Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield
U.S. Representative to the United Nations
New York, New York
November 3, 2022
It reminds me of when I used to be in the classroom. Thank you, Ambassador Lute, for that introduction. I know you gave this SCUSA keynote lecture back in 2017, so I think I have some big shoes to fill coming behind you.
But before I do anything, I want to thank the SCUSA cadet staff for your dedicated work to coordinate this conference. Thank you for ensuring that all of us had a warm welcome to the quiet banks of the Hudson, and for being such outstanding hosts. We’re really honored to be here – and I truly am honored.
I’d also like to thank Dr. Dionne, Professor Harris, and Professor Mead for offering your wisdom and scintillating insights on this year’s theme, “Restoring the Promise of Democracy and Global Order: American Foreign Policy in an Era of Polarized Politics and Revisionist Powers.” It’s pretty meaty. And thank you Major Rigdon for providing such a thoughtful and sweeping theme paper to ignite so much good discussion tonight.
When West Point graduate, President Dwight Eisenhower, stood before the General Assembly of the United Nations, he told them and I quote, “Never before in history has so much hope for so many people been gathered together in a single organization.” Today, almost 70 years later, I still feel the same way when I walk into the United Nations chambers.
Just look at the long list of world-altering challenges we face: COVID-19 and climate change; conflicts in Europe and the Middle East; coups in Africa and Asia; a skyrocketing refugee crisis; an unprecedented food security crisis. Our problems are global. The world’s eyes are on the United Nations, where Russia’s invasion has sparked a crisis of confidence in the international system that we have all worked so hard, collectively, to build.
There are other emerging and advancing threats too, like the DPRK’s dangerous and destabilizing missile launches. Their escalation right now go beyond anything we have ever seen in the history of the DPRK’s unlawful weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile program. And they remind me of how, when President Eisenhower addressed the UN, he said – he did so with new language – he said it was the “language of atomic warfare.” He went on to detail how the atomic age had progressed to a new place. The United States no longer held a monopoly on the secret of atomic weapons.
Today’s theme hits on a similar idea. That while the United States may still be the “indispensable nation,” we no longer have a monopoly on international affairs. Far from it. I can tell you first-hand: in the trenches of diplomacy, we are fighting for every inch.
The two votes we had in the General Assembly on Russia’s war in Ukraine provide a case study: both for how the environment has shifted, and how we can still win.
The first resolution, last March, condemned Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine. It received 141 votes in favor and only five against.
The second, last month, condemned Russia’s attempted illegal annexation of Ukrainian territory and refused to recognize those territories as anything but Ukraine. It received 143 votes in favor, and again, only five against.
These raw numbers make it seem easy, almost inevitable. Of course, the world would come together and condemn Russia’s actions. After all, the founding ideas of the UN was that countries could no longer invade their neighbors and steal their land. That path, we collectively agreed after two world wars, led to horror.
As I sat there in the General Assembly Hall, watching the votes come in, I actually felt the opposite of horror – I felt hope. But let me be clear: these results were far from inevitable. They were the product of weeks of hard-nosed diplomacy. We had to whip votes, shake hands, make calls. We had to have a lot of tough conversations with our friends – and sometimes our foes. If in a previous world we could have snapped our fingers and gotten our way, that is far from the case today. But we won those votes. The world sided with Ukraine. And not, by the way, because other countries felt pressured to side with America.
Ultimately, I believe, we won because we convinced the world that we needed them to defend the UN Charter. As I said in call after call, meeting after meeting, it’s not about voting with us, it’s about voting for the UN Charter.
This new foreign policy environment strikes me as the result of at least three trends I’ve noticed since assuming my role as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.
First: China flexing its foreign policy muscles and threatening to impose its will on the international order. Second: the Global South making their voices heard. And third: the polarization at home that threatens to divide our foreign policy.
So, let me start with China. Russia’s further invasion of Ukraine was a surprising and immediate shock to the UN System. But as President Biden laid out in our new National Security Strategy, China is, and I quote, “the only competitor with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to advance that objective.”
When the previous administration pulled back from the UN, China saw an opening and leapt in. In that time, China planted its ideological language in countless UN resolutions. They have shaped agendas, mechanisms, and mandates in their favor. They did this quietly; but it is hard to overstate the significance of these advancements.
Which is why it’s important that the United States is back and exerting our leadership. We are re-engaging with our allies. We are re-engaging with the world. And we are refusing to cede the UN to China’s worldview.
Let me give you one less technical, more poignant example. Shortly after I arrived at the UN, the General Assembly held a meeting commemorating the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. I’m a descendant of slaves. For me, this meeting was personal. So, I made my remarks personal. I’d talked about growing up in the segregated South and experiencing the ugly face of racism. I also talked about how I’d experienced racism everywhere I’d traveled, all around the globe. And I pointed out the significance of me, being there, to represent America to the world. That I could sit in that chair, my face behind the United States placard, and declare that Black Lives Matter. That was, I argued, America’s greatest strength. That we could acknowledge our past and our current problems. It’s what empowers us to make progress.
After the meeting, so many delegates came up to me with hugs and tears. I had not yet met most of them. I’d only been there about maybe four weeks, but they were moved by my openness and my honesty. And they were glad to see we were back, leading at the UN.
