Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield’s Interview with Ryan Heath on Politico’s “Global Insider” Podcast

Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield
U.S. Representative to the United Nations
New York, New York
September 15, 2021



QUESTION: Yeah, I can hear you loud and clear.


QUESTION: But here’s an offer for you, Ambassador. I’ll cook you gumbo. We will flip the script, and I’ll cook gumbo for you now that you’ve done it for us.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Oh, that is a deal. And I have one, two, three, four witnesses.

QUESTION: Very good, exactly. But how do you find the time? It takes so long. I really don’t understand.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I – my best gumbo I ever made I did in three hours from start to finish to the table, but usually I prepare. Usually, if I know that I’m going to make gumbo, I might chop up my holy trinity on Wednesday night, and I might prepare my chicken on Friday and make sure the shrimp are already peeled early in the morning on Saturday. And then when I start with the roux, everything is there, everything is made, and I can just whip it all up. But I can do it in three hours if I need to.

QUESTION: Now a semi-serious question. Did you cook gumbo for any of your fellow ambassadors yet?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I have not done it for my ambassadors yet, but I’m looking forward to doing it again. And I like to put a little okra in my gumbo, too. I put the okra there just kind of for conversation. And some people don’t like okra, but I like to just show it as part of the gumbo.

QUESTION: Okra gets my vote. Maybe to move into the serious side of this –

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Oh no, let’s forget about that. (Laughter.) These other people can hang out. We can finish this conversation.

QUESTION: Well, remember, you’ll come over to my house, so that’s already a deal.


QUESTION: If I could bring you back to day one on the job just for a brief second to kick off the conversation, we know that “America First” really bruised a lot of alliance relationships, but I don’t think a lot of people know what that means day to day for statecraft. And so I was wondering: What did you face on day one? Did you get a proper handover from Kelly Craft? What were you thinking when you walked into the office?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I didn’t walk into the office, first and foremost. I got confirmed for the job four days before taking over the chair as president of the Security Council.

“I, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, do solemnly swear.”

“I, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, do solemnly swear.”

I did engage with my predecessor, Kelly Craft, prior to coming. There was not a proper handover, as you might know, because of so much politics that took place after the election. But I will say that Ambassador Craft was extraordinarily hospitable. We spent quite a bit of time on the phone with each other, and she was very supportive.

QUESTION: To get political for a second, can you tell me what sort of difficulties or damage that the actions of people like Senator Ted Cruz are doing by holding up the confirmation hearings for the other ambassadors that have been nominated?

“I’ve made clear to every State Department official, to every State Department nominee, that I will place holds on these nominees unless and until the Biden administration follows the law and stops this pipeline, imposes the sanction.”

How long can that really go on for?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I try my best not to be political because I’m actually a career person, and so moving from that career professional space to the political space was very difficult for me. But I can say that it is so important for our ambassadors to get out to the field and represent the American people. And so there is tremendous damage being done by holding up our ambassadors from getting out to do the jobs that the American people need us to do to represent them overseas.

QUESTION: And do you think that that is going to increase over time? That obviously it does increase, but does it become an exponential problem when these gaps just exist for not just weeks but months or even years?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: It sure does. And I just take my own appointment as an example. I was ready to get to work in New York immediately, and I was kind of left in a holding pattern until four days before the U.S. took over the presidency of the Security Council. So I imagine that my colleagues sitting here in New York on the Security Council were wondering what was going on, whether they would actually see an American ambassador representing the United States sitting in the chair. And to come in and literally hit the ground – I always said sprinting because I didn’t run. I really sprinted to the finish line. I was in meetings almost 24/7 for four days before I had to lead the Security Council.

And I think it leaves people with a bit of fear that the U.S. is – it’s not going to step up to the plate and show our leadership. I think I’ve been able to do that, and our embassies continue to operate. We have chargés who are there who are experienced diplomats who keep our embassy running, but it’s important that we get our ambassadors out to the field.

