Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield
U.S. Representative to the United Nations
June 15, 2023
MS. SYMONE SANDERS: I am so excited to be here with you and have this conversation. Before we get into the nitty-gritty of the day, I have to ask you, you know, Ukraine’s President Zelenskyy sat down with NBC News’s Richard Engel for an exclusive interview. And this interview comes amidst Ukraine waging a counteroffensive that is currently underway as we speak, against Russian forces. President Zelenskyy was clear in this interview that Russia will lose the war if Ukraine’s counteroffensive is successful, but as I watched the interview, he looked somber, he was not bullish. He looked confident, but concerned.
AMBASSADOR LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD: He has been fighting a war for over two years, and he has been winning. When we look at where he started over two years ago, Russia thought that they were going to ride into Ukraine, finish them off in two weeks and declare victory. Two and a half years later, that is not the case. Russia thought that they would divide Europe. Europe is stronger. And our partnership with Europe is stronger. And we’re all committed to helping Ukraine win this war. As President Biden has said over and over and over again, we are going to be with Ukraine as long as they need. And I think the President of Ukraine has a lot to be proud of. They have fought valiantly against this superpower, this bully who went into Ukraine unprovoked to take Ukraine’s sovereignty and their independence, and they are weaker today than they were two and a half years ago. And Ukraine will eventually win this war.
MS. SANDERS: All right. This is why the ambassador is the ambassador to the UN, ladies and gentlemen. So Madam Ambassador, let’s talk about this. I got to pull my sleeves up to get into the work here. I don’t know if folks are familiar with just the historic nature of your appointment, but also the unlikely way in which you got here. So when I say historic, first of all, there have been three black people in the history of UN ambassadors…
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Four.
MS. SANDERS: …four, yes – to serve as UN ambassador. Two men, two women. You are the second woman, only the second black woman and only the fourth black person ever in the history of UN ambassadors to serve. You had a decorated career in the Foreign Service that culminated with your retirement in 2017. So help me understand how we go from retirement in 2017 to U.S.’s UN ambassador in 2020.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I don’t know. [Laughter.] Truthfully, while I retired from the Foreign Service, I stayed engaged in foreign policy issues. I worked for former Secretary of State, former UN Ambassador Madeleine Albright for her company as the head of her Africa practice advising companies doing business on the continent of Africa. And I was asked by the Biden team to lead the State Department’s transition in September before the election. And after the election, we started preparing for the transition into the State Department and about a week into that I got a call from someone on the transition team asking if I would be interested in being considered for a position in the administration. And I said, What exactly? And they said, well, we can’t tell you right now, but we want to start the vetting process. So I went through an intense vetting process. And when they’re doing a vetting, there’s nothing private in your life.
MS. SANDERS: No, they’re looking for everything.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: They’re looking for everything. And I was a little surprised that how intense the vetting was, because I’ve gone through vetting before for other senior positions, but I’d never gotten through a vetting like that.
MS. SANDERS: But while you were going through the vetting, you did not know what in fact, you were being vetted for?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: No. And so, after about two weeks of the vetting, I had some ideas in my head, like they’re going to come to me and say, so Linda now tell us what you want. Very naive. But I get a call saying the President-Elect would like to see you in Delaware to interview you for the position. And I said what position? And it was like you don’t know? And I’m like no, what am I being considered for? Oh, you’re being considered for the Ambassador to the United Nations as a cabinet level official. And it took my breath away. [Applause.]
MS. SANDERS: You see, I think that this story – obviously it all worked out. Okay. Because I remember seeing you in Delaware on the day that we announced, when I used to work in the administration. I worked for the President of Transition and the Vice President and the day that the announcement came of the stellar global foreign policy national security team, that was the first time I met you. So it did work out. She was in fact selected and Senate confirmed, passed the vetting, all of the things. But I think this story speaks to, I think it’s something a lot of women in this room and folks who are watching at home can identify with. You are humble, you put your head down, and you do the work. So much so that you do not – you didn’t even realize you were being considered as the UN ambassador. And I think that is the story of many women, particularly many black women in leadership positions.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: You know, it’s interesting, so I had people reaching out to me because I was the head of the transition, telling me they were interested in being the ambassador to the United Nations. And so I was taking down names. And then I had to call those people to say, I just got selected and I promise I never put my name forward. So it was, I really, it really caught me off guard.
