Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield
U.S. Representative to the United Nations
New York, New York
September 29, 2022
AMBASSADOR LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Hi, everyone. First, I have to dry my eyes. Thank you, Wendy. It’s really wonderful to be back here and see everyone. President DeGioia, Dean Hellman, friends and colleagues, students, it’s really an honor to be here to celebrate the life of Madeleine Korbel Albright, or MKA as we all liked to call her. And I want to particularly thank Georgetown University and the School of Foreign Service for bringing us together today.
Madeleine Albright held many titles over the course of her life, and you may know a few of them. Wendy described her. She started out as an NSC staffer in government, became the U.S. Representative to the United Nations, Secretary of State, and was a mother and grandmother, which are titles I know she was extraordinarily proud of.
For me one title she held was role model. I first met MKA back in the early ‘90s. I was a Foreign Service Officer stationed in Geneva and I had long admired her from afar, but now she was coming back to town for a conference, and I felt her presence as soon as she entered the room. Seeing her up close and personal was truly a revelation for me. When she spoke, people listened. She was grateful, graceful, generous, and strong. She was whip-smart but at the same time down to Earth. I remember thinking to myself, this is what leadership looks like. This is how I want to be viewed as I move through my career in diplomacy.
Little did I know, one day I would sit behind the same placard that she did at the United Nations. And Wendy, I recall speaking to her about her G7 group. So, when I arrived on the Security Council, I’m like, I’m going to do exactly what Madeleine did. I’m going to set up my G5. And I was a little sad that I only had five women on the Security Council, and Madeleine somehow had seven at her time. So, I told her, I’m like, “You know, I followed in your footsteps. I set up my G5. We’re working closely together, but it’s a shame I only had five and you had seven.” She said, “Linda, I had seven across the UN.” [Laughter.] We were one‑third of the Security Council, five women on the Security Council. It was extraordinary. And there were, at the time, about 60 women in the UN system. That number has dropped a little bit, but it’s coming back up and we continue to have the five on the Security Council and we call ourselves the G5. I know Madeleine was very proud of that.
Of course, I wasn’t the only one who held MKA up as a role model. This is a woman you heard who went from fleeing Nazi invasion and communist oppression to becoming our first female Secretary of State. She was an icon to so many. She paved a path forward for all of us, but of all the many job titles MKA held, perhaps the one she was most proud of – and you’ve heard it already from Wendy – she was most proud of being called Professor Albright. She was a fixture on this campus and devoted herself to her students. And even after her health declined, she was determined to get better so that she could get back into the classroom. The classroom was like a second home for her. And it warms my heart to know that so many of her former students are here in this room today. But even more astonishing for me was that on the day she passed, many of my colleagues at the UN told me that they had been her student.
We were in the General Assembly celebrating a vote on Ukraine when I was handed a note that Madeleine had passed away. And I stood up at the podium before giving my speech, and like you, Wendy, I broke down in tears in front of the world. But what happened next was that every single member of the General Assembly stood up and started their speech with memories of Madeleine. Every single one of them. And it was an extraordinary day. We were celebrating that we had defeated Russia and kicked them off the Human Rights Council, but we were also celebrating Madeleine Albright, and it made me extraordinarily proud.
So, she was an astonishing lady, as I said, and she has left a huge legacy for all of us. And I know that she is counting on you to carry her work forward. That should embolden and it should energize you. It should motivate you. As Madeleine once said, “Be authors of the history of our age.” Now, if it feels like I’m putting a mountain of pressure on you, then good, because Madeleine would never have wanted you to shirk away from your responsibility to serve others. But I can also sympathize with you because I know what it feels like to try to follow in her footsteps. I understand the anxieties that come with that.
