WASHINGTON – The Senate approved Linda Thomas-Greenfield’s nomination Tuesday to be ambassador to the United Nations, a post that will quickly thrust her into the international spotlight.
Despite some fireworks during her confirmation hearing, Thomas-Greenfield won strong bipartisan support in Tuesday’s 78-to-20 vote.
At the UN, Thomas-Greenfield will have a high-profile role in the Biden administration’s efforts to restore America’s standing as a global leader. And she will face an early test of her diplomatic mettle: The U.S. is scheduled to hold the Security Council’s rotating presidency in March, giving the U.S. ambassador leverage to shape the body’s agenda.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer called Thomas-Greenfield “exceptionally qualified” for the UN post and said her confirmation was urgent.
“She’ll assume the role of the UN ambassador at a time when the nations of the world must deepen their cooperation in the fight against COVID-19 and the fight against climate change, among other critical priorities,” the Democratic leader said during Monday evening’s debate on her candidacy.
There’s no question that Thomas-Greenfield will face a gauntlet of geopolitical challenges, from knotty relationships with Russia and China to lingering skepticism among U.S. allies after four years of the Trump administration’s “America First” foreign policy.
But she will also arrive in New York with some pent-up good will, said Richard Gowan, an expert on the United Nations with the Crisis Group, a nonpartisan organization that seeks to prevent conflict.
“The Trump administration’s constant sniping at the UN left everyone pretty exhausted” and ready for a change, Gowan said.
The Biden administration’s early focus on addressing climate change and the pandemic “plays very well with most other countries,” Gowan said.
Over a 35-year career in the foreign service, Thomas-Greenfield, who is Black, has held numerous diplomatic posts around the world – from Kenya to Pakistan. She was the U.S. ambassador to Liberia from 2008 to 2012, before becoming the top U.S. diplomat for African affairs in the Obama administration.
Other nations “expect her to be someone who rolls up her sleeves and engages in the hard work of day-to-day diplomacy in a collegial way,” Gowan said. “I think African diplomats are especially pleased that Thomas-Greenfield, who knows the continent very well, is going to their counterpart in New York.”
Thomas-Greenfield promised lawmakers she would bring a different tone to the UN than her recent predecessors.
“When America shows up – when we are consistent and persistent – when we exert our influence in accordance with our values – the United Nations can be an indispensable institution for advancing peace, security, and our collective well-being,” Thomas-Greenfield told lawmakers during her Senate confirmation hearing.
Gowan said foreign diplomats also hope the Biden administration will dispatch Secretary of State Antony Blinken or other high-level officials to some of the UN Security Council meetings when the U.S. holds the council presidency.
“If President Biden or Vice-President Harris makes an appearance at the UN, even if only via video link, you will (see) UN diplomats go into a collective swoon,” he said. “After Trump, the UN needs some extra love.”
Thomas-Greenfield is expected to reverse several of the Trump administration’s UN policies right out of the box. For example, the Biden administration has said it will restore funding for a UN aid program for Palestinian refugees, as well as the UN’s Population Fund, which focuses on women’s sexual and reproductive health. The U.S. may also run for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, which Trump withdrew from.
“One big question is how frankly Thomas-Greenfield should address the racial injustices and political turbulence that roiled the U.S. in the Trump era,” Gowan said. “I think it is important that she is honest about what has gone wrong in the U.S., to avoid charges of hypocrisy over human rights, but she also has to demonstrate confidence in U.S. institutions and values.”
Sen. Robert Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Thomas-Greenfield has “the expertise, the strength and the character” to reengage with U.S. allies and confront its adversaries.
“We face an array of formidable challenges, both around the world and at the UN, that demands someone with her skills and commitment to democracy, good governance, human rights and anti-corruption,” the New Jersey Democrat said during Monday’s debate on her nomination.
Republicans who opposed Thomas-Greenfield cited a speech she gave in 2019 at a Chinese-funded Confucius Institute affiliated with Savannah State University, a historically black college. In the speech, she seemed to downplay China’s expansionist ambitions and its investments across Africa, which critics have called predatory “debt diplomacy.”
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., expressed shock that she did not seem to realize how China has used their Confucius Institutes to spread propaganda.
During her hearing, Thomas-Greenfield said she regretted speaking at the Confucius Institute, calling it a “huge mistake.” She she said had agreed to address students at the university as part of her longstanding commitment to encouraging young Black students to consider a career in the foreign service.
Democrats on the committee noted that in other settings, Thomas-Greenfield had issued many public warnings about China’s growing aggression. And they suggested Republicans were twisting her words to make her sound soft on China.
Thomas-Greenfield said she had no illusions about China’s efforts to expand its global influence and impose its authoritarian ideology on other countries. She vowed to push back against Beijing’s efforts to gain leverage and influence at the UN in particular.
“We know China is working across the UN system to drive an authoritarian agenda that stands in opposition to the founding values of the institution – American values,” she said. “Their success depends on our continued withdrawal. That will not happen on my watch.”
Thomas-Greenfield, was born in Baker, Louisiana, in the early 1950s and attended segregated schools as a child. In TEDx Talk in 2019, she described growing up in a town “in which the KKK regularly would come on the weekends and burn a cross in someone’s yard.”
She also recounted a harrowing encounter during a diplomatic visit to Rwanda in 1994, when she was confronted by a “glazed-eyed young man” with a machine gun who had apparently mistaken her for a Tutsi he had been assigned to kill. She managed to talk her way out of the tense showdown by engaging with her would-be assassin.
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