Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield
U.S. Representative to the United Nations
June 1, 2023
QUESTION: Hello, everyone. Make some noise for yourselves for coming out here today. (Applause.) Welcome to TruCon 2023 and to our live taping of “The Weeds,” Vox’s policy and politics podcast. I’m Jonquilyn Hill, and like a lot of you in the audience today, I’m a policy nerd. And I can’t lie, the part of me that did Model UN back in high school is real excited right now. (Laughter.)
I’m thrilled to be joined today by a woman who doesn’t need an introduction, but I will attempt to give one anyway. Before Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield began serving as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, she had already retired from a nearly four-decade career as a diplomat. During that time, she served as the assistant secretary of state for African Affairs and had postings in several countries, including Liberia, Kenya, and Nigeria. This only touches on a few of her many credentials, but for this conversation, I wanted to zoom in on the African continent and its role in geopolitics right now.
Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield, thanks so much for joining me.
AMBASSADOR LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Thank you. I’m delighted to be here.
QUESTION: So before we jump into the real meat and potatoes of the conversation, I want to address an elephant in the room, and that’s that we are two black people talking about foreign policy, and sadly, you don’t see that all that often. How hopeful are you about diversity in the Foreign Service and what steps need to be taken to get people from different backgrounds involved?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Well, thank you, and you know that that has been a real priority for me throughout my career. I served – one of the positions I served in was director of personnel, Director General of the Foreign Service in the State Department. And really, what we should do is what you did. It’s Model UN. It is getting out to communities, talking to young people so that they know that this is a career option for them. I didn’t know it was a career option for me. I gave a speech at a high school recently for a graduation, and I told them I never had a “me” come and speak to my high school class. So I didn’t know diplomacy was an option. Now they have that knowledge as they go off to college.
And so, again, I just think it’s reaching out to young people at a young age, encouraging them, and for those of us who have already reached positions like I’m in, to mentor those who are coming behind. And I spend an inordinate amount of time mentoring young people who are interested in foreign affairs careers.
QUESTION: I want to pivot to Africa now. What’s the big-picture vision the Biden Administration has for the continent? And in particular, I’m interested in what came out of the summit the President hosted and what comes next.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Africa – and again, I spent most of my career in Africa, as you saw from my bio – and Africa is the new frontier. It is the last frontier. It is the only continent left that has all of the resources needed to make a difference in the future. They have a really strong youth population; the median age is 19. That young population will be populating jobs around the world in the future. Africa still has natural resources that have not been tapped, and those natural resources will be important as we look at what is needed in the future.
So again, we felt when we hosted the Leaders’ Summit in December that we needed to reaffirm our commitment, our relationship, our partnership with the African continent, and I think we accomplished that, and we continue to work on that.
QUESTION: I want to zero in on one of the top stories right now, and that’s Sudan. Prior to the current conflict, it really seemed like that country was on track to become a full-fledged democracy, going against a trend we’re seeing across the globe towards autocracy. What do you say to critics who point the finger at the U.S. in this, particularly for working with the military and the Rapid Support Forces?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Look, these two generals are responsible for this situation. The civilians, civil society really stood up for democracy, and we supported them. The United States backed their effort and we backed the transitional government, and then two military guys who were fighting for power, fighting for their own ambitions, have now taken this country 10 steps backward. And we need to get back to a situation where civilians are leading the process – there’s a transition that have civilians in leadership roles – and supporting this country’s move toward democracy.
It’s easy to blame the UN, to blame the United States, to blame the world. The blame is on the shoulders of these two individuals who started this conflict, and they can end it, and they should.
QUESTION: What role do you see the U.S. playing in ending that conflict? Do you see the U.S. playing a role in ending that conflict?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Absolutely. We are engaged in trying to find a solution, bringing the two parties to the negotiating table, pushing the efforts and supporting the efforts of the region to take leadership on this situation, and we’re expected to play that role. So it is something where those parties who are engaged want to have the U.S. involved.
QUESTION: In what way do you see the U.S. playing that role, though? Like, what are the actions that we could or should be taking?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Well, you may know that just yesterday, we announced sanctions –
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: – on the two leaders. We have put some travel restrictions out, visa restrictions on individuals who are involved in this violence. And I think that is the first step toward accountability because people do want accountability when you have a situation like what we see happening in Sudan. And they look to the U.S. to lead on the accountability front.
But we have also worked hard to help to find a solution that will lead to a ceasefire so that humanitarian assistance can get in. And again, we are the largest contributor to humanitarian programs in Sudan, but all over the world. And this is something that is very much appreciated by the people of Sudan, but I also think others around the world who watch us as we engage on these issues.
QUESTION: I want to get into another top story. Some African nations have decided to remain neutral when it comes to the war between Russia and Ukraine. African countries made up about half of the abstentions during a UN vote to condemn Russia and leaders from six African nations are set to meet separately with Presidents Putin and Zelenskyy. What do you see as these nations’ possible role in that conflict?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: First, the six nations who have offered to be involved in trying to find a peaceful solution – this is something we support. All of us want peace, but peace will start with Russia. Russia started this unprovoked aggression against Ukraine. Russia’s – Russian troops are inside of Ukraine. And this war will end tomorrow if Russia pulled their troops out and stopped the fighting.
