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

Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield
U.S. Representative to the United Nations
New York, New York
September 13, 2022


AMBASSADOR LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Ravi, thank you. I’m delighted to be here.

QUESTION: It’s our pleasure. It’s great to have you here. So let’s start straight with the news, Ambassador. Ukraine’s gains in the last few days in Kharkiv are nothing short of stunning. Talk us through that a little bit. How does it change from your perspective the trajectory of the war?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Look, we have expressed our strong support for Ukraine and given our support to Ukraine to defend itself from the beginning of this war, and this is a reflection of that commitment to ensure that they have what they need to defend themselves. And they have done that over the course of the past six months, pushing back on efforts of the Russians to compromise their borders and to really – they have worked to defend their sovereignty and their independence.

QUESTION: Obviously much of the recent gains are in part because of much help, military and otherwise, from the United States, also NATO member countries in Europe. Talk us through a little bit about how much America at least can sustain that help over the coming months.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Look, we’ve been consistent. We’ve been consistent even before this war started in making a commitment to supporting Ukraine and working with NATO and our allies to ensure that they have what they need to defend themselves. And that commitment is ironclad. The commitment is long-term. And we’re here to stay as it relates to Ukraine. Europe has been unified. NATO has been unified. Our country has been unified in its support for Ukraine, and that will continue until Russia makes the decision to pull their troops out of Ukraine and end this unconscionable war.

QUESTION: Just strategically given all of your experience as a diplomat, but now specifically at the United Nations, what do you expect will change in the coming months? Let’s say if the current trend of Ukraine making some gains, recapturing some of its territory, Russia having to sort of recede back a little bit, what do you expect to change given the latest state of play at the United Nations?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I can’t predict that, but what I can say is that we want to see Ukraine be in a position where it is strong when they go to the negotiating table with the Russians. And that has always been our goal. It’s been our goal to consolidate support for Ukraine at the United Nations. We were able to get 141 countries to condemn Russia; 120-plus countries suspended Russia from the Human Rights Council. And over the course of the next few weeks and months, we want to strengthen Ukraine’s support here at the UN. We want to continue to isolate Russia and we want to continue to condemn Russia until this unconscionable war comes to an end.

QUESTION: 141 countries – of course, it’s a lot. It does also sound impressive. But there were many countries that either abstained or worse. There are many countries around the world that have refused to sort of directly sanction Russia, to join some of the American-led sanctions – and these are big countries, countries with large populations. Think of India or its neighbor; it’s many countries in Africa and Southeast China; China, of course. Is it your sense given that – and again, given your vantage point at the UN – is it your sense that the world is divided despite all these numbers coming in support of the – sort of the sanctions against Russia? The fact remains that a majority of the population of the world is represented in countries that did not.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Countries have to make their own choices about how they will view this war, and it is our place and it’s important for us to help those countries understand why there is no neutrality when it comes to an attack on the UN Charter. And so we have worked assiduously over the past six months to convince countries, to share with them the information that we have of the kinds of actions that the Russians are taking in Ukraine that cannot be defended. And we’ve said over and over that neutrality in the face of an attack on the UN Charter is very, very hard to defend. But countries do have to make their own choices. We know that 141 is huge. I don’t think the Russians expected to be condemned by that many countries, and they didn’t expect to be suspended from the Human Rights Council.

Again, we will continue to make the case for Ukraine. We will continue to make the case for the UN Charter. And we hope that countries will decide to be on the right side of the Charter.

QUESTION: I just want to draw our readers and our viewers to an important speech you gave in San Francisco at the historic Fairmont Hotel where the UN convened in 1945. I urge our viewers to read the transcript of that. You were just describing some of the points that you made in that speech. But one of the things you said in that speech was that it’s wrong to call the war in Ukraine a new Cold War, and in other words you went on to make the point you just made, which is that Russia’s attack on Ukraine is in effect an attack on the UN Charter. But given that, is there any enforcement mechanism? So coming up next week, do you see at the UN – given what you say about the attacks on the UN Charter, can we do anything about that?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: We can certainly continue to do what we have done, and I can tell you without any lack of – with total confidence that the Russians are feeling the pressure of the isolation that they – that has been imposed on them since they started this war. They are feeling the pressure on their economies and they have tried to turn that pressure onto many of the countries that, as you note, have taken what they consider to be a neutral stance. But what the Russians are doing is indefensible. What they are doing in Ukraine constitutes war crimes, and we have to continue, absolutely continue to expose what they’re doing and hold them accountable.