QUESTION: So I don’t know if you know this, but I often call you the ambassador to everywhere because you’re helping fill in for so many of the open diplomatic positions around the world. And with that said, it makes me wonder: What are you actually focusing on right now? How do you narrow it down? Are your number-one priorities cyber security, climate, conflicts? What is it?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I wish there were only two issues that we were dealing with. We’re dealing with climate. We’re dealing with the pandemic. You mentioned cyber. Cyber is a huge, huge issue for us. But there are roiling humanitarian and political crises that we’re dealing with. So Afghanistan is certainly high on our list, but Ethiopia is equally of concern to us. You see what is happening in Haiti now. First it was a political crisis with the assassination of the president, and then it was this earthquake, and now a storm. We’re dealing with huge issues related to migration in the Northern Triangle but also migration issues across the globe. So Burma – I could – the list is endless.

And at the United Nations, as you said, I’m the ambassador to everywhere. It is also the ambassador to every issue around the globe. Fortunately, I have an extraordinary team of staff and supporting ambassadors who will be working to help me get the job done. But you mentioned ambassadors being held up. It’s important that we get that leadership on the ground here so that I have ambassadors in leadership roles to support me.

QUESTION: Now, one relationship that worries a lot of people at the moment is the state of the U.S.-China relationship. I was wondering: Is there any hope you can offer based on your last meeting or your last call with one of your Chinese ambassador colleagues? How does that relationship work?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: It’s a complicated relationship, but it’s a relationship that has areas of cooperation and particularly here at the United Nations. The Security Council issued a statement on the situation in Afghanistan in which every single member of the Security Council signed onto it, and China signed onto it. I sit two seats away from the Chinese PR, so we are regularly consulting with each other on the floor. We call each other on a regular basis. And while we’re not always in sync with each other on issues, the issues where we are in sync on, we’re able to move on those issues very, very quickly. We have been able to work with the Chinese, and you saw what we were able to do on the Syria cross-border, and that was Russia.

QUESTION: And that was keeping the humanitarian crossing open so people could then follow it, basically?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Yes, yes. And we were able to get a unanimous vote in the Security Council on this. We worked within the P5, the five permanent member of the Security Council – the U.S., China, Russia, France, and Britain. And then I worked directly with both my Chinese and Russian colleague, and we were able to come up with an agreement on a way forward that I think is really a model for how we can work together when we talk to each other.

QUESTION: Can you explain a little about how you think the U.S., either at the UN or elsewhere, can exercise some influence over the Taliban to prevent the sort of behavior that they engaged in when they were last in power?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I think if you just look at the Security Council statement that came out last week – again, a unified voice, all 15 countries signing onto this statement calling for the Taliban to end the violence, calling on them to respect human rights and humanitarian assistance, and particularly to respect the rights of women, and calling on them to not allow Afghanistan to be used as a base for terrorism. And that came out of the Security Council, and it was a strong message.

But also, we are able to engage with the UN and to ensure that the UN continues to be an active participant inside of Afghanistan. So the United Nations will continue to work inside of Afghanistan working on issues related to women and girls. So the UN – the Security Council – is a key place. It’s the one place, I would argue, where we can work to address some of these difficult issues.

QUESTION: And we know that you’ve been working with allies to strengthen America’s commitment to women and children in Afghanistan. Does that mean that you will also be working with allies to figure out an approach on, for example, whether or not to recognize the Taliban if they turn up and say we want accreditation to the UN?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: We definitely will have an intense discussion with our allies on the recognition issue. We’re not there yet. We need to see what kind of government the Taliban form, and we need to see what kind of actions that they take once they form the government. You may recall that the Taliban were never recognized in 1996 after they took over because of the actions that they were responsible for. So we will be watching their actions very, very closely before any decisions will be made on recognition of a government that they are part of.

