Remarks by Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield in Conversation with Professor Antonio Jorge Ramalho da Rocha at the University of Brasilia

Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield
U.S. Representative to the United Nations
Brasilia, Brazil
May 2, 2023


MODERATOR: (In Portuguese.) Thank you very much, Professor Deborah. Ambassador, the idea was to make it as informal as possible because we are focused in your exchanges with students. So as we have arranged, I may – I have already saluted authorities here: Professor João Carlos, my colleagues, students, mainly because this event was prepared for them. 

So I will – just to kick off, a couple of questions and then you can follow on with the exchanges with students. Do you want to say anything in the beginning or shall we just  

AMBASSADOR LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Well, let me just say how delighted I am to be here with you and to see this extraordinarily diverse audience here. As the professor was introducing us, she used a term that I haven’t heard for years in the United States: affirmative action. And I used to always say when people asked how I got to where I got, I would say I’m an affirmative action baby. Because it was through our affirmative action programs to encourage African Americans to access the institutions of higher learning in the United States that I got to go to Louisiana State University, and it was because of those programs that I was able to achieve this success. So I like the term affirmative action, and I appreciate that that is what you are doing here because it is only through making those affirmative actions that you can make progress. 

MODERATOR: Thank you, Ambassador. So you make it easier for me. (Laughter.) You have had – the first question is a more personal question. You have had a 40-year career as a diplomat, serving as the director general of the Foreign Service, U.S. ambassador to Liberia, assistant secretary of state for African Affairs, and now U.S. Representative to the United Nations. You’ve spoken about your humble beginnings growing up in the segregated South, about being the descendant of enslaved people. How did you come to this career and how did your upbringing influence your career path? What would you advise our students to focus on in their preparation for their professional careers? We have many students, as Professor Deborah said, that also come from a very humble environment and are now having to deal with this challenge. 

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Good, thank you. That’s an extraordinarily interesting question for me because when I’ve been asked this question before, I don’t really know the answer. What I know is that the first chapter of my life, coming from a poor, impoverished family in which both my parents were under- and uneducated – my father in fact was illiterate; my mother stopped school in eighth grade and eventually got what is called her GED, her graduate education degree, when she was in her 50s. So that chapter really doesn’t translate to this chapter where I am the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.

So I do ask myself that question all the time: how did I get from the first chapter to the current chapter I am in right now? And I think it goes back to my parents, who were extraordinary victims of racism in the South, but who wanted their children to have a better life than they had. And so they worked to give us that life. And honestly, I didn’t really know I was poor until I left my community. I – because everybody else was like me, and it was only when I went off to college that I realized how disadvantaged I was. And that realization really put what I like to refer as a burden on me, and that burden was to succeed. Failure was not an option.

And I say that to you young people who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. You’re going to have to carry this burden of success, this burden where you can’t take time off to just fail. You’re going to have to keep moving forward, and I’m happy that I had that kind of approach to life. And then my other approach was just to be flexible about what I wanted to achieve.

So I started out wanting to be a lawyer because that’s kind of all I knew. I knew teachers and lawyers in the profession, and I didn’t want to be a teacher, so I decided I wanted to be a lawyer. But a door opened for me to go into academics, and I went into that open door and I was excited about academics. And then another door opened for me to go into the diplomatic service, and I didn’t have a clue what I was going to find behind that door.

But here’s what I found: I found a career that was extraordinarily rewarding that allowed me to travel around the world, to engage with people and leaders from around the world. Occasionally, I pinch myself because I’m talking to heads of state in Africa who all call me Linda and who see me as a friend. And I think about the little girl occasionally who’s running around barefoot in Louisiana with no sense of ambition, no options in life, but who found a path to where I am today.

So my message to all of you is move forward, go through open doors that you hadn’t intended to go through because you don’t know what you’re going to find behind those open doors. And you might find something you’re not interested in. You can come back out and keep going in the direction you planned to go in. But be flexible about your lives and your futures and you will find your place in this world.

And we need you to find your place in this world because my generation is leaving you with tremendous challenges and burdens. You’re going to have to be dealing with climate change. We didn’t fix that for you. You’re going to have to deal with issues of peace and security and population and migration. So we need you to go through those doors and help us build a future for the generation that comes after you.

