Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield
U.S. Representative to the United Nations
New York, New York
September 19, 2022
AMBASSADOR LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Well, thank you very much. I’m really delighted to be here and delighted to see this huge audience out here.
MODERATOR: Absolutely. I want to get right into it because we don’t have a lot of time as you guys can imagine. The Ambassador is clearly very busy during this gathering of the UNGA. So, we’ll start out with kind of a broad perspective, if you can talk us through what the overview of the Undersecretary-General’s* priorities are for this particular UN and in what areas the United States is taking the lead.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Good, that’s an excellent question. This is a historic UNGA this year. It’s the first time we’ve come together fully in two years because of COVID. And it’s the first year where so many leaders get an opportunity to engage on some very key issues. For us, the key issues are dealing with food insecurity; food insecurity that has been exacerbated by the war in Ukraine. We were dealing with the issue because of the impact of climate change, because of the impact of the COVID pandemic. Add on top of that, Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine and this situation has become more dire. So, we will be focusing a tremendous amount of attention on food insecurity. Secretary Blinken will be hosting a summit on that later this week.
Secondly, we have been very engaged on global health and the President will be hosting the replenishment of the Global Fund. The United States announced $2 billion. He will be announcing that we will commit to $6 billion of the $18 billion that the Global Fund has requested. And our commitment is $1 for every $2 that others contribute.
And third, and equally important are the issues related to the UN Charter and UN reform. I gave a speech in San Diego – sorry in San Francisco about two weeks ago, where I talked about the importance of UN reform, and that’s particularly important now with Russia’s attack on Ukraine. They are a member of Security Council. And as a member of the Security Council, they’re not living up to what one would expect a permanent member to do and how we would expect one to behave.
MODERATOR: Yeah, absolutely. Before we get into that I want to talk a little bit about food insecurity which you mentioned, because that casts such a dark shadow across the globe, as you know, as you said, exacerbated by the war in Ukraine. How can the global community mobilize to address some of the food insecurity issues?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: First and foremost, we need to recognize that this is a global issue. It’s an issue that impacts us locally. As I noted in a recent trip that I took to Chicago, where I engaged with communities on food issues in Chicago. I traveled to Uganda and to Ghana and saw those issues every day that are being faced by women in the marketplace, by businesses that are dependent on grain that would have been brought to them by Ukraine.
What can we do about this issue? We can engage with the global world. We can look at how we address these issues in the short-term, but also in the long-term. In the short-term, we’re providing significant humanitarian assistance and development assistance to countries around the world. We’re working in communities here in America to see how we can address these issues at the community level. In the long-term, we need to look at how we build capacity for countries to feed themselves.
And then most importantly, Russia needs to end its unprovoked war on Ukraine. Their war has led to this, as I noted, becoming worst. They have blocked and attacked Ukrainian farms. And we’re hopeful with the deal that the Secretary-General negotiated with the Russians and the Ukrainians that grain will continue to flow out of Ukraine over the course of the next few weeks and months, but more work still needs to be done in that area.
MODERATOR: Speaking of just the work that needs to be done in different areas, it feels like we’re at a very unique position globally, because we’re seeing the rise of populism across the globe. We’re seeing different regimes take over in different countries. And so even with the food insecurity issue, I’m curious to hear from you. Given this moment in time, the snapshot in time in history, what does the UN look like? Well, how does the UN operate? What is the future if we’re looking forward at the United Nations, what does the General Assembly – what does it look like five years from now? Ten years from now?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: That is the question of the hour. What will the UN look like and our discussion about UN reform is about how we make the UN more fit for purpose in the next five, the next 10, the next 20 years for future generations. So, the UN needs to do some sort of soul searching as an institution and as an organization. The Security Council, as we noted, needs to be reformed. We need to focus more attention on human rights. This is not about the rights of nations, but the rights of human beings. And that it will be an organization that focuses on, not domination of people, but support of people around the world. So, how that will look will be part of our discussions over the course of the next year. And how that comes out depends on those discussions. But we all agree that the UN does need reform. It needs a nudge forward to address the challenges of our times that are different, many of them from the challenges that were faced 77 years ago when the UN was created.
MODERATOR: Yeah, and I want to talk a little bit about world leaders because we did hear China’s President, President Xi, expressed concerns about Russia’s unprovoked war with Ukraine. This is after they were holding hands on the world stage. If you could – because we were backstage eavesdropping to the last session. So, I’m sure the audience would appreciate hearing from you, how exactly has the United States held Putin accountable for his actions?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Just look at what we have accomplished in the UN since this war started on the 24th of February. We brought 141 nations forward to condemn Russia’s actions. We suspended Russia from the Human Rights Council. We are isolating them in every single vote that we hold in the UN. And while they have the veto power, they can’t veto the voices of condemnation that they’re hearing every single day in the Council, and we will continue those efforts to isolate them in the future. I was very surprised, but also delighted to hear that President Xi and Prime Minister Modi criticized Putin directly about what they’re doing in Ukraine. So, they’re losing the supporters that that they have. And what Putin, I think – his calculations were completely off base. I think he certainly did not realize and calculate that NATO would become stronger. He did not calculate; he’s certainly miscalculated the unity of Europe and he certainly miscalculated the resolve of the Ukrainian people to fight for their independence. And our support for that.
