Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield discusses her career and vision for the future of American diplomacy, U.S. priorities at the United Nations and the recent Security Council trip to Mali and Niger, and the Ambassador’s onward travel to Gabon.
BODURTHA: Good evening. I’m Nancy Bodurtha. I’m the vice president of meetings and membership here at the Council on Foreign Relations. And on behalf of our Board of Directors and our president, Richard Haass, it is an absolute honor to welcome the U.S. permanent—the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations, Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, to the Council this evening for this Sorensen Distinguished Lecture on the United Nations. In just a bit, I will turn the program over to our presider, Marcus Mabry, who will properly introduce the ambassador and facilitate our conversation with her. But I do want to take a few moments to offer some words of welcome as well as some words of appreciation for those who made tonight possible. In addition to welcoming the ambassador, I want to welcome all of you. Our members have turned out in fine force tonight. We have five hundred members joining via Zoom. We have about a hundred members who are participating in person here in New York and about a hundred term members joining us from the Council’s venue in Washington, D.C. So this evening is, among other things, a bit of a sneak peek at what hybrid meetings will look like with any luck here in the coming weeks and months. This is our biggest hybrid venture to date, and I am very pleased that we have such a robust audience for this year’s Sorensen Distinguished Lecture. The lectureship is a real anchor of our annual meetings calendar and it has become what is truly a signature program for the Council. It was generously established in 1996 by Gillian and Ted Sorensen, and the lectureship brings prominent speakers to the Council who are intimately involved with the workings of and the issues pertaining to the United Nations. Over the years, through the generosity of the Sorensen Lectureship, we’ve convened events with the former U.N. Secretaries-General Kofi Annan and Ban Ki-moon. We’ve had several of Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield’s predecessors, the U.S. permanent representatives to the U.N., as well as a number of leaders from a broad array of U.N. agencies. And in fact, when I was looking over the historic roster of all of the speakers who have come here under the auspices of the Sorensen Lecture, there was one evening that I remember quite well but leapt out at me. We had the five heads of U.N. agencies here all on the same evening. We had the heads of UNICEF, WHO, UNHCR, the World Food Programme, and the U.N. Population Fund. And what was striking about that evening was it was five women on this stage, including—(cheers, applause)—including two women who are members of the Council on Foreign Relations. Carol Bellamy was the head of UNICEF at the time and Catherine Bertini was leading the World Food Programme. I don’t know how we managed to make the planets aligned to have the five of them together, but these are just some examples of the impressive range of speakers brought to this stage by the Sorensen Distinguished Lecture. We’re delighted to have Gillian Sorensen here with us this evening. Gillian, thank you for your family’s generosity in establishing and supporting the lectureship, as well as for your continued involvement with the Council. As many of you may know, Gillian has had a long career working with and for the United Nations, including serving for eleven years as the assistant secretary-general. Thank you for being here tonight, Gillian. And of course, on this occasion many of us are very much missing Ted, who was such an important presence here at the Council for nearly forty-five years. For those of you who didn’t have the privilege of knowing Ted Sorensen, he had a distinguished career as both a public servant and a prominent lawyer. He is well-known for his work as President John F. Kennedy’s advisor, speechwriter, and special counsel in the White House, and he subsequently went on to work in international law advising governments, multinational organizations, and major corporations around the world. But as busy as Ted was, he gave an awful lot of time to the Council. He served on the Council’s Board of Directors and attended upward of a thousand events throughout his membership. And one of the things that I remember quite fondly about Ted is that without fail he could always be counted on to ask the most incisive question put forward at any Council event where he was present. So in that spirit, I hope that when we get to the Q&A session of tonight’s program you will all do your very best to emulate Ted Sorensen. Tonight is the 20th Sorensen Lecture, and we are also presenting this evening’s program as the opening keynote session of our annual conference of the Stephen M. Kellen Term Member Program. The Term Program is named in honor of prominent investment banker, devoted philanthropist, and global citizen Stephen Kellen, who was a Council member from 1982 until his death in 2004. He became a real champion of the Council’s Term Member Program, which is designed