay.
QUESTION: But I’ve got to ask you about women in Afghanistan. They’ve also been protesting the strict measures put in place by the Taliban: forced to stay at home, not able to work or go to school. What’s your response to Afghan women who say, “the international community left us behind after the withdrawal of the United States”?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: We are there for them. The international community still is backing and supporting the women of Afghanistan. The UN is still on the ground. We’re working to provide programs to support those women who are there. The Secretary just approved a new visa category for Afghan women as well for those who are able to get out. But I’ve also heard from some Afghan activists they want to stay there. Everybody can’t leave, and they want to stay to support getting an education resumed for women. So, they’re still protesting. These women had 20 years of freedom – 20 years in which they were able to be educated. And to have that just stop is almost a shock to their system. So, they’re still protesting, and we’re doing everything we can to hold this government accountable, to keep the pressure on so that they can back away from this horrific policy of blocking women from being educated.
QUESTION: All right. Now back to the Chinese and Russia. President Biden had what seemed to be a successful meeting with President Xi overseas yesterday. And I’m wondering, the unique relationship that Beijing has with Moscow, that President Xi has with Vladimir Putin – do you believe President Xi has the power to get Putin to change course in Iran? More to the point, is it a power he wants to use, President Xi?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: We’ve been clear to the Chinese that they need to use their power. They need to use their special relationship with President Putin to put pressure on Putin to do the right thing because if they don’t get him to do the right thing, and he continues to make the mistakes that he’s making, including his threats to use a nuclear weapon, then China has to also be held accountable for that if they don’t do everything possible to stop it.
QUESTION: You were just in the region. You were just in Ukraine, and you met President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I did.
QUESTION: Your impressions of him? Was that your first time meeting him?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: It was my first time meeting him. I was wowed by him. I had seen him on – in virtual meetings. He was confident. He was resolute. He was strong. And you could tell that he was frustrated, but he was absolutely resolved to continue to fight Russia to get Russia to remove their troops from Ukraine. And I was really excited to see that he actually was in Kherson welcoming troops into that area and meeting with people. He’s not locking himself up behind some bunker, sending out messages. He goes out and he talks to his people. He’s been extraordinary, and I think the Ukrainians realize that they had the right president at the right time to lead during this war.
QUESTION: In the time that we have left, let’s talk about Brittney Griner, the WNBA star. She’s been detained in Russia since February. She was just – I think she still is being moved to a penal colony somewhere in Russia notorious for abusive treatment. Before the President left for the G20, he expressed hope that the Russians would be more willing to negotiate now that the midterm elections have happened. Has there been any movement since then on the deal or the offer that was made by the United States to the Russians in terms of getting Brittney Griner home?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Well, let me just say that we are doing everything in our power and the President is doing everything in his power to bring Brittney home to her family. So, we have engaged on that issue with the Russians. We’ve offered them a way out of this mess that they created to allow Brittney to return to her family. The news that she was being moved to a penal colony was really depressing. We know what that means. And that has given us even more resolve to work to get her released.
QUESTION: In the minute that we have left, just a closing thought from you. What have you learned from your current role about the power and the limits of diplomacy, in one minute and three seconds? (Laughter.)
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: What I’ve learned is that even with limitations, diplomacy is the best path that we have. And we have to continue to pursue a diplomatic path, to achieve whatever it is we’re trying to achieve. And we’ve had some successes. I mean, we actually got a 143 Member States in the Security Council* to condemn Russia’s annexations of Ukrainian territory – unheard of. We raised the number from 141 who condemned the invasion to 143 condemning the annexation. So, diplomacy has some positive effects, and we’re seeing that in New York.
QUESTION: I’m going to squeeze in one more question because there is – I believe the President floated the proposal of expanding the Security Council and maybe having some floating seats, but is that even possible when Russia and China have veto power?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: It is possible because I think they even understand that we are at a time when Security Council reform is needed. We cannot continue to leave out the Global South from a seat at the table, and we’re strongly supporting this, we’re engaging with our colleagues on this, and we’re hoping that we will make some changes over the coming years.
QUESTION: Thank you for the overtime there, Madam Ambassador. Linda Thomas‑Greenfield, United States Ambassador to the United Nations, thank you very much for coming to The Washington Post.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Thank you. (Applause.)