Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield
U.S. Representative to the United Nations
April 28, 2023
AMBASSADOR LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD: (In progress) and [Madeleine Albright] presented herself in that way until she passed away. But when I got to know her personally, I realized that she was such a kindhearted, decent person and that she cared about what she was working on. And I’m really proud to have had her as a role model, but even more important, as a mentor and as a colleague – we both taught at Georgetown University – and then as a boss because I headed her Africa practice at her company, Albright Stonebridge. So, she was a tremendous loss for all of us, not just in the State Department but around the world.
DEAN FRITZ MAYER: Absolutely. And I must say for me, one of the great joys of the position I hold now was getting to know her, and she was so supportive and so thoughtful and, as you say, I always say sort of pound for pound maybe the toughest person –
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Yeah.
DEAN MAYER: – you’d ever meet, and very, very funny. So, we all miss her. And it’s been fascinating to see how many, many people’s lives she touched, like your own.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I mentioned – I want to share this. The day she died, I was in the General Assembly to make a speech, and so I had to go up and talk about her before delivering the speech. And then at least 50, I don’t know, 100 other permanent representatives got up to speak, and every single one of them had a Madeleine Albright story. So, she didn’t just impact us in the United States. She had an impact around the world.
DEAN MAYER: Yeah. Thank you for sharing that. Well, you’re here because there’s the Cities Summit of the Americas, and most of the people here are from cities or municipalities. You represent the United States before the world’s most important international organization. How do you see – why is this an important gathering, the Cities Summit? And do you see the role of cities becoming increasingly important in international affairs?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I absolutely do. And part of the reason I’m here is because the summit is focusing on the SDGs and how we implement. We have seven years left to 2030. And the cities are addressing these issues, and some of them have played key roles. The city of Bogotá, for example, actually talked about their commitments and where they are in achieving their commitments. The city of Los Angeles has also been actively engaged.
And what I have come to understand from my perch in the United Nations is we need policy up here, but policy is implemented down here. It’s implemented by cities. It’s implemented by mayors who have direct engagement with their cities in terms of addressing issues of poverty, addressing – which is one of the SDGs – addressing issues of climate change, an SDG. I was very proud that when the decision was made for – that we pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement, the city of Los Angeles continued with their commitments and continued to engage on these issues.
So, cities play an important role on the multilateral stage, and I think this conference has highlighted that in many, many ways.
DEAN MAYER: And do you see this sort of city diplomacy as sort of the new and growing, increasingly important dimension of international relations?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: It is an increasingly important one. It’s one that cities have played previously. Someone mentioned to me last night that there are only two things that cities can’t do: they can’t declare war and they can’t sign treaties. But they can engage with countries. And even when I served as ambassador to Liberia, city mayors came to visit to talk with countries about what they’re doing to achieve some of the SDGs. And we have this amazing program of sister cities around the world, and the sister cities has been an extraordinary diplomatic platform for us to engage with Americans at the level of cities, but also to engage with other countries.
DEAN MAYER: No, it’s fascinating and it’s been fascinating for us to have all these delegates here.
Let me shift gears a little bit to a perhaps all-too-traditional international relations issue, and that’s Russia and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. On the one-year anniversary of this invasion, you issued a statement saying that we’re really condemning Russia’s behavior and its invasion of Ukraine, its violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, the UN Charter, international humanitarian law, pretty much everything the UN stands for. And so, I guess the question is how effective can the UN be in holding Russia to account? As a permanent member of the Security Council it has a veto; it’s currently chair I guess of the Security Council.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Two more days.
DEAN MAYER: Two more days. Okay.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: We’re counting down. (Laughter.)
DEAN MAYER: For many people there’s a – who look at this from (inaudible), how – what can the UN really do here?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: The UN is a powerful platform, and I think it was Madeleine Albright who said if we didn’t have the UN, we would create it. And the UN has been extraordinarily effective in dealing with issues of war and peace despite what we’re seeing happening right now. It is a horrible thing that a permanent member of the Security Council has invaded a neighbor and really put a stake in the heart of everything we all believe in, all of the values of the Charter, the values of sovereignty and integrity.