QUESTION: So let me ask you frankly then, Ambassador: Do you think the UN is doing enough on that front?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I think the UN as an institution is the only institution that we have to hold any country accountable. And Russia is a member of the Security Council and behaving in a way that is not appropriate at all for a member of the Security Council. So we can hold them accountable in the context of the UN. I think if we had it within our powers, we’d certainly look at how we could kick them off of the Security Council. But they are a Permanent Member of the Security Council. They’re not behaving with the responsibility that we would expect a member of the Security Council – the way we would expect them to behave. But we also have to know – let them know that it is not business as usual for them here in New York.

QUESTION: Talk to us about what we can expect to see next week at the UNGA. I mean, obviously you will be walking in with a full plate of – an array of agendas, obviously Russia-Ukraine but others as well. What are the priorities as you see them?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: We – it will be a frenzy of a week, as you might expect, because we expect over 100 delegations to include heads of state in many of those delegations. What we hope to achieve during this week is to focus the world on three major priorities that we have, the first being food insecurity. This has been a priority that has been personal for me. I’ve engaged on this issue since I arrived here over a year and a half ago. The food crisis has been exacerbated by the war in Ukraine, but it already existed as a result of climate change, as a result of COVID-19 supply chain issues, and then of course as a result of conflict. But the war in Ukraine has certainly made an already bad situation even more dire.

So we will be hosting a ministerial, working with countries to commit to addressing the food insecurity issues. We had a ministerial back in May – 103 countries signed on to the roadmap that Secretary Blinken presented that required them to commit to making changes in their approach so that we can deal with this issue.

Secondly, important to President Biden is to deal with global health. As you know, the Global Fund will be holding a replenishment meeting. The President has committed to assisting with that. They have requested $18 billion. We have committed to providing 6 billion of that – $1 for every $2 that other countries commit. Dealing with global health, dealing with AIDS, with tuberculosis, with malaria, with future pandemics are extraordinarily important, and that will be a huge priority for us.

And then third, related to the speech in San Francisco, we will be looking at UN reform and defending – defending the UN Charter and looking at the future of the UN and how we can make the UN better fit for purpose in the future. Included among the things we will be looking at is Security Council reform as laid out in my speech in San Francisco.

QUESTION: And one of our subscribers, Wen Tienzang, actually has a question for you on that. Just very quickly, what kinds of reforms would you like to propose next week to the Security Council?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: As I stated in San Francisco, there is more to come, and the President will be laying out his priorities on that, and so I don’t want to get ahead of the President. But as I noted in San Francisco, we have six priorities, six commitments that we are making, starting with supporting the Charter, which I think is key. Secondly, we want to engage with other Security Council members on addressing the threats to peace and security. That’s what the Security Council was created for and the Security Council needs to focus more attention on that.

Really, a truly important one is we have committed to refraining from the use of our veto except in extraordinary circumstances. And I was surprised to see that since 2009, the Russians have used their veto 20 times. We’ve used ours four. The Chinese have used theirs 12 in support of the Russians. We want to put human rights in front and center of what the Security Council does, so we will be talking about how we defend human rights in the course of how we address the issues of Security Council reform. We want to enhance cooperation and inclusivity of the Council. And then, sixth, we really want to focus attention on advancing the efforts to support UN reform moving forward, including of the Security Council.

QUESTION: Since you mentioned Russia and China and their overuse of the veto power, critics of the Biden administration will point out that Washington’s policies in a sense have brought these two countries closer together this year. Do you agree with that and how does that play out at the UN?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I would clearly not agree with that. I think Russia and China have decided that they are going to support each other in their malign efforts to undermine the Charter and undermine the United Nations. The integrity of borders, the sovereignty of nations – the Chinese have always stressed that as a key priority, but yet they have supported Russia. And so we all, as members of the Security Council but also Member States in the United Nations, have to push back against these efforts.