As U.S. Representative to the United Nations, I constantly ask myself a simple question, “What would Madeleine have done?” How would she have responded to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? How would she keep the world’s attention also focused on protracted conflicts in Yemen and Syria and elsewhere? And what I really want to know is how did she stay both optimistic and realistic, kind but firm? How did she keep pushing forward no matter the obstacles, no matter how impossible things seem? And I also would ask, “What pin would she be wearing today?” [Laughter.] And I mentioned to Wendy that just before she passed away, I had been thinking, “I’ve got to call Madeleine to see if I can borrow a pin to wear in my meetings in front of the Russians.” And I never – I missed the opportunity. I didn’t make that phone call, and I regret it to this day.
For so much of my adult life, Madeleine was there to answer these kinds of questions and many more. She was a phone call away when I served as the – when I moved to New York. She was always generous with her time and her wisdom. But here’s what has given me some semblance of comfort in the months since she passed: The answers to the questions of our day are actually within our reach because she spelled them out for all of us in her speeches, in her books, in her courses here at Georgetown, and in the private counsel she shared with so many of us. Madeleine’s legacy is infinite because it lives on in all of those she taught, all of those she mentored, and all of us she inspired.
Madeleine, MKA, was famous for those pins she wore on her shoulder, each with a different story and symbolism. As I’ve said before, I will always have her as my pin sitting on my shoulders guiding me as we take on some of the world’s most pressing challenges, whispering her wisdom as she had for so many of us.
Thank you, and I look forward to today’s conversation. [Applause.]
AMBASSADOR MELANNE VERVEER: That was an emotional wallop from the two of you, but just an extraordinary reflection. I have several questions, but I’m going to tell the students that I’m going to curtail most of them, and you can start lining up whenever you’re comfortable, women first –
DEPUTY SECRETARY OF STATE WENDY SHERMAN: Look at all those telephones.
AMBASSADOR VERVEER: – as the Deputy Secretary suggested. So, Wendy, you talked about new ways of thinking for these times because they are indeed crises one after another. I think, too, as both of you mentioned, Madeleine was a refugee living with the experience of war as a child, the disorder that it creates. She often talked about the new world disorder, having confronted so many of the kinds of things you’re dealing with today in both of your positions. But I wonder how she might address some of that new thinking were she sitting here. Wendy, I know you, in your awesome responsibilities, must be thinking about that constantly, so maybe you can give us just a sense of how we think about today and what we’re up against because the new world order or the international world order, as we’ve come to know it, is really sorely tested.
DEPUTY SECRETARY SHERMAN: As I was listening to Linda and Melanne and thinking about all of this, I kept thinking in my mind how Madeleine would describe herself as an optimist who worries a lot. The reason I thought about that is it really was sort of a combination of hope and optimism with pragmatism, and we got a lot to worry about and a lot to do. That kept her both looking ahead while at the same time searching for solutions. She understood that the world changes. I mean, look what she lived through, what Kathy, her sister here, lived through with Nazism and communism and the Second World War. She lived the blitz in London; the end of World War II; the blossoming of democracy and then seeing the Cold War and then seeing the end of the Cold War; of the expansion of NATO, which she pushed very hard, for which led us, in part, to where we are today. In the post-Cold War era is how we are talking about today, but no one knows yet how that is going to end up.
I can tell you from traveling around the world and I know that Linda has had the same experience, most of the world wants the big powers to just stop it. They want to be able to eat a decent meal. They want to have energy. They don’t want to have inflation. They want all of their children to come to the United States for school. They want to learn English. They want to have a decent life. Madeleine understood no matter what era you live in, government has to deliver, and she would always say again and again and again, everybody here who knows her heard her say 100 times, democracy must deliver. She understood that after the downfall of the Soviet Union, she understood why Putin came to power because people wanted to eat more than they wanted to vote. If they couldn’t eat, if they couldn’t feel their lives were secure, what did the vote matter, what did the vote matter?
So, at a time when democracy is enormously challenged, even in our own country, and we have to be very humble about that, I urge everyone here – I just started to watch the “U.S. and the Holocaust” by Ken Burns, just watch it, watch it, watch it, to understand what happened in the rest of the world. Some of it came from how we were dealing with African Americans in our own country, from our own Jim Crow laws. She understood all of these connections and so what I think we have to do, to answer your question and stop talking, is to understand those connections and to understand what people want in their daily lives. She understood we have to deliver, so that’s what we all have to be focused on: delivering.