And so, it is a challenge for us today in the Security Council, but we’re still able to do work. We’re still able to engage on the issues. Yesterday I was not sitting in the chair, but the Council, with Russia sitting in the presidency, unanimously passed a resolution on Afghanistan. We passed a resolution dealing with the situation on the Syrian border, extending that one border crossing for six months. We passed a resolution dealing with the situation in Burma. We passed resolutions on Haiti. So, while it’s not business as usual, we’re still getting the business of the Security Council done in some areas.
And Secretary Blinken coined the phrase: we have to row. We can’t just deal with Ukraine; we have to deal with the rest of the world. We had a meeting on Sudan earlier this week, on Tuesday. So, we are dealing with the rest of the world in spite of the fact that Russia has really caused us to rethink and question what we do in the Security Council.
DEAN MAYER: Yeah. Let me turn to a different kind of a conflict, which is the conflict in Sudan now, and first congratulate you on the efforts that you and others have been making to forge a ceasefire and try to ameliorate this situation. Assuming that the ceasefire holds at least, what are the prospects there for peace? And I just – even the broader question is: why should this matter to us? Why is it important that we be trying to facilitate peace in Sudan?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: We live in a global world now, and we can’t cushion ourselves from what is happening elsewhere in the world. There’s no such thing as isolationism anymore. Modern technology puts in front of us every single day what is happening elsewhere in the world, and those things impact us. There’s 16,000 Americans in Sudan. We have to continue to engage on these issues because today it’s Ukraine, tomorrow it’s Sudan, the next day it may be on our borders. And this is the point that I constantly make to other countries who don’t want to engage on these issues, is if you don’t engage today, it may be your problem tomorrow and you will want us to engage on these issues.
And despite what we read and hear in the politics of America, what I know is that Americans care. It doesn’t matter which side of the political spectrum you are on; Americans are engaged everyplace in the world. And I get lots of letters from American citizens who want us to be involved on issues, and particularly when they related to humanitarian issues, when they relate to life-and-death issues.
DEAN MAYER: It’s amazing the range of issues you have that are on your plate. It’s really quite extraordinary.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: When I took this job, I was an Africanist. I’d spent my entire career on the continent of Africa. A little – spent a little bit of time in Pakistan. I served there and I served in Jamaica, and I served in Geneva. But I studied Africa and lived in Africa before joining the Foreign Service and thought, how can I do a job that covers the world? And what I learned very, very quickly is we all can do everything if we put our minds to it. And you may not be the expert, which is why I have lots of experts like (inaudible) sitting here in the room who can guide me and give me the knowledge that I need when I stand in front of the camera to make sure I’m on the mark.
DEAN MAYER: Yeah. Just to pick another issue I know that matters a lot to you is food security, and whether it’s in the context of the fragile agreement with Russia about Ukrainian grain or the larger longer-term issues of how climate change is affecting food production. It’s not the sort of usual issue that people think of when they think of international relations, but why is food security an important issue for us to think about?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: When I arrived in New York in February of ’21, I immediately, March 1st, became president of the Security Council. And as president of the Security Council, you are able to focus the Council on issues and events that are priorities for you. And my issue was food security. This is before Ukraine. Because we are dealing with issues of famine around the world. We’re dealing with issues of food deserts here in the United States. We’re dealing with issues of starvation. And in this day and age when we have so much abundance, there – people should not be starving. And we have to figure out how to deal with these issues in a global way.
Ukraine made it worse for all of us. When I’ve traveled to Africa, I’m hearing from African farmers that they can only grow one-fifth of what they previously grew because they don’t – the price of fertilizer has gone up so high. They are having issues with supplies. So, the war in Ukraine exacerbated an already difficult, dire situation that we had that had – was a result of the pandemic, climate change, as well as conflict elsewhere in the world.
