Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield’s Interview with Ravi Agrawal of FP Live

Ambassador Linda Thomas-GreenfieldU.S. Representative to the United NationsNew York, New YorkSeptember 15, 2022


QUESTION: Hello and welcome to FP Live. I’m Ravi Agrawal, the editor-in-chief of Foreign Policy and your host today. I’m in New York City, and this city is buzzing with anticipation as world leaders come in for the United Nations General Assembly.  

If you’re on our website this morning, you’ve probably seen our fall print issue. The cover package looks at the alliances that matter now, from the G7 to NATO and beyond. One of the contributors to the magazine, former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, says that the U.S. once helped create organizations such as the United Nations, but Washington is now a bit more aloof, he says, and is focused more on clubs or bilateral and regional arrangements. Is that the case? Or is the United Nations still, as Winston Churchill once said, the only hope of the world?

Well, my guest on FP Live this morning has thoughts on all of this. Linda Thomas-Greenfield is the Biden administration’s Ambassador to the United Nations. This is a particularly busy couple of weeks for her, so we are very grateful she’s making time for us.

Ambassador, welcome back to FP Live.

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

QUESTION: It’s our pleasure. So let’s start with this: What is your number one priority in the next week with the high-level meetings at the UN General Assembly?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: That’s a very loaded question, Ravi. My number one priority is to have a successful week during the High-Level Week, but just to get down into specifics, we are looking during this week to really reaffirm our partnerships – to reaffirm those partnerships with our allies and our friends, but also with those that we may disagree with. Because even with those we disagree with, we have some priorities that we can work on together.

Secondly, we will be focused on the UN Charter. A permanent member of the Security Council attacked a neighbor. That goes against everything that the Charter stands for: The values of sovereignty, the values of integrity of borders. And we will be talking about and working with reaffirming our commitments to the Charter.

And then third, as you know, we have been engaging with countries around the world on the issues of UN reform and how to make the UN fit for purpose for this generation, and how to make the UN much more inclusive. And so, I do agree that the Churchill statement is still relevant today, and we will continue to reaffirm that commitment for this organization and to make it more effective and more transparent and more inclusive in the future.

QUESTION: So we’ll come to UN reform in a bit, Ambassador. Just a few more specific questions. So there’s going to be quite a bit of attention on the Sustainable Development Goals this year. It’s sort of the halfway point between when they were first framed and 2030 when they need to be realized. There are 17 goals. They include no poverty, zero hunger, affordable energy, many more. Ambassador, progress on all of these big-ticket items feels very slow globally. What could move the needle?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Look, we are going to reaffirm our commitment to the SDGs. They have been slow. We’ve only reached about 12 percent of the goals being on track, and we’re going to really have to work with the other Member States to fast track this. And that’s what this SDG Summit is about. It’s about pushing and encouraging and nudging countries forward.

A lot of the lack of achievement has to do with things that are outside the control of many countries. The impact of the COVID pandemic really slowed progress down. Climate change has slowed progress down. We’ve seen economic conditions in countries slow that down. So we’re here to recommit to that. We’re here to work with other countries to see what they need to reaffirm their commitments so that we can all achieve these goals.

QUESTION: There was a big CFR report out recently in which it said that the U.S. is rare among rich countries to not incorporate the SDGs in policies guiding its international investments. Why do you think that is? And I guess also, doesn’t that make the U.S. lose some of its moral authority in these areas?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Look, Ravi, we are committed to these goals. We have shown our commitment. We’ve shown our commitment in our actions. Many states are working diligently to ensure that those commitments are put into their documents, and we’re working very, very aggressively here in New York to ensure that. So there is no doubt, there is no question about the U.S. commitment to the SDGs.

QUESTION: I want to take a tour of the world, and I want to begin with Sudan. You just got back from the Chad-Sudan border. You said it was one of the saddest days in your life to see what you saw there. Can you describe some of that? And there’s a war underway in Sudan – what’s going on?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: You know, I saw lines of donkey carts with whole families waiting to come into Sudan*, clearly traumatized young kids who were just sitting quietly. I talked to young women who were also traumatized, many of them victims of unspeakable violence and rape. As I keep quoting because I can’t get it out of my head, one young woman saying to me she had lost her ambition. A hospital where there was just complete silence, with children who were clearly malnourished, clearly suffering, parents distressed to be there with their children.