So for us – and we’ve been clear on that – you cannot be neutral when there is an attack on the very values that we all hold dear that are founded in the UN Charter that we all signed on to. Russia has broken all of those rules, and until they stop this fighting and until they engage on finding a solution, we won’t have one.
And our position has also been clear that there cannot be negotiations, there cannot be peace without Ukraine. We can’t do this without Ukraine. Ukraine has to be part of the discussions, and we have encouraged all of these countries who have expressed an interest in finding a peaceful solution to also engage with Ukraine.
QUESTION: I want to dig into South Africa in particular. Putin was recently invited to the country, and there are credible allegations that South Africa supplied arms to Russia. Did this come as a surprise to you?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Look, we have a strong partnership with South Africa. It’s a partnership that we have worked over many, many years to reaffirm, but we’re also clear that any support to Russia’s unprovoked aggression against Ukraine is unacceptable. We’re not telling South Africa what their foreign policy should be, so their decision on President Putin is their decision. But Putin is a war criminal. Putin is being prosecuted by the ICC. And the accountability for him being the leader of what has been a consistent and high level of human rights violations against the Ukrainian people I think has to be taken into account by any country who makes the decision to engage with him.
QUESTION: Why are we seeing these countries sort of straddle the fence when it comes to Ukraine and Russia? Is it that the West hasn’t given them a compelling argument? Is it something else? What’s going on?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I can’t speak for these countries. We don’t tell countries what their foreign policy should be, as I said earlier. What we can say is, if you believe in sovereignty, if you believe in the integrity of borders, if you believe in the UN Charter, then you can’t support Russia. The decisions that countries have made – and actually, it’s only been about six countries total that have voted with Russia. The vast majority of countries, 140-plus, have voted against Russia in the resolutions that we’ve put forward, and some countries have made the decision to abstain, and they have to explain that themselves.
QUESTION: Speaking of South Africa, that nation has been very vocal about UN Security Council reform, namely adding permanent members from the continent. President Biden has come out in support of this. I’m curious what you think of the possible additions, and also why we’re seeing this shift now.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Well, you’re seeing the shift now because we made the shift. I gave a speech in September in San Francisco that outlined our vision for UN Security Council reform and how we will intend to move forward. President Biden gave a very well-watched speech during High-level Week later in September in which he announced that the U.S. would support additional permanent and non-permanent members of the Security Council – the elected members – and that the U.S. would support additional permanent members from Africa, from Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as other parts of the world. That’s actually ramped up a conversation on UN reform.
I have continued over the course of the past few months with what I’ve called a listening tour among all of the countries and regions in the UN to get their ideas, their solutions, their recommendations. And we will be looking at those over the course of the next months to see what our next steps ought to be on UN reform. But again, countries are watching the U.S., and I think South Africa is also watching what we’re doing and what we’re saying as they look at what they would like to see in terms of UN reform.
QUESTION: So the U.S. and China share an interest in Africa, and like you said before, it’s rich in resources, it has a large and young population, and it has soft power too. There are so many music artists and movies coming out of Africa. If you grab my phone right now, I’m probably listening to Burna Boy. Like, they’re everywhere.
But meanwhile, China has made real inroads on the continent. In regards to infrastructure, there’s the Belt and Road Initiative. China set up telecom infrastructure in over 30 countries. There are exchange programs for students. Are you worried at all about China’s influence on the continent?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Our Africa policy is our Africa policy. It is not about China. It is about our partnership with Africa, and our partnership is long term. We’ve been on this continent since the beginning. And I always refer to the fact that we have a diaspora here in the United States. China does not have an African diaspora living in China. There are people who are American citizens who have backgrounds in and touch every single country on the continent of Africa. Our relationship on that continent is strong. And we’re working to build that relationship and make it even stronger, and we think we’re making progress.
We’re not telling African countries they shouldn’t have a relationship with China, they shouldn’t trade with China. We trade with China. But we want to ensure that the partnership that we build with the continent, with the people of Africa, is a long-term partnership, a long-term relationship that African people will benefit from as a result of that relationship.
QUESTION: How is the U.S. navigating the overlapping interests when countries want to work with both the U.S. and with China?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: It’s fine. We’re not telling African countries they shouldn’t work with China. They should work with countries, and they can choose to work with countries that meet their interests. And if they are able to work with China and meet the goals that they have, we’re not telling them not to do that. Our policy is about what we do with Africa. And if you look at programs like PEPFAR, the Malaria Initiative, what we have done in the area of HIV and AIDS on the continent of Africa, AGOA – those relationships are very, very strong. And I think if you ask – and I’ve seen some surveys that have been done – if you ask ordinary Africans what their preferences are, they will clearly state those preferences are to be aligned with the United States.