And so, for me this is a global issue. It’s an issue that we all have to come together to address. We’ve seen countries use food as a weapon of war. And that has to be one of those kinds of lines that we have to fight against: allowing a country to use food. We’re seeing Russia use food as a weapon of war. The Black Sea Grain Initiative will expire on the 18th of May, and the Secretary-General has been working diligently to get that extended, because if he doesn’t get it extended, it’s going to make the food crisis even tougher. I didn’t know when this war started that Ukraine and Russia provided about 50 percent of the wheat –
DEAN MAYER: It’s amazing.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: — that we consume worldwide. So, it’s had a major impact and I think, again, we all have to address it.
We had a summit, or a ministerial, in New York in September that was co-hosted by Secretary Blinken and several other ministers, and they made commitments on food security that we’re all working to address so that we can ensure that this doesn’t happen again in the future.
DEAN MAYER: And food security is – of course it’s a terrible thing in and of itself if people are not getting enough food, but then also it leads to migration and it leads to conflict.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Conflict.
DEAN MAYER: It has all these knock-on effects, doesn’t it?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Yeah.
DEAN MAYER: So, we could go in a lot of different directions. There are so many issues in the world right now. We had a few questions from the audience when they registered, and quite a number focused on China. And it’s no secret that much of the relations between the U.S. and China are tense at the moment, and relative certainly to the past. There are differences over the status of Taiwan, or China’s position on the Ukraine war, or human rights which you’ve talked about, or even TikTok. But (inaudible) we have to work together on major issues like climate change, as you addressed.
So, the question from the audience was what role can you play at the UN in helping to reduce those tensions and to work collaboratively with China on those issues?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: That’s an excellent question and wasn’t what I expected. And I do have to work with China. They are a permanent member of the Security Council. There are five of us. And so, if we don’t work with China on the Security Council, the Security Council is dysfunctional, and we’ve seen some of that dysfunctionality take place in the Council.
So, I do engage on a regular basis with my Chinese counterpart. It’s not always fun for him or me, because we all know where our red lines are, and sometimes he will say to me: I heard what you said, because I go on the Hill, and I get asked questions. And I say to him: you have the advantage, because we live in an open society, of hearing what we think and hearing what I say. I don’t have that advantage. I have to conjecture; I have to analyze and figure out where you’re going, whereas you can see where we’re going all the time because we are an open book.
But we are trying to find ways where we can cooperate with the Chinese when we can. We will compete with them when we have to. And there are other times when we will find that we can’t. They know what our position is on Taiwan. We’ve been clear. It has never changed. We do believe in a “one China” policy, but we also believe in the rights of Taiwan, the Taiwanese people, to defend themselves.
DEAN MAYER: Wandering and returning to the themes of the Cities Summit, whether they’re opportunities for subnational relations, of things happening between cities or even at the level of citizens or others that are helping to address some of this, some of the relations between China and the U.S.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I think there are some possibilities there. There are a lot of people-to-people relationships that exist that can help us bridge some of those gaps. But the core of the issues are still being grappled with at the national level.
DEAN MAYER: Yeah and challenging as they are as well. Taking another question from – there were actually a number of questions along these lines, really about democracy, the state of democracy in the world, the apparent decline of democracies and the rise of autocracies. President Biden has framed this often as sort of the big issue, being the question of whether between democracy and autocracy in the world, and it’s a huge issue for us here at the Korbel School. You were kind enough to speak at our Denver Democracy Summit, so thank you very much for that. And we worry a lot about the state of democracy.