MODERATOR: But our voice is enough because as someone who has covered the war from you know, Washington, D.C., from our nation’s capital, it doesn’t seem like any of these restrictions have hindered him. What has hindered him has been his own miscalculation of his military power, their nuclear power, certainly there’s something to be concerned about, but their military power has come across a bit amateur. So, what is the plan to bring his efforts to a screeching halt?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Well certainly it is to continue our support for the Ukrainians. The only reason we know that his military is weak is because Ukraine was so strong. And Ukraine was able to respond in the way they were able to respond, because they have the support of the international community; they have the support of the United States. We’ve provided Ukraine over $15 billion since this war started. It has been bipartisan support and that support we’re committed to continue.
MODERATOR: I want to bring it home a little bit. So, while the United States is on the world stage, addressing issues of democracy across the globe, we have our own challenges here in the United States. And so, I’m curious your thoughts as to what the United States global position is now, given that we’re under new leadership in this country with President Biden, but there still is this undercurrent, and this ugly underbelly that exists here in the United States, but like I said, also across the globe, when it comes to populism, white supremacy, racism, etc. I’m curious your thoughts as we navigate this issue, not just on a global scale, but on a domestic one as well.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Again, an excellent question. It’s one that I have been asked many times since I took over this role. And let me just say that our country is not perfect. We know that. And our strength is that we acknowledge it. And our strength is that we’re constantly reassessing. And we’re constantly looking at how we rebuild our democracy and make our democracy stronger. We continue to be a role model in it. And it’s an example for the rest of the world. Our leadership is so important to people around the world.
When we came back into the Human Rights Council, smaller countries welcomed that. They welcomed our presence. They said they couldn’t stand up to the pressure without having the United States standing with them. And so that leadership is truly important for the rest of the world despite the fact that people are seeing some frays around the edges.
But this is not the first time our country has experienced this. We’ve come out of it before, and we will come out of it again. And I think every country around the world, they’re all watching how we deal with the situation. They’re watching the fact because many of these countries can’t acknowledge their shortcomings, they can’t acknowledge their weaknesses. I can sit in the Security Council and talk about racism and talk about my own experiences of racism growing up in the South and not be worried that when I step off the stage, I’m going to be arrested by the police. That happens in a lot of countries around the world, and they appreciate the fact that we still have voices that can stand up for freedom, that can stand up for democracy, and can stand up for human rights.
MODERATOR: Well as a fellow daughter of the south I can certainly appreciate that and respect that. I know, because we were chatting backstage, I know that you’ve been very busy from sunup to sundown meeting with a lot of people and I’m just curious to hear what some of the feedback that you’ve gotten on this global stage about the United States and about this current UN General Assembly.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: There’s a lot of enthusiasm. First about the fact that we are back. The President last year said we’re back, our leadership is back. We rejoined the Human Rights Council; we rejoined the Paris Climate Agreement. We’re engaging with the world. We’re engaging with our allies, and we have expressed that in so many ways over the course of the past year and a half. So what people are looking at now is where we go in the future, and that’s what the President will be addressing as he talks to the General Assembly on Wednesday. What our leadership has brought to the world. And again, what has buoyed me over the course of the past year and a half is the welcome that we have received from the rest of the world and the support that we have gotten from our allies, and our friends, as well as those people who may not be so friendly. They want to engage us as well because they know that we are an important player. And when we weren’t there on the international stage, they did feel the lack of our presence.
MODERATOR: I want to ask a final question because we’re running out of time. I say this – we had 20 minutes for this conversation, which is a lot longer than a cable news segment here in America, so thankful for that. But I do want to bring up something because this is something we talked about on my show many times. In different polling in our country, a significant amount of people believe the United States will cease to be a democracy in the coming years. I’m really curious your thoughts about that on this global stage, how you would respond to people who have that legitimate fear, as we see perhaps the end of Trump but not necessarily the end of Trumpism.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: We are a democracy. We are rooted in democracy. Our country’s strength is our democracy. And I don’t see, and I have not heard in my discussions with people around the world, a fear that our democracy will disappear. They see some – as I said, the frays around the edges. But when we look at January 6, for example, when we were all watching in horror what was happening, our Senate still came back and did their jobs, our institutions stood, our institutions moved forward. And we did have a transition. And again, there have been threats to our democracy before. We had a civil war. We have had race –
MODERATOR: Jim Crow, civil rights.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: – All of that. And we’ve gone through World Wars, and we still survived as a democracy because in the end, people know that democracies deliver on their needs. And I think they saw some of the issues that resulted that brought so much tension in our country over the past four years and certainly, it’s more comforting now to be able to breathe a sigh of relief and start to rebuild the – you know, the country that we all know and love and appreciate.
MODERATOR: I’ll tell you before I came, I was at my hotel at the bar having club soda. [Laughter.] And I was chatting with the bartender who was not born in this country, he was born in India. And I told him – he said, “what are you doing today”? And I told him. And he – very impassioned – said to me, “you know, I came to this country 23 years ago, and I will tell you, the idea of America is so important across the globe” – and that now that he’s a citizen, he’s dedicated to fighting for at least the idea of America. So, as we bring this conversation to a close, I welcome you to share your thoughts with the audience on why the idea of America and democracy is so important, and how you’re helping to uphold it.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: You know, because democracy is about people. It’s about delivering to people and people around the world see that. They believe in it. It is why so many people want to come to the United States. We are a country of immigrants, where people have come from all parts of the world for many, many reasons. Many of them fleeing conflict, fleeing persecution, and they know that they will get a welcome arm here in the United States. And even when sometimes that seems like it’s a little weak, we always rally, and we’re rallying around the people who are being sent to New York and Martha’s Vineyard and other places around the United States because that’s what our country is about. We care, and people know that.
MODERATOR: Well, thank you so much for taking time to share with his audience today. [Applause.] And thank you all for being here. Thank you very much.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Good. Thank you.