AMBASSADOR VERVEER: That’s the challenge to democracy and democratic leaders today, as well. Linda, Madeleine didn’t have an easy time at the UN. She was dealing with those disorders that she talked about as Bosnia and Somalia and the Rwandan genocide, but my gosh today, it just seems so much harder in every way. Lots of questions about how does the UN function with the veto power constantly being abused – I won’t say used, abused by certain parties. We’ve been watching what you’ve been going through in the Security Council, literally day after day. What is the potential for progress for effectiveness? Where do we go because the UN has to work?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: And I say that every time I’m asked this question, the UN is all we have, and if we didn’t have it, we would create it. So, we have to make it work. We have to make it fit for purposes to deal with the crises that we are dealing with today. I gave a speech in San Francisco, maybe a month ago now, where I talked about UN reforms. We have to have a UN that’s more diverse, so that means we need to look at how we expand the Security Council and bring other voices in from the South. The President noted in his speech to the UN that we need to open up possibilities for Africa, for Latin America, for the Caribbean, as well as other countries, that we know ought to be part of this institution.
We have to make the UN more transparent. Recently Lichtenstein actually introduced a resolution. We co‑sponsored the resolution with them calling for every permanent member of the Security Council who used their veto to come into the General Assembly and explain why we felt we had to use that veto. That’s pretty extraordinary. I’m dreading the moment that I have to go and explain, but I have loved seeing my Russian and Chinese colleagues have to stand before the Security Council and explain why they felt they needed to use the veto, their veto power.
We have to engage with everyone, so I find I have very long days because there’s no country too small for me to meet with. So, I know that the President and Secretary are meeting with the Pacific Island states. I meet with them all the time and I can tell you how much they appreciate it. If we’re going to get 141 votes like we did when we condemned Russia in the General Assembly, the only way to get those votes is have people feel like you appreciate them.
So that’s how we make this very convoluted organization that we call the United Nations work. We work by opening up, we work by transparency, and we work through partnership.
AMBASSADOR VERVEER: You’re doing a great job. We have quite a line of women but we’re going to start. So be as quick to the question as you can be and just tell us who you are and what school you’re in.
QUESTION: I will try. Hi. My name is L.J. Dusthimer. I’m a MSFS student. There have only been 17 openly LGBTQ ambassadors to serve in countries for the United States, of which only six were career Foreign Service, one was a person of color, and there have been no women. Do you believe that appointing an LGBTQ+ ambassador is a political decision, and will we ever see an openly LGBTQ ambassador appointed to a country that actively persecutes LGBTQ persons? Thank you.
DEPUTY SECRETARY SHERMAN: It’s a great question. Increasing diversity doesn’t mean just gender and race and ethnicity or accessibility in terms of those who are challenged with disabilities. It absolutely means LGBTQI+. Every place I have travelled in the world pretty much, I’ve met with the LGBTQI+ community. Sometimes it has been with people who are very proud of what they are doing in societies that recognize their importance. In other places it has been in the ambassador’s residence where we have quietly brought people in. They cannot be known to be there. They are putting their lives literally at risk to make sure that we continue to move forward for their rights. So, I want to say, as important as I believe it is to make sure that LGBTQI+ individuals at the State Department, civil service and foreign service, get to be promoted, get to be ambassadors, get to represent us around the world, that we have same sex accreditation to make sure that people who are partners with each other are accredited and have immunity in a country, we do all of that.
It is the responsibility for every single one of us, whether we ourselves may be cisgender or may be transgender or may think of ourselves in some other way. So, I applaud your question. We absolutely must do all of that. There are many more ambassadors who privately identify as LGBTQI+ than are public about it, for their own choices or for the country in which they serve. I think that will change over time. I see change happening. Cuba just approved same sex marriage, Cuba. So, we are making progress. A lot of more work to go.