The question from – was really what your role is at the UN and whether these are issues that you’re thinking about and addressing there. And how do you work with governments that are not democratic? Are you able to find common ground when you’re trying to reach agreement on some of the things that you talked about earlier?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: We have seen over the course of the past few years an attack on democracy, but we have also seen people rise up calling for democracy. We’ve seen elections take place around the world where people have expressed their desires for change. And that’s something that we support. We support it as a country in our bilateral relationships. We support it on the multilateral stage in New York. And I engage with all countries because you have to engage with all countries. You – we’re all there to represent our country. We have to work with countries to get votes. And I am still proud of the fact that we were able to get 143 countries to vote to condemn Russia’s annexations of Ukrainian territory – 143 out of 193.
And that was significant. And people said, well, yeah, you had a whole bunch of countries abstain. But you only had a handful that voted with Russia. Countries abstain for many reasons; it’s not my place to explain why they made the decision to abstain. But 143 voted to condemn Russia. All 143 of those are not necessarily democracies. And so, you have to work with them, and you work to try to present your position. You listen to their positions, and you work to counter them, and sometimes you succeed and sometimes you don’t. But I see it as my job to engage with every country in New York. There are a few that I don’t engage with; those are obvious. But the vast majority of countries I try to engage, and that’s what diplomacy is about. It’s not just about talking to your friends, it’s also about talking to your adversaries.
DEAN MAYER: Yeah. Let me ask you, most of your career, as you said earlier, was focused on Africa. And I’m curious as you look at Africa coming – and to continue with this conversation about democracy, what do you see as the prospect for democracy on the African continent? There’s a lot of conversation about that. There – of course it’s an immensely complicated, multinational, multiethnic continent, so it’s hard to generalize. But I know you know a great deal about Africa.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I think the people of Africa want democracy. They see the benefits. They don’t always experience the benefits of democracy. And they look to countries like the United States to support their efforts. We’re the one country that every country knows will stand up for human rights. We – during the period we were not on the Human Rights Council, countries came to me afterwards to say: we missed you because when you were not there, we didn’t have the power to act, because your voice is so strong on issues of human rights.
Our own country is not perfect, and I am the first to acknowledge that. I acknowledge it publicly. I get criticized because I acknowledge it. I am not going to tell you that I am the best dresser in the world. I use that because my kids are always talking about the way I dress. (Laughter.) But I’d like to think it. So, I’m not going to tell you that our country is perfect. But I will tell you that we work for perfection every single day. We work to improve ourselves every single day. And countries see that, and they see the benefit. And I will say to them – and people say, well, African countries are racing to embrace China. They’re not racing to China, though. They’re not racing to migrate to China.
So, we have to continue to be a voice for democracy for the people of Africa, to engage with leaders who are not always in line with us to encourage them to move more toward democracy and to support the people. And so, I do, in my own engagements and having spent more than almost 40 years now on and off the continent of Africa, I know that there are some differences. There are differences that we have to engage on.
But the one thing that we have on the African continent that China nor Russia have is we have an African diaspora. We have Africans, people from African countries, in the United States who are American citizens and have relatives in every single country on that continent. They have relations with the African continent. And I always like to say, despite our differences, we’re in the hearts of Africans and Africans are in our hearts, and like family members you don’t always agree with each other. You have fights. You have differences. You have disagreements. But ultimately, you are family.
So, I consider myself – for example, on the Security Council there are three African countries; they call themselves the A3. I consider myself a plus one. So, it’s (inaudible). (Applause.)
And I’m hopeful for the continent of Africa. I think Africa is the last frontier of progress. Africa has more resources than any other continent, untapped resources, that will make a difference to this continent. We have to work with African countries, with the people of Africa, to harness those resources, including the people. Africa – the median age is 19. It’s a young continent. So, it will be those young people that will be making a difference in the world, and ensuring that we have a future, and dealing with climate change and dealing with conflict and issues of war and peace. So, I am confident that we will see that Africa, those 54 countries, rise to become a power.
DEAN MAYER: When you think about one of the things that – and you just touched on – which is the extent to which our diversity and our ability to be a diverse and inclusive society is a strength in international affairs?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I say it every day: our diversity is a strength. And I always use – people say to me, well, as a black woman, do you feel like you’re not powerful on the international stage? And I think who I am actually gives me more power, because my power is based on the example of who I am.