MODERATOR: Well, one of the doors that has – that opened was of the United Nations to deal with those problems. Do you think, Ambassador, that multilateralism as we know it now is equipped to deal with these problems?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Secretary Albright, one of my predecessors, the late Secretary Albright, said if we didn’t have the United Nations, we would create it. So it is not a perfect institution. It’s flawed. It was built 70 years ago to deal with issues of peace and security that didn’t include climate change and major migrations and terrorism as we know it today.

So I do think the multilateral system is important, but it also needs to be rejiggered. It has to be reformed so that it can continue to deal with the challenges that we’re facing today.

MODERATOR: One of the issues, one of the key issues is food insecurity. What do you think that Brazil and the U.S. could do to solve this problem, to face this challenge together and to help diminish this problem for the world?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Good. I don’t know if you’re aware, Professor, that has been one of my biggest priorities since I arrived in New York in February of ’21. In March, during my presidency, we started with a signature event on food insecurity, because we were seeing the impact of the pandemic, of COVID, of climate, and conflict on food security around the world. And then fast-forward one year later, the war in Ukraine that exacerbated the situation and made the food insecurity situation even more dire.

So this is something we do have to address. People should not in this world of abundance go to bed hungry. Brazil is a net producer of food. How do you support countries that are not net producers? I was at the Cities Summit last week and met several mayors from Brazil, and they talked about the fact that Brazil is a producer. And this is something that we have had discussions with your government on, because you’re now an elected member of the Security Council, and we have talked about food insecurity as a priority in the Security Council. And it’s clear that it is an issue that is burdening people all around the world. When you look at countries on the continent of Africa who were more than 50 percent dependent on grains coming from Russia and Ukraine, and now the prices have quadrupled – we have to fix these issues.

And what I heard from your mayors is you’re in a position to be an exporter, to help address some of these problems, not just in exporting food but exporting capacity and technology on how to produce more food to countries that may not have that capacity.

So we have a lot of work to do to work on food insecurity. We had a ministerial on the issue last year during High-Level Week in New York. More than a hundred countries signed commitments to address food insecurity, and we can’t stop until this is no longer an issue that is in front of us.

MODERATOR: Yes. As you know, one of the SDGs is zero hunger, was inspired in Brazilian public policies. And we are – now that Brazil is back, I’m sure that there is a special interest in fostering this. But there are another 16 SDGs. What is the role of the SDGs in facing those global challenges in your opinion, and what could our countries do together to help meet the 2030 challenge?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: 2030, when that date was announced, it seemed like it was a long, long way away. It’s now only seven years away. And only about 15 percent of the SDGs have made any progress.

So we have to ramp up our efforts if we want to ensure a future for people around the world, a future without poverty, a future in which climate change is being addressed, a future in which hunger is being addressed. All of these SDGs are important.

And so over the next I would say two to three years, our efforts are going to really need to have a fire lit under them. The fact that Brazil has been so, I would say, aggressive in moving forward – and again, meeting with your mayors last week and hearing how they are addressing the important issues of the SDGs I thought was significant, because mayors are at the level of the people. Policies are made up here at the national level, but it’s the subnational level, it’s mayors that really ensure that those policies are implemented to people that they are responsible for.

So I was very impressed and hopeful having met with the mayors from across the world that they are all committed, but particularly Brazil is committed to seeing us move forward on the SDGs.

QUESTION: Hopefully. This deals with human security, but as you know better than us, the United Nations also has to deal with international security. Then we have many students frustrated with the fact that this organization that was created to free the following generations from the scourge of war is not capable of stopping war in Yemen or in Syria or in Ukraine, as you said. Do you think that reforming the Security Council would help enhance the capacity of the United Nations to face those challenges and reinvigorate the faith that we have in this organization?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Again, this organization was created 70 years ago. And the world has changed. I said that earlier. And so we do support reform of the organization. As you may have heard President Biden say during his speech at High-Level Week last year, that we support additional elected as well as permanent members of the Security Council from Latin America, the Caribbean, as well as Africa. And over the course – since September, I have been holding a series of listening tours among the regions to talk about how they see Security Council reform, Security Council expansion taking place. And we are working with our partners and with our colleagues to move that agenda forward, because we know that in order to deal with today’s challenges of peace and security, we need a more representative, a more inclusive Security Council.

QUESTION: Thank you, Madam Ambassador.