On the positive side, I have to say I was impressed with the humanitarian workers who were working around the clock to save lives and to provide support for these people, and I did announce an additional $163 million for the humanitarian response from the U.S. Government. We continue to be the largest donor, but it is not enough. And my goal was to spur other donors to contribute to this really necessary effort.

QUESTION: How does the world get together to solve some of the issues we’re seeing in Sudan, to stop the war that’s underway there? And I say this because, you know, a lot of these kind of conflicts, and this issue in particular, has been going on for a while. Does the international community bear some responsibility for getting us here?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Now, who’s responsible for getting us here are those people who are in the middle of starting this war and continuing this violence against their own people. But in the international community, and particularly in the Security Council, we do have a responsibility for peace and security around the world, and we have to really up our game there. And that’s why I traveled to Chad so that I could highlight this and encourage others to engage on this issue more aggressively.

We hosted the first open meeting on the situation in Chad during our presidency of the Security Council. There are members of the Council who resist having open meetings on these critical situations, and I think it’s important that we not only expose what is happening in these situations, we condemn them, and we push for solutions.

QUESTION: You know, Ambassador, we often take subscriber questions here. I think they’re very important so we get other voices at the table. One of our subscribers, Matthias Voss, asks that regional crises in Africa and UN peacekeeping in general, they seem to play no significant role during the High-Level Week at the UNGA. Do you not see the need for a discussion about the future of peacekeeping, for example, at a time like this? 

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: That’s an issue that we discuss every single day here. Peacekeeping is a huge part of what the UN does. There will be a huge peacekeeping summit in Ghana in December, and we have not ignored that. It is on the agenda this week as well. There are heads of peacekeeping missions who are in town. We’re meeting with them, we’re engaging with them, and we will continue to do that, Matthias. This is not something that’s put on the side during High-Level Week, but it’s also something that we can’t just discuss during High-Level Week; we have to have this on our agenda every day. 

QUESTION: Sudan’s military leaders have threatened to end a UN political mission there. They’ve also expressed they’re open to Russia building a military base in the Red Sea. Can you tell us about that?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: That threat was totally unacceptable, and we have to condemn them for that threat. The UN mission there provides support to the Sudanese people, and that mission is important to ensuring that we continue to be there for the people of Sudan. So I urge them, I demand that they withdraw that threat, that they look for a way to work with the UN to open up humanitarian corridors so that humanitarian assistance can get through, that they give visas to humanitarian workers. These kinds of threats, I think, just is discouraging to the Sudanese people and I think it pushes more people to look to escape into neighboring countries.

QUESTION: Ambassador, let’s move to Iran. The 16th of September marks a year since Mahsa Amini was killed in police custody after being detained by the morality police there. Give us a sense of what, you know, the United States is doing with Iran, how the sanctions policies are working out so far.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Well, as you know, as soon as this happened we engaged with the brave and courageous Iranian women who were protesting this on the streets. They wanted us to really amplify what was happening in Iran in New York. At the Security Council in the UN, we pushed for Iran to be kicked off the Commission on the Status of Women, and we succeeded in doing that and we held a number of very high-profile Security Council discussions on this issue. And as you know, today the U.S. announced new sanctions on Iran. We have not forgotten what happened to her and the difficulties that Iranian women and the public are facing in Iran, and these sanctions are a notification that we have not forgotten and that we will continue to look for opportunities to hold those accountable who are abusing and committing human rights violations in Iran.

QUESTION: And how is all of this, these new sanctions that were just announced, how is that linked to or not linked to, in this case, a possible prisoner swap deal with Iran?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: That I won’t get into any details on. We are working to free every single American everywhere in the world who’s being held unfairly, and we will continue to do everything possible to get those Americans who are being held in Iran released.