AMBASSADOR VERVEER: Thank you. Next?
QUESTION: Hi. My name is Sylvia. I’m in the SFS. My question is, what advice would you give to young women who want to enter the international field to enact change in humanitarian issues that aren’t given the priority that they deserve?
AMBASSADOR VERVEER: Linda, let’s start with you.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I will do that because that’s what I did most of my career, working on humanitarian issues. What I would say to you is find your niche and just go into that niche. As a Foreign Service Officer, I was discouraged from focusing on humanitarian, so I did my first assignment and I loved it so much, I decided to take a second. I was told it was going to be a career buster. I took a third and I was reminded that my career would end very quickly. I took a fourth [Laughter.] and I was reminded that I would never get promoted into the Senior Foreign Service. And as a Senior Foreign Service Officer I became a Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Office of Population, Refugees, and Migrations. I took five assignments. [Applause.] So go for it.
AMBASSADOR VERVEER: And a great assistant secretary you were. And now with all of the Afghan issues and other issues, we’re always saying, “What would Linda do?” Please.
QUESTION: Hi, my name is Channing. I’m a fourth-year student in the School of Foreign Service and also a first-year student in the securities studies program. Thank you so much for being here. My question is a little bit two‑pronged. We heard some lovely stories in the former panel of challenges that our foreign minister guests had faced in their careers early on. I’m hoping that time has really changed, and you are not asked to bring coffee. I’m wondering what are some challenges that you’re facing currently as a woman, and what advice do you have for our male colleagues to support women moving forward? Thank you so much.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: First, to our male colleagues, you have to own this, as well. I hope that whenever you walk into a room filled with only men and particularly if it’s a room filled with only white men, that you feel uncomfortable and you take on the responsibility to change that because we as women can’t do it by ourselves. We have to have the support of our male colleagues, as well, to bring about change and so many have supported that.
And then for women, for me, I had kind of a two‑pronged issue. I was a woman, and I was Black. I am woman and I am Black. [Laughter.] Forgot that. [Laughter.] And that’s important. I didn’t intend to say I forgot it but sometimes you do have to forget it. Own your room. So, when I walk into a room, I’m not walking into a room as a Black woman. I’m walking into the room as the Permanent Representative of the United States of America, and people better understand that that’s who I am. [Applause.]
DEPUTY SECRETARY SHERMAN: One of the earliest pieces of advice that Madeleine Albright ever gave me is exactly what Linda just testified to. She learned this when she was U.N. ambassador and sat behind a sign that said the United States of America. She said, Wendy, when you walk into a room, you’re less a woman, or Wendy Sherman, or a Jewish‑American, or white. You are the United States of America, and that comes with a lot of power, and you need to learn how to use it wisely. I think I have. One other thing I would say is, I’m now 73 years old. That gives me an enormous amount of liberty. [Laughter.] And I use it. A delegation recently came in from another country. I’m not going to say which country because I don’t want to embarrass anyone. It was all men. And my side of the table, out of five people, had three women. And I knew my counterpart pretty well, so I teased him. I said, “great to see you, and next time I want your delegation to look like mine.” So, it is each of our responsibility in whatever role we have wherever we are, whatever we do, to bring consciousness about whatever needs consciousness, and gender is one of those things, race, ethnicity, disability, LGBTQI plus. All of the things that may create difference, we have a responsibility to bring consciousness.
AMBASSADOR VERVEER: I remember so well that when President Clinton was considering who he was going to name as Secretary of State, one of the criticisms from others who were competing for the position was – well, how is she going to be accepted in the Middle East? Nobody will deal with her. And she said, I will be representing the United States of America and if they want to talk to the United States of America, they’ll be dealing with me. End of story.
DEPUTY SECRETARY SHERMAN: Absolutely.
AMBASSADOR VERVEER: Next?