QUESTION: Is there any tactical maneuver you can use to see more actions and delay the decision? Because I’m thinking it’s possible they’re going to turn up to a credentials committee and really try and show up at the UN Leaders Week, and it’s all going to come to a crunch quite soon.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I hope that is not the case. And I can’t preview what we – what we might do in that case. But certainly, within the Security Council we’ll be discussing those issues. We’ll be discussing those issues within the U.S. Government in terms of what our policies will be as it relates to the Taliban.

I don’t imagine that this is going to come up by middle of September. We’re talking two, three weeks out, and they haven’t even formed a government yet. It’s my view that it won’t come up this quickly, and I’m not even sure that they themselves will want to be on the international stage that quickly. But I do know that they do want recognition; and if they want recognition, they’re going to have to abide by the international norms that we all live by, and that is respecting international humanitarian standards and respecting human rights.

QUESTION: But I guess it’s fair to say that they’re not going to be recognized if they’re not living up to some of those commitments.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Certainly not by the United States.

QUESTION: We all saw the heroics at the beginning of the year from the Burmese ambassador, who stood up and defied the military takeover of his country.

“We need further strongest possible action from the international community to immediately end the military coup, to stop oppressing the innocent people, to return the state power to the people, and to restore the democracy.”

He’s still clinging to his post. And it’s just a reminder that this gets personal very quickly for people in a position like you, because they’re your colleagues and your friends. Are you still in touch with the ambassador from Afghanistan? Do you think he’s going to be able to hold on for a while?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I am in regular touch with him. We were communicating with each other today, and I am very supportive of him. And we will watch and see how things evolve.

You mentioned the Burmese ambassador. I was in regular contact with him. I happened to be in the General Assembly the day that he made his speech separating himself from the junta. And I immediately – I had never met him in person, but I immediately reached out to him and applauded his courage. And we have stayed in contact with each other. As you know, he had a threat against his life. The U.S. Government responded immediately and fortunately were able to arrest the people involved in that and charge them.

So we will continue to be friends and supporters of this ambassador as well as the Afghan ambassador moving forward.

QUESTION: Slightly lost track of time, but I know you must need to go. So I’ve just got two last questions. (Laugher.) I take the smile as submission.

One is on UNICEF, where you talked about all the important work that they do in Afghanistan. They’re the big vaccine coordinators at the global level. And the United States has held the executive director position there since 1946, and Henrietta Fore is going to be stepping down soon. Do you know yet what you will do to try and make sure that post stays in American hands so vaccine diplomacy and other work can continue?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Well, first let me just congratulate Henrietta Fore, who I know quite well and have worked with for many years, for the extraordinary job that she did as the executive director of UNICEF. And we’re in the process of reviewing candidates that we will nominate for that position to the secretary general. And as you know, it is the secretary general who will make the choice. But I can say that it will be U.S. intentions to put forward a strong candidate to head the organization for the next term.

QUESTION: And my last shot at goal, it’s on Africa. I know that you are deeply passionate about Africa and its future, and the UN is really the biggest platform for African diplomacy. So I was wondering if you had any thoughts there, where I just – I know sometimes Africa’s leaders don’t always live up to the promise of all those amazing young people in the continent. How have they been in New York so far? Are they representing all of those young people and all of their talent?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: When I was assistant secretary for Africa, I always talked about Africa as being the next frontier of prosperity for the entire globe, and I still strongly believe that. And the young people of Africa are going to be the engines of Africa’s future, and we have to engage with those young peoples.

I do think that African leaders need to spend more time with their young people. They need to listen to their young people more intensely, and they need to empower them to lead in the future. And that’s the message that I deliver every single time I speak with an African leader to encourage them to embrace their young people and, in a sense, embrace their futures.

QUESTION: Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, thank you so much. I really hope the President gives you a trip to Africa to lead a delegation there sometime soon.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Good. Thank you very much. I so enjoyed talking to you and meeting you, and I’ll look forward to sharing your gumbo diplomacy with you.

QUESTION: A full 24 hours. I’m not doing it in three. You get the full deal.