QUESTION: Let’s turn to Ukraine and Russia. And when we began this interview, you said that defending the UN Charter would be one of your priorities in the coming week. Talk to us a little bit about that, because it’s been a year and a half since Russia invaded Ukraine. The UN Charter in that sense seems like a shambles, and the UN hasn’t really been able to get the entire world to come together to condemn Russia. The war is still continuing. What is your sense of, on this issue specifically, what the UN can achieve in the coming week?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: You know, Ravi, the world has condemned Russia. We got over 140 votes in the General Assembly to condemn Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Russia got about six votes — 

QUESTION: But respectfully – respectfully, Ambassador, 140-plus tells me that 50-plus did not.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: No, it tells you that six only supported Russia. Countries make decisions about abstentions and absences for various reasons. Some countries are absent because they didn’t pay their dues. Some countries made decisions to abstain for other reasons, including being threatened by Russia. But 140-plus countries did condemn and six countries only voted with Russia. And I think that is a strong condemnation, and that condemnation continues. Russia is isolated in New York. They know they’re isolated. Their backs are up against the wall and they are fighting, like I’ve said several times in the Security Council, like a bully on the playground, holding hostage many of the important priorities we have such as vetoing the resolution supporting keeping the border mandate open in Syria.

But they are isolated and they have been condemned, and we will continue to look for more efforts to hold them accountable.

QUESTION: I’ll just point out that at the BRICS summit recently in South Africa, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was there. He was welcomed by Prime Minister Modi in India at the G20, and so on and so forth. Putin also recently met North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. And just moving there, I’m curious what tools do you think the United States has or the UN has to stop North Korean weapons from reaching Russia?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Look, we have been very, very clear that any violations of Security Council resolutions as it relates to providing weapons to a proliferator will be held accountable. And so it is unfortunate that Russia, a permanent member of the Security Council, would be engaged with – particularly with purchasing weapons from the DPRK. But it also shows that they are desperate.

QUESTION: When it comes to the war in Ukraine, what is your sense of what a resolution might look like? I think – and a growing number of analysts are beginning to examine, you know, how this war could end with elections coming up in the United States next year, there’s also a sense that support for Ukraine may fade in the U.S., which may precipitate or at least add some pressure on Kyiv. What is your administration’s stance and how do you see that playing out at the UN next week?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: There is nothing we want more than peace in Ukraine. And that can be achieved simply by Russia pulling its troops out of Ukraine and stopping this unprovoked war. So we have supported all efforts to find a path forward for peace as long as it’s a just peace, as long as it includes Ukraine in the discussions about peace.

I’ve gotten a lot of questions concerning the possibility that the U.S. support for Ukraine is not sustainable. Let me just say that support is bipartisan. I have met with members of Congress both here in New York, from both sides, and they all have consistently said to me that they support Ukraine and that we must continue to support Ukraine. Because Ukraine is on the front lines of fighting for democracy, and American troops are not on the ground there. But Ukrainians are fighting, and we have to continue that support. Because if Ukraine loses this war and Russia gets away with what they’re doing in Ukraine, it’s a signal to others in the world that they can do exactly the same thing.

QUESTION: I’ll just point out that there are several Republican presidential candidates who have been quite openly questioning U.S. support for the war in Ukraine, U.S. support for Ukraine, and that’s why a number of Ukrainian politicians themselves have expressed fear that the U.S. may not stay the course.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: And there are a number who have expressed support for Ukraine, and the President has been clear that we will stay with Ukraine as long as they need us. And that’s the position that we have, and we will continue to support them as long as this war continues.

QUESTION: Taiwan’s foreign minister – to move to another part of the world – Joseph Wu, he was on FP Live earlier this week, and he called on the UN to accept it as a member in order to ensure peace in the Taiwan Strait. Do you have a take on that?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I don’t. I think we should continue to look for paths forward to find a solution. Our policy on Taiwan has not changed, and we are supportive of the principles of a “one China” policy. But this is not an issue that we will engage on here.

QUESTION: So I began this interview, Ambassador, by mentioning an essay by Gordon Brown, the former prime minister of the UK. It’s a brilliant long read. And he makes the case that America is ignoring the UN. He’s saying that Washington focuses much more these days on bilateral and regional agreements, and that in doing so America is doing the world a disservice. 

Obviously, I know you’re going to disagree with the very premise of this piece, but let’s engage with it a little bit. Is it your sense, when you look at the Biden administration’s focus on industrial policy, on a foreign policy for the middle class, on National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan calling the G7 “the steering committee of the free world” – when you hear all of that and you’re at the UN mission, what is your sense? Is it your sense that the U.S. is just focused less on the United Nations?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Look, I haven’t read the article, and I will read it. I skimmed through it very quickly this morning.