QUESTION: Hi there. My name is Zach. I’m a junior in the School of Foreign Service. My question relates to geopolitics generally. It seems to me that there’s been an increasing amount of sectionalism and factionalism amongst the international community. The war in Ukraine has demonstrated that, with some nations riding on the coat tails of Russia and China when it came to abstaining from UN votes on the issue, for instance. I guess my question is, do you think that forging consensus amongst nations is more or less challenging since the time when Madeleine Albright was Secretary of State?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I think – and I can’t speak for what it was like during her period, but I find it extraordinarily challenging because there are so many factors that come into play that weren’t there before. The use of social media. The use of misinformation. The pressure that countries are put under in real-time. Having our colleagues get threatening text messages while they’re sitting at the table, that you either abstain or be absent from the room or we will hold it against you. And so, I don’t blame our colleagues who make the decision – many of them – to abstain, because I know the threats that they are under. So, what we have to do a better job of, is making sure we give them choices that allow them to make the right decisions. So that has been extraordinarily challenging. It’s a whole of government effort. It’s not just me. It’s me calling Wendy saying, I need you to call this country’s capital because the PR is being intimidated by our Russian colleagues. So, it really is challenging but we can do all of that in real-time, and those challenges are also opportunities, because in the past we would have to try to put in a phone call. Now we’re all on each other’s cell phones, we WhatsApp, and we can get a call through in real-time to a Foreign Minister to say I need you to instruct your PR to do the right thing.
AMBASSADOR VERVEER: We’ve reached the point where we’re out of time, but here’s what we’re going to do – we’ll take two questions more, but each of you ask your question and then we’ll wait for the answers after the two questions. So, first question.
QUESTION: Hi. I’m Yasmin, a first-year in the School of Foreign Service. My question is about someone who has family in Iran and is Iranian herself, what is some advice that you would give to women not just in Iran but in countries in which their rights and freedoms are being stripped away from them, and how can nations make any sort of progress in such an extreme situation like those?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Thank you.
QUESTION: Hi, my name is Ava. I’m a first-year student at SFS. My question was how do you see the increase in number of women as you mentioned, from Madeleine’s G7 to your currently G5 only in the security council, impact the way resolutions are created and passed?
AMBASSADOR VERVEER: Very interesting. Good questions.
DEPUTY SECRETARY SHERMAN: Can I start with the young Iranian colleague. My first piece of advice is talk to Melanne Verveer, who has helped to encourage women’s leadership and women’s rights all around the world. For as long as I have known Melanne, this has been a journey of her heart – truly – and knows how to do this almost everywhere. The protests that are going on right now in Iran are extraordinary. Painfully, as you probably know better than I will, they will likely be put down, because the oppression is quite tremendous. But their voices are being heard. Over time they will not be stilled. They will and are breaking through to the world. The one thing about social media, is that there are many ways to find your way to it, even when governments tell you you can’t have it and shut down the internet. There are ways to get through anyway. Because of that, people see how other people live around the world and they want the same things. And so, I do believe what Madeleine believed, which is that over time one way or another people will fight their way to freedom.
AMBASSADOR VERVEER: Can I just add one second on Iran. Check the institute website. We’ve got a number of materials up and a call to action. I met with some Iranians in exile yesterday and they said what is remarkable about this protest movement, it is mostly the young people, and men are protesting with the women. That is a big change.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Just, if I can comment on that as well, that they appreciate knowing that they’re being supported around the world. They know that we are supporting them, and that gives them courage. But I agree with Wendy that at some point this violent regime will put this down. Women will die. It really does make me feel almost powerless to know that we can’t just reach out and put our hands on them and help them. You asked about how women can be effective in the UN. On issues related to women, peace and security, every single woman, regardless of what country they’re from, they’ve all expressed an interest in making sure that we address women, peace and security issues in the Security Council, on every issue we are engaged in. Sometimes the men will do it, but you can’t always depend on them to do it. You can depend on the women to always look out for those kinds of issues because we know it’s truly important.
AMBASSADOR VERVEER: Let’s thank these two remarkable women. [Applause.] And effective and dedicated public servants. [Applause.]