And what I have heard since I came to New York is that countries are delighted that the United States is back, that we are taking a leadership role in this, and that our leadership is important for other countries as we address the issues that Russia and China are presenting to all of us at the – at the United Nations.

QUESTION: I want to spend a bit longer on human rights since you brought that up as an upcoming priority. And I want to weave in a question from another one of our subscribers, Jim Cowley, who asks, “Now that the UN report has indicated that China has been committing crimes against Uyghurs, what happens next at the UN to try and hold it accountable?”

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Well, let me just say first and foremost that we were really delighted when former High Commissioner Bachelet issued the report. We’ve been waiting for that report for some time. We’re not surprised at what was in the report because it laid out what we had already said to the world about the human rights violations that were being committed by China inside of its own country against Uyghurs as well as others.

And so they have been exposed very clearly for these violations, and it is important that they be held accountable to address the issues that have been raised, including having the UN and other civil society organizations engaged to address the issues that were outlined in this report. And we look forward to working within the Human Rights Council as well as in the Security Council and in the broader General Assembly to address these issues.

QUESTION: Let me ask you a broader question about China given how closely you must deal with your Chinese counterparts and other Chinese officials. Obviously there is this tension over human rights. There were increased tensions recently between the two countries, provoked in part by Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. And then, of course, you have the fact that these two things plus tariff tensions between the countries obviously then makes it much harder to cooperate on other issues such as climate change or so many other things that the world needs America and China to see eye to eye on. How has that been affecting your work and cooperation with China?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: There are areas in the Security Council and, more broadly, in our bilateral relationship where we can cooperate with the Chinese. Climate change is one of those areas where we have worked to cooperate with them. And in areas where we can cooperate, we try to cooperate with the Chinese. But there are areas where we are clearly in competition with each other and areas where we have significant disagreements with each other, and those areas we’re not shying away from addressing with the Chinese.

What is happening in Taiwan is clearly one of those areas. Our support for the “one China” policy has been very, very clear, but we also think in the situation related to Taiwan that the Chinese overreacted to that situation. They were not provoked as the questioner said. They made a decision to move forward on an agenda that I think put them in a difficult position moving forward.

QUESTION: What can we expect – just moving on to another part of the world; I know we have a lot to cover. What can we expect in terms of progress next week on the Iran nuclear deal?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: We are committed to moving forward on this deal. Our primary goal in working on resuming our cooperation with Iran on the JCPOA is that Iran never has access to a nuclear weapon, and we think that this deal is the best way to ensure that. So we’re continuing to move forward, but as you have probably heard and seen in the news, things have slowed down a bit, but we’re still committed to trying to find a way to conclude a deal.

QUESTION: I understand. We’ll be looking out for that. Now, on the topic of nuclear issues, I didn’t want to bring up the former President Donald Trump, but I do have one question related to him, and that is the issue of the news that emerged a couple of weeks ago about a document detailing a foreign country’s nuclear program that was stashed at Mar-a-Lago and was uncovered when it was raided. Has that issue come up among your conversations with other ambassadors? Are there now fears about America being able to safeguard important intelligence on and about other countries?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: The issue has never come up in any of my discussions here in New York.

QUESTION: I understand. I want to spend a beat on cyber security and what the United States and its partners at the UN can do to combat cyber threats, and I’m thinking here obviously about Russia, but other countries as well. And some of America’s greatest weaknesses have been exploited and exposed in recent years in part because of cyber attacks. Can you talk us through a little bit about what kinds of moves or plans we can expect next week at the UNGA?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Look, we are very, very concerned about the possibility of cyber attacks, and it’s something that we have addressed in the context of the Security Council as one of the possibilities that Russia would use against those that they see as a threat. We saw an attack on Albania, a really vicious cyber attack on Albania in July. We’ve identified that that attack came from Iran. They’ve had a follow-up attack that happened on September 9th. We’re still assessing that. But countries are concerned about the possibility of countries using cyber as a weapon of war and as a way of attacking countries.