QUESTION: It’s long.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: No, I don’t – [laughter] – I don’t agree. Me and my team, we’re working around the clock with the administration to engage in this multilateral forum. The President is going to be here next week. He will be highlighting for the world our commitment to the United Nations. We’re going to have other cabinet members here as well. And as I said, I’m here, I work around the clock, and I think we have shown over the course of the past two and a half years the U.S. commitment to ensuring that this multilateral forum continues.

We agree it needs some tweaking. It needs some reform, probably a little more than tweaking. It needs to be more inclusive. But as I constantly quote former secretary, the late Madeleine Albright, if we didn’t have the UN, we’d create it today. And we have it, and it’s important, and it is making a difference.

QUESTION: I guess part of the argument is that the UN does exist, but the U.S. itself is pouring more energy into bilateralism, into regional diplomacy, than into truly focusing on reforming the UN or trying to rejuvenate the World Bank or the IMF. At least that is the criticism. But let me ask —

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: We’re doing both. We’re doing both. Bilateral relations are important. That’s why we engage with partners. So part of what we’re doing here in New York next week is really focusing on those partnerships, and those partnerships are bilateral, they’re regional, they are entities and relationships that we engage with on a regular basis every single day. But this institution is part of that.

QUESTION: Let me ask you the inverse of that question, then. Is the rest of the world beginning to ignore the United Nations? The leaders – top leaders from China, India, Russia of course, are not coming. Does that weaken the strength and validity of discussions next week?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: We’re going to have about 150 heads of state – I heard that on the news, so don’t quote me on that figure – but about 150 heads of state here in New York next week. President Biden is going to be here in New York next week. And we will be meeting with various countries, engaging on a number of issues that are important to the world. The absence of other heads of state – you have to engage with them on why they’re not here, but their countries, most of them will be represented at senior levels.

QUESTION: Let’s just talk briefly about UN reform. This comes up every year around about this time. It seems intractable partly because of veto power. What is your sense of what is possible along the lines of reforming the Security Council or getting stuff done to work around the fact that Russia has veto power?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: You know, it’s not intractable. We have made some progress over the past year since the President announced during his General Assembly speech that we supported reform of the Security Council, including making it more inclusive to include countries from Africa and Latin America and other parts of the world. And so we’ve been working over the course of the past year to engage with countries, with regions on how we can make that happen, how we can find a path forward that will allow us to achieve that goal. And what I’ve found is that countries do want to do that. The veto power Russia has wielded – we were able actually to pass one reform last year that requires Russia to come before the General Assembly and explain why they vetoed. That was never done in the past before. And they have been called to the General Assembly on numerous occasions over the past year to explain their veto. And believe me, that’s not a comfortable place sitting in that hot seat trying to explain actions that countries disagree with.

QUESTION: Another veto powerholder, China – we’ve actually gotten a fair bit of this interview without discussing them at length. But much of the world is very worried about U.S.-China relations. They have generally trended downwards over the last five or six years. How does that look to you from the United Nations? What do you think might emerge in the coming week that might increase ties between diplomats on both sides?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: You know, we have those diplomatic conversations and ties all the time. I sit on the Security Council with the Chinese permanent representative. And in that fora and as well as outside that fora we engage on a regular basis on multilateral issues, not issues that we all necessarily agree on, but we’re able to have discussions on the key multilateral issues that we have to engage on here. And as you know, there have been a number of direct bilateral engagements with the Chinese recently – the Secretary of State’s visit, the Secretary of Commerce, Secretary of Treasury was there – and we’re continuing to have those engagements. We know that diplomacy is important with countries that you don’t necessarily agree with everything on, but you need to have that kind of open communication. And those channels of communication are open.

QUESTION: Will the United States be extending an invite to Xi Jinping to attend the APEC meetings later this year?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I can’t give you a headline on that one. We are working on that now.

QUESTION: Ambassador, I know you have to go so I’m going to say thank you very much.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Thank you very much. It was great to be with you. 

QUESTION: That’s Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield with a very busy week ahead of her at the United Nations General Assembly. Later today, Ambassador Greenfield’s predecessor and the Administrator of USAID will join me on the program. That is at noon today so you can come right back.

Much more coming up on FP Live in the coming weeks. Stay up to date with everything we’re doing on I’m Ravi Agrawal. Thanks for joining us.