MS. SANDERS: It’s refreshing because oftentimes, black women do the work. We are the best. We are the smartest, we’re the most credentialed, and there’s a reason why it is not us, and in this moment, it was in fact you. Let’s, hmmm – yes, a gem, a gem, ladies a gem. [Laughter.] Let’s talk about a little bit of the work because I, you know, maybe folks know what the UN Ambassador does, what the UN does, maybe they don’t. I think that the UN specifically, the UN across the board is focused on essentially creating a more equitable world. Right? But you specifically have taken on a number of different issues everything from food, security, to refugees. You are on the road a lot. You travel a lot. And coming up this summer it is the United States’ turn to head up the UN Security Council, well, you will chair that for about a month every country gets a month rotation for the month of August. So just talk to us a little bit about the priorities of the UN in the short term. I know there are two reports that recently came out one focused on women – a damning report might I say if we could get into it. I mean, the thoughts about women leadership across the globe, according to this UN report have barely moved in the last 10 years, still bleak. I think they polled a lot of men. And then there was a second report on refugees and the global crisis that is facing our world because so many people have become displaced.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Well, both of those are important priorities for me personally, if I can start with refugees. I started working on refugee issues in 1989, probably before a lot of the people were born.
MS. SANDERS: That’s the year I was born.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Yeah – including you. And it really, really attached itself to my heart. And so, from 1989 for probably the next 15 years of my career, that’s all I did. I lived and worked in Kenya, I lived and worked in Pakistan. I was responsible for refugees across the Horn of Africa and the Great Lakes. I had the misfortune of being in Rwanda when the genocide happened and dealt with Rwanda.
MS. SANDERS: You were there?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I was there. Not on assignment. I’d gone on a monitoring trip to look at refugees in Rwanda from Burundi. And I happened to be there on April 4th and April 6th – we all know what happened. And it was a life changer – it was a life changer for me. And I think it has made me into a much more sensitive, much more responsible, much more humanitarian-focused person. And that has colored what I have done at the Security Council, including focusing on food insecurity, focusing on famine, focusing on refugee and migration issues, and focusing on women, peace, and security issues.
Your point on women is well taken. Everywhere we go in the world, where there’s war, where there’s famine, where there’s hunger, women are the largest percentage of victims, and we have very few women in leadership roles. It is amazing right now that one third of the women on the Security Council are women. We just put out a wonderful video that is on Twitter, that was produced by the Swiss Embassy that talks about the five women Security Council members and the power that we have and the power of our voice, and the example that we are to women all over the world. I was in Iceland recently, and nobody knows – this country is run by women. The prime minister is a woman…
MS. SANDERS: Everybody says – Oooh – people are normally like, oh.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Yeah. The prime minister of the country is I think 34 years old. The foreign minister is a woman. I met nothing but women. I met one male minister in the country. And it’s a country that is doing well and we need – I told them, they don’t really tell their story. Because they really need to tell the story of women in Iceland.
I worked in Liberia as the ambassador. First woman ever to be elected a president in Africa – Ellen Johnson Sirleaf – it was an extraordinary moment. But it was an extraordinary experience for me to work side by side with her and to see her bring Liberia out of the ashes of war and bring them into a peaceful future.
So women are powerful. Our voices are powerful. We’re more sensitive than those guys. We feel the pain of the people we’re working with. And if you feel the pain, you feel the commitment, you feel the urgency of doing something about the pain, and that’s what I have done my entire career.