So this is something that is really important to us here in New York. The Secretary-General just announced a few months ago a tech czar who will hopefully be looking at some of these issues as we move forward so that we can help countries protect themselves from these kinds of attacks, but we also have to look at how we bolster our own efforts to protect U.S. resources from these attacks as well.

QUESTION: And I’m curious where myths and disinformation fits into this, and what more the world community and the United States as sort of leading that agenda at the UN, what more can be done to sort of tackle this problem?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: We raise – we see the Russians attempting to use the United Nations, to use the Security Council to promote their misinformation and disinformation campaign all the time. And each time they have attempted to do it, we have exposed them for that. But it is something that we absolutely have to stay in front of. We’ve seen, for example, the Russians going to Africa to tell them that the food insecurity issue is a consequence of sanctions that have been put on Russia. The truth is we have never sanctioned any agricultural products coming out of Russia – their wheat, their cooking oil, their fertilizer. None of that is sanctioned. But they have tried to make sanctions as the horrible boogeyman that is causing the food crisis around the world.

So we’re fighting every day to counter their disinformation campaigns and to provide the information that countries need to assess what the Russians are putting out there.

QUESTION: On that point and just circling back to Russia, how much is Russia to blame for the current food crisis? And just more tangibly, I know this issue is really important to you: What more can Washington do in terms of concrete actions to ensure that the world doesn’t go hungry this year?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Look, we’ve been clear: The food insecurity crisis didn’t start with the war in Ukraine. So we had an issue before the war in Ukraine. But what we’ve seen happen over the course of the past six months is that it has worsened significantly, creating the biggest crisis of food insecurity that we’ve ever seen. Many countries in Africa and the Middle East depend on 20, 30 percent or more of their wheat supplies from Ukraine and from Russia. So, clearly, this war has had an impact.

We have worked with countries to address the impact. For one, we are the largest contributor to humanitarian assistance. More than $3.7 billion – and I’m sure the figure is even higher – we’ve contributed to World Food Program alone. We’ve given direct aid to countries across the world to help them to address the problem. We’re working with American farmers, with fertilizer producers in the United States – $500 million was given to the Department of Agriculture to support the production of fertilizer. Because what I heard when I traveled to Africa a few weeks ago is that many farmers can’t plant the – their crops because they don’t have enough fertilizer. The fertilizer is way too expensive. One woman who told me she normally would have planted five acres was only planting one because she couldn’t afford the fertilizer.

So we’re working with them to address those issues to build capacity to give to farmers so that they can figure out a way around these – this situation. And we’ll continue to look at ways to provide support to people who are feeling the effects of this. I saw some figures from WFP that indicated over 800 million people – about 820 million people are not getting full needs of nutrition. And that’s almost 10 percent of the world’s population. People should not go hungry, and that is the commitment that we’ve made to do everything possible to deal with this issue as quickly as possible, including addressing the long-term consequences of food insecurity.

QUESTION: And food insecurity is an issue that we care a lot about at FP as well. Our next print issue coming out in a week or so is on exactly that, examining ways that the world can come together to fix – to make sure that everyone has enough food.

Just one last question for you, Ambassador. I know we’re almost out of time. We haven’t talked about climate change. I know President Biden is convening high-level meetings on clean energy in Pittsburgh. Just at the UN, do you get the sense that this year has been a bit of a setback for climate change mitigation given everything else going on and given that the world is at war?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: No. The commitment to deal with the issues of climate change has not diminished because of the war. So, as you know, President Biden appointed former Secretary of State Kerry to be a special envoy, and I can tell you that Special Envoy Kerry is working relentlessly on these issues. The Secretary-General has committed to working on climate change and has put together a committee to look at the issues of climate change.

So this is not something that has been sidelined because of the war in Ukraine, and as Secretary Blinken says regularly, we have to continue to deal with the rest of the world and to deal with other issues while we are at the same time battling with the issues related to the war on Ukraine.

So I would not at all agree that we’ve somehow sidelined our commitment to climate. We’re all preparing for COP27 and pouring all of our efforts into assuring that we honor and up our commitments to fight climate change but also encourage others to ramp up their commitments.

QUESTION: Ambassador, we’re out of time so all I’m going to say is thank you very much and good luck next week.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Thank you. It was really delightful speaking to you.