And I told a story some years ago – I was on a visit to the African Union, and I was meeting with my Chinese counterpart, and one of my colleagues was a Chinese American. And so, when we walked into the room, they were looking at him like who is he and why is he in here? Because they didn’t – it didn’t click to them immediately that he was with me, that he was part of my delegation, and I thought that sent an extraordinarily powerful message that Americans look many different ways, and you can’t always guess who the American is in the room. But you can certainly be assured that our diversity will shine, and we have to respect that diversity, we have to promote that diversity, and we have to encourage it.
DEAN MAYER: Yeah. We often talk about that, and here at the Korbel School, and the extent to which as we grapple with what the new world order will be, the extent to which we can be an example of what an inclusive democratic system (inaudible).
Several questions about your role as ambassador (inaudible) U.S. representative at the UN. One question was about what happens when your personal views might differ from those of the President. But I think that you can answer that, but I’m just curious what is – I don’t know how to say this. What does it feel like to be the representative of the United States at the United Nations? What does that responsibility feel like?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I have to pinch myself sometimes, like how did I get here? I grew up in the segregated South. My parents were poor, hardworking, uneducated. This was not in my future. And so, I do pinch myself when sometimes I’m sitting there, or I did Colbert and that was like – (laughter.)
DEAN MAYER: (Inaudible.)
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: It was, it was. But I feel a tremendous sense of pride that I am representing the United States of America when I’m walking down the street and I have a Ukrainian on the other side of the street, a Ukrainian American, yelling thank you, thank you for everything you’re doing on Ukraine. Ethiopians from both sides of the battle that fortunately is over thanking me for continuing to engage. They disagree with me on both sides, and I always love it when both sides disagree with me because I know I’m right. (Laughter.) So I – and give – but always thanking me, or having – I spent most of my career working on refugee issues, and just having a young person who currently works in the State Department and I was speaking – he said – and I talked about the fact that I used to work in Dadaab Refugee Camp. And he said: I was a refugee in Dadaab Refugee Camp and you were responsible for bringing me to the States.
And then fast-forward that to sitting in the Security Council every single day and every single person listening to me and every word that I say, dissecting every word that I say, so I sometimes have to be really careful. I don’t feel complete freedom to say exactly what I’d like to say. I don’t feel the freedom to throw out a curse word every once in a while. (Laughter.) Because I won’t be able to live it down.
DEAN MAYER: Yeah, (inaudible).
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: They won’t – they will be throwing it at me forever. But I represent the United States of America, and it makes me proud, and what makes me proud is that other people are proud of me. So, it’s a huge, huge, almost a burden for me, because you want to do well, and failure is not an option. And you know that failure is not an option. And I’ve lived my whole life with the feeling that failure was not an option. But here on this stage, failure is never an option. And that is a huge, huge burden, but it’s one that I know I have to carry.
DEAN MAYER: Well, I know your schedule is crazy, and unfortunately we have a hard stop at this point and you have to do all the things – I can’t even imagine the schedule that you keep. But let me just say how proud we are that you are here, how proud we are of you as our representative at the United Nations, how extraordinary a career you’ve had, and how privileged we are and thankful that you are – we are that you’ve been with us today. So please join me in thanking the ambassador. (Applause.)
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: (In progress) for me, and I saw her picture there and I’m thinking, wow.
DEAN MAYER: Yeah. Well, we just – the extraordinary, I don’t know, blessing of having Condoleezza Rice and Madeleine Albright (inaudible) this school, the first women secretaries of state. It’s an extraordinary history, one I feel the burden of (inaudible).
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Yeah, you’ve got to produce the next secretary of state. (Laughter.)
DEAN MAYER: (Inaudible.)
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I sure would want to – she said come on. Yeah, I’ll take a picture. (Cheers and applause.) And one from here. (Laughter.)