MS. SANDERS: I mean, it is a storied career, and I think your leadership style – like you lead with your heart – you are no nonsense, but you’re fun. I’ve spoken to a lot of people that have worked for you. There is not a bad word to be said. Everyone enjoys you. You cook. You make Gumbo for the people. Apparently, you cook it for world leaders – like I’m told its Gumbo diplomacy is how you’ve described it.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: You heard me use that phrase when the President announced me for this position. And it really came to the forefront that I’ve been doing it for years, but I never gave it a title or gave it a name until I gave that speech announcing my intentions if I was lucky enough to get confirmed for this position. And it’s what we all – we particularly us black women from the south – we know that the best way – people say, well the best way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. I say, the best way to the hearts of people, is through their stomach. It is through sitting at a table having a good meal. And it’s even more impressive if you cook the meal yourself. And I always when I want people to really enjoy a meal at my house. I cook it myself. Now I have Gumbo diplomacy, but I have something else that’s even better than the Gumbo, and it’s just red beans and rice. [Laughter.]
MS. SANDERS: Red beans and rice diplomacy. Okay. [Laughter.] Madam Ambassador, there’s a range of different women in this room and then folks who are watching – folks who are at executive levels in their own companies or their own fields. Young women who are aspiring executives moving up quickly in the ranks, entrepreneurs, folks like you who come from the Foreign Service. What is something you wish someone told you 20 years ago? A piece of advice you wish you – had you had known it – it would have made an immense amount of difference.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: You know, I wish someone had told me I could be anything, that I could do anything, and we say that. I did not know when I was a young girl and even when I was in college that I could do anything and be anything.
MS. SANDERS: When did you find out you could when you was…
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: When I did it. [Laughter.]
MS. SANDERS: When you executed?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: When I executed. You know, I came from the segregated South. I went to a segregated school. It was a good school. I had great teachers. Modest parents, oldest of eight kids. My father’s goal at night was – his big goal was – my kids won’t go to bed hungry. So that’s why we’re all overweight. [Laughter.] Because he made sure we never went to bed hungry. That was his goal in life. He wanted us to be well educated. He wanted us to be successful, but I don’t think he knew what success was. My mother didn’t know what success was. So we just kept doing whatever it was that was put in front of us, and so I really lucked out. Gifts were put in front of me that I accepted. And they led me down this path, and I always say to people, sometimes you think you know where you want to go. And so there’s this door at the end of the tunnel and you’re working your butt off to get to the end of the tunnel, and you’re passing all those opportunities. Open doors that you could have gone through and found even more amazing opportunities. I happen to have gone through one of those doors. And that door led me to here.
MS. SANDERS: Ambassador Linda Thomas Greenfield! [Applause.] Before I let you go, my last question to you is this: What is the biggest challenge you will tackle today, and I say today because tomorrow there’s going to be a new big challenge to tackle. So what is the biggest challenge you will tackle today and how are you going to do it?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: You know, I want there to be hope. And there’s so many young people in this world who don’t have a sense of hope. They don’t have a sense of purpose. And these are the young people who are going to be dealing with those challenges that we won’t be able to resolve. You’re going to be dealing with climate change. You’re going to be dealing with issues of war and peace. You’re going to be dealing with the next pandemic and there will be a next pandemic you’re going to be dealing with the next major humanitarian disaster, whether it’s an earthquake or Hurricane Katrina, as we experienced in Louisiana, and if you don’t have a sense of hope, you will not be prepared.
So I get up every morning hopeful. And I go to bed every night knowing that I have made my contribution to your futures. And that’s my challenge every day – that I make a small contribution. No matter how small – and it may just be I smiled at a person who had a bad day. I don’t raise my standards high. My goal is to get from morning to night and stay hopeful throughout that process. And in the meantime, I’m dealing with the war in Ukraine. I’m dealing with the war in Sudan. I’m dealing with a famine in Somalia. You never know what it’s going to be.
MS. SANDERS: Just a regular Thursday for the great LTG. [Laughter.] Madam Ambassador, thank you so much for your time for kicking it off today. I think she dropped some gems. Ladies, I don’t know about you. Please give a huge round of applause to the United States Representative to the UN. Ambassador Linda Thomas Greenfield. Thank you.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Thank you.