But there was another dimension to this too. In my remarks, I pointed out how racism was deadly to so many countries around the world, like the Rohingya in Burma or the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. China was not pleased of course by that reference.
In retaliation, in the Chinese Representative’s remarks that followed mine, he went on at length about the terrible racism Black American people experienced in the United States. But interestingly, in that room, it completely fell flat. After all, this wasn’t some revelatory accusation. I had just talked about it. To me, that summed up the difference in our country’s systems.
The Chinese representative couldn’t anticipate – he couldn’t even understand that I can speak openly about our issues. It was totally foreign to him. China would never, for example, admit to what it’s doing in Xinjiang. But to be open about our own challenges, that’s the American way. It allows us to improve. It is the engine of our progress. Self-criticism makes us stronger.
And it won us more allies that day at the United Nations, which brings me to the second trend: the Global South making itself heard. The G77 is a group at the UN that emerged during the Cold War, a collection of countries that attempted to stay out of the war and not align themselves with either side. Since the end of the Cold War, the group has expanded to 134 developing countries.
Over the years, the group has felt neglected and abused. They feel that world powers have jockeyed around them and that we’ve ignored their voices. In the past, they’ve often been stymied by a lack of unity. But more and more, they are recognizing their collective power. Now, together, along with other groups like the African Union, they are demanding to be brought more equitably into the global governance system.
Since Day One, I have been making sure they don’t just have seats at the table, but microphones and megaphones to make their views heard. We are proactively engaging them as partners, especially for challenges that directly involve them. For example, with the onset of the worst global hunger crisis any of us have ever seen, I went on a listening tour, and met with smaller countries that are most affected by the fallout, and I can’t tell you how much they appreciated that. It was with their input that we forged a Roadmap for Global Food Security, which more than 100 countries signed on to. That led to us bringing together heads of state for a Global Security Summit, which helped us rally the world for the resources, and supplies, and coordination we need to tackle the crisis.
More broadly, the Global South has been calling for structural reform to the international system. They want to see themselves represented. In the Security Council, for example, the five permanent members are China, Russia, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States. That is not exactly representative of the world.
So, at this year’s UN General Assembly, President Biden announced that for the first time, the United States will support new permanent seats in the Security Council for countries from Africa and Latin America. Now, achieving that reform and others will not be difficult. But we’re working hard with all Member States to forge a consensus around sensible and credible proposals. Not just on expansion, but on working methods, to increase transparency and inclusivity. To those ends, I’m meeting with Member States, regional blocs, and reform coalitions to hear their ideas. Because that’s what this is all about: listening, and working together, in partnership.
In a world where we are no longer unipolar, building those relationships is critical to maintaining peace and security around the world. And one of our most powerful advantages here in our country is our diaspora. We have citizens from every country on earth. Which means we have ties to those countries.
Earlier this year, for example, I visited Ghana. There, I talked about how an esteemed group of Americans, including Ralph Bunche and Dr. King, came to Ghana in 1957 to mark its independence. They believed that the world was connected, that progress in Ghana meant progress not just in Africa, but in America too. America is home to so much of the African diaspora, and our people are tied together, through bonds of family and friendship, and history – both painful and joyful. The same is true for so many other countries including Russia and China. Those bonds are something that we can build on. And they give us a way to engage, a place to leap from to advance our diplomatic goals.
Which leaves the final question I want to address today: what happens when we cannot agree on our own diplomatic goals? In my nearly four decades of public service, I’ve worked, proudly, under administrations from both parties. In those years, I saw some differences in approach between the two parties. But our fundamental values were the same. And our sharp disagreements stopped at the water’s edge.
That is, clearly, no longer the case. Polarization has driven a wedge in our unified foreign policy.
And by the way, not all of this is coming from within. Other countries have seen our growing polarization and sought to speed it up. Russian social media bots, for example, tried to sway our election.
Our adversaries are looking for ways, constantly, to drive us apart. They think that, by tearing at our social fibers, our democratic quilt will unravel. Whether they are right, ultimately, is up to you. Because the truth is, you are the decision makers here. My generation, Ambassador Lute, all of us, we’re on our way out.
You are the ascendant. And you will decide the direction of this country. Do we turn against each other based on our politics? Do we pollute our discourse, stovepipe our information sources, and turn our backs on shared values?
Or do we embrace our democracy, seek to form that more perfect union, and hold ourselves up as a bright beacon of freedom to the world? Ultimately, I can tell you, if we bet on our values, I believe we will win. As President Biden likes to say, we are at our best when we lead not just by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.
I know that here at West Point, you say that much of the history you teach was made by the people you taught. Well, cadets and SCUSA delegates, I can promise you this: you now – you now have the opportunity to make history.
As President Biden said in his speech just last night, “From the very beginning, nothing has been guaranteed about democracy in America. Every generation has had to defend it, protect it, preserve it, and choose it.”
You will decide whether our country can come together. You will demonstrate how our democracy can deliver. You will determine what the world looks like 35 years from now – that’s how long I served in the Foreign Service, before I arrived at the UN.
My advice to you is to use that power wisely. Use it to bring this country together. To advance democracy and human rights. And do everything – everything you can – to make the world more equal, more peaceful, and more secure.
Thank you for your service. Thank you for making our future. God bless America. God bless our troops. Thank you and I look forward to your questions.