QUESTION: So a critique that not just the U.S. but the West in general gets is that they don’t really pay attention to Africa until something happens. And it’s arguable that that’s partially why China and, to an extent, Russia have been able to form relationships the way they have. I’m curious how – what are some ways the U.S. has misstepped in Africa in the past, and what’s the plan for course correction in building a closer relationship with the continent?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I would turn that question around. Again, our relationship with the continent is long term. I went to Africa first in 1976. I’m an Africanist. I spent my whole career in Africa. It annoys me when I hear people say we ignore Africa. And then I want to know what I’ve been doing for 40 years. (Laughter.) And I’m not the only one. We pay attention to this continent. We engage with the continent. We engage with the people of Africa. And it didn’t just start when the Chinese came on board. The Chinese came late. They are new to this continent. We’ve been there since day one. We recognize – we were the first country to recognize Ghana in 1957 when they got their independence. And if you look across the board, we have been engaging in the continent.
Now, yes, we are there when there’s trouble because your friends need you even more when there’s trouble. There is a famine budding in the Horn of Africa. Because of U.S. funding, we were able to avert that famine last year. We gave almost $2.5 billion to the Horn of Africa to avert the famine. And this is something that the Chinese can’t. It’s soft power, but it saves lives. And Africa knows when they are in trouble, we will be there. And it is not – we’re not fair-weather friends. We are friends who are there in bad times and in good times.
QUESTION: I want to look at another country as well. Here in the U.S., it’s June 2nd. It’s Pride Month. We’re going to see so many parades, so many celebrations. But Uganda has been in the news for its anti-LGBTQ laws. What are your thoughts on the rising anti-gay sentiment on the continent?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: It is worrisome. You saw the President’s statement on Uganda. What Uganda has done criminalizing homosexuality, really going against all the rights of the LGBT community, is unacceptable. And it’s happening all over the world. It’s not just in Africa. We’ve seen it in other places in the world as well. And the U.S. has made a strong stand against these laws, against criminalizing LGBT, against imposing death sentences on people because of who they love. So we’ve been clear across the board. Uganda is the latest, but it is not the first. And we have to continue to engage on this issue wherever we see it everywhere in the world.
QUESTION: I want to turn the proverbial mike over to the audience now. We have some audience questions that we collected prior to this. Arthur asks, “Should the United States be preparing for a multipolar world or securing our dominant position on the international stage?”
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: We are in a multipolar world, and we have worked to ensure that we are continuing to take a leadership role in that world. This is something that the world asked for. For the few years that we stepped away from multilateralism, when we stepped out of the Human Rights Council, we were missed. And the day we came back, people applauded. They want U.S. leadership.
So our leadership is welcomed, but we also want to work with other partners in a world that has changed. This is not the world of immediately after World War II. This is not the world 70 years ago when the UN was created. This is why we support UN reform, and this is why we think that the UN should be and the Security Council should be more representative.
QUESTION: I want to get to a question from Cory, who asks, “With the rise of authoritarianism around the world threatening democracy, how are you countering foreign propaganda and disinformation that oftentimes can change elections around the world and impact our national security by creating false narratives around pandemics, human rights, climate security, and fragile democratic institutions?”
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: That’s a question we should all ask ourselves because it is a problem that we’re seeing around the world, but we still see the fact that in most places around the world people want democracies. They want their governments to deliver. And they see that when there’s a strong democracy that democracy can deliver for their people. But I do think we have to ramp up our own narratives. We have to ramp up what we are doing around the world so that people know and they don’t buy into the false narratives that are being perpetuated.
QUESTION: Marielle asks, “How is the UN Security Council and the broader UN system adapting and incorporating emerging technologies, like AI for instance, to address issues of human rights, peace and security, and sustainable development? What are the opportunities and risks of this for the UN’s work and its workforce?”
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: We had something called an Arria-formula meeting – it’s an informal meeting of the Security Council – where we talked about cybersecurity and how technology can be used for good and try to understand how it is being used for bad. So this is something that we’re all working on. The Secretary-General has just appointed a new cyber envoy, and we’re working very closely with him as he tries to address some of these issues. We talk about Women, Peace and Security, and in the context of Women, Peace, and Security, we have also looked at how technologies can be used for good and try to understand how it’s being used for bad as well.
So this is something that is definitely a high priority for us, and we will continue to improve our abilities in this area.
QUESTION: Barbie asks, “With respect to the Sustainable Development Goals Summit this September, where does the U.S. stand to rescue the SDGs by 2030 and how is the administration working with Congress to make the U.S. a leader in fulfilling this multilateral commitment?”
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: You must have read some talking points I had recently – (laughter) – where I’ve said we are ramping up our efforts to support the implementation of the SDGs. It includes working with Congress to ensure that we have the support from Congress to do the necessary work that we see will need to be done over the course of the next few months and years. I think the SDG Summit that is taking place in September will be a key watermark for us on where we are and what else we need to do to make sure that we get there by 2030.
QUESTION: How hopeful are you about getting Congress on board? I mean, we’re in such a polarized time right now?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: It’s hard work, but it’s work that has to be done. I think we have had members of Congress who have been very supportive of these efforts on both sides, but, again, it is something that we have to continue to work on.
QUESTION: All right. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, thank you so much for joining.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Thank you.