to bring young professionals into CFR to help further develop their interest and expertise in foreign policy and international relations. Indeed, the Stephen M. Kellen Term Member Program is a critically important way in which the Council furthers its mission to develop talent and to cultivate the next generation of foreign policy leaders. I want to acknowledge and thank the Kellen family for the generosity of the Anna Maria and Stephen Kellen Foundation in supporting the Term Member Program. And in particular, I’d like to thank CFR member Andrew Gundlach, who is also Mr. Kellen’s grandson and an alumnus of the Term Member Program. Andrew has been instrumental in securing the ongoing support for the Term Program. While I have a captive audience and since we’re speaking about the Term Member Program, I want to remind you all that the next opportunity for rising young professionals between the ages of thirty and thirty-six to apply for this five-year Term Member Program is upcoming. It’s January 3rd. You should feel free to be in touch with me or with our director of membership, Vera Ranola, if you have prospective candidates that you’d like to discuss. Term membership really represents the future of the Council, and members are absolutely our very best recruiters. In fact, one of the ways that Gillian and Ted Sorensen have been exemplary citizens of this organization is in the impressive number of individuals they have supported for term membership over the years. And now, finally, I’d like to turn the proceedings over to someone who is a beneficiary of the Term Member Program, my friend Marcus Mabry. Marcus first came to the Council in 1999 as our Edward R. Murrow Visiting Press Fellow. I didn’t have an opportunity to fact-check this, but Marcus may have been the youngest Murrow Fellow in Council history. After his fellowship year, he went on to become a term member. He is, of course, now a life member, he is one of our moderators extraordinaire, and until very recently served for over a decade on the Council’s very hardworking Committee on Membership. In fact, there are probably many of you here this evening who owe Marcus a debt of gratitude for your election to the Council. Marcus is currently the senior vice president for content strategy and global programming at CNN Digital. Marcus, thank you so much and over to you to chair this very special edition of the Sorensen Distinguished Lecture on the United Nations with our guest, Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield.
MABRY: Nancy, thank you. (Applause.) That was like the nicest introduction I think I’ve had like in, I don’t know, forever maybe. Thank you so much, Nancy, for that. It is such a pleasure to be here with you in person—(laughs)—at the Council. You know, it’s a very special time, of course, when we get to find our colleagues and our families and our extended families and our professional families again. So this is kind of the upside of a waning tragedy, right, for the globe, so it’s great to be here with you all tonight. Nancy has told you who I am and what I do. And I’ll welcome you again to the Sorensen Distinguished Lecture on the United Nations. It is—I am honored, obviously, to be joined by Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield. I’ll go over a bit of her bio for you. She is the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations and the U.S. representative to the U.N. Security Council. She previously led the Albright Stonebridge Group’s Africa practice. And between 2013 and 2017, she was the assistant secretary of state for African affairs at the U.S. Department of State. From 2012 to 2013, she was the director general of the Foreign Service and director of U.N. resources at the State Department. That’s a 70,000-strong workforce, so that’s an HR job for you. Between 2008 and 2012, Thomas-Greenfield served as U.S. ambassador to Liberia. Between 2004 and 2008, she served as principal deputy assistant secretary of the Bureau of African Affairs and as deputy assistant secretary of the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration at the State Department. She also served as several—in several other positions in the Foreign Service, including postings in Gambia, Jamaica, Kenya, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Switzerland. She is the recipient of several honors, including the University of Minnesota’s Hubert Humphrey Public Leadership Award, the Bishop John T. Walker Distinguished Humanitarian Service Award, and the Warren Christopher Award for Outstanding Achievement in Global Affairs. She was also the inaugural Distinguished Resident Fellow in African Studies at Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy from 2017 to 2019. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Louisiana State University, a master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin, and an honorary doctorate from the University of Liberia. Madam Ambassador, thank you for joining us this evening.
THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Thank you.
MABRY: It’s a pleasure.So can we start by diving right in and detailing what are the administration’s global priorities, especially as they relate to international cooperation and the United Nations?
THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Well, let me say how pleased I am to be with you here tonight and to have the opportunity to engage with you. You know, on January 20th President Biden took some key actions. First, we rejoined the World Health Organization. Secondly, he announced that we were rejoining the Paris agreement. And thirdly, he announced that we would be starting a campaign to rejoin the Human Rights Council, and we were just elected to the Human Rights Council last year and will—last month and will start our term in January. Those three actions really define for us administration priorities. There are many priorities, priorities among the priorities, but, one, we have to deal with the pandemic. Being part of WHO gave us the opportunity to engage the world on what is a global problem that we could not deal with alone. President Biden has made very clear that the U.S. will be the arsenal for vaccines. And we have contributed about $15 billion toward that effort and committed a billion doses of vaccine. And I have been lucky enough over the course of my assignment here to see vaccines being delivered and put in arms in Thailand. I saw vaccines delivered and put in arms in Niger. I saw vaccines delivered in Mali and Gabon on my most recent trip. The effort is ongoing, but it is very clear that this is a high priority for the administration.
Secondly, half of the administration is in Glasgow right now at the climate summit. Rejoining the Paris agreement reflected that commitment, and we have upped our commitments to climate change and appointing former Secretary John Kerry as the special envoy for climate, I think, really highlighted the priority that the administration placed on dealing with climate, which has been identified as an existential threat to the entire world. And then, third, joining the Human Rights Commission—Human Rights Council laid out our priority to bring our values back into our foreign policy. We know that if we are sitting on the Human Rights Council we can raise the ante for those who are human rights violators to make sure that they are called out for those violations, to make sure that our voice is heard, to make sure our values are put on the table. The president will be hosting in December a Summit on Democracies as we try to address what we are seeing as, really, an attack on democracy, authoritarians really trying to push forward a false agenda for their people, and we know that it is democracies that will serve the best interest of their people.
I could go on, but I know you have more questions.
MABRY: Oh, that’s a great start. It’s quite a list, right, to start with. You and the president both use this phrase “America’s back” quite often, and fresh off that second international tour and perhaps the most consequential of his administration so far, which included the meeting with the Pope as well as the G-20 and as well as opening of COP26, in what ways do you think the U.S. has demonstrated—you’ve, I think, listed some of them—that America is back? And maybe this is more to the point, since you listed a number of them, where do you think you still have something to prove to the world that the U.S. is really back?
THOMAS-GREENFIELD: You know, clearly, we are back and the current trip that the president is on, the travels that I have engaged in since I took on my position, the travels that Secretary Blinken has engaged, shows that America is engaging with the world and that we are back on the international stage.
There are some challenges. I mean, part of the challenge is convincing people that we’re back, that we’re actually back, that they can believe that we’re back. And so we have to show them every single day our commitments to it—to all of the values that we have all worked with them on, at the United Nations showing that we want to engage with our partners, that we want to embrace our partners, and that we want to work with our partners on common interests. I have done that over the course of my tenure at the—here in New York, working with our colleagues on the Security Council, the A3—the African countries—on the Security Council to ensure that we bring issues before the council that are important to the world. We’re dealing with issues like what is happening in Ethiopia right now. We’re dealing with Yemen. We work to ensure that we pass a resolution on Syria that kept the last border open that provides more than—food and assistance to more than a million people. So it’s not just for countries we’re back. It’s for the world that we’re back.
MABRY: Following up on Ethiopia, because you raise it, I wonder, and this—you know, and whenever you have the kind of job you have there are so many priorities, as we just talked about—in Ethiopia I wonder—this is kind of a journalistic question we often ask ourselves in our kind of daily editorial meetings, where is the world on fire? Like, where is—and I wonder, is Ethiopia the place? And I just wonder, given those priorities, where—what’s the most urgent one? And that’s a hard question, but I—
THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Yeah, it’s hard to say what the most urgent one is because there’s so many. Ethiopia is very, very worrisome. There is an internal war going on in that country where Ethiopians are killing Ethiopians. Ethiopia was a country two years ago that we saw on the brink of taking off as one of the fastest-growing countries on the continent of Africa, and today they’re involved in a civil war where hundreds of people are being killed and a humanitarian crisis is upon us.
Sudan—clearly, we’re concerned about the situation in Sudan, where the military has pushed out the civilians that they aligned with in this transitional government. People fought for the changes that were needed there. We’re terribly concerned about the situation in Yemen that has been going on for so long and how to find a solution there. Burma, where the military again took the unfortunate decision of pushing out the civilian government. In our own region, Haiti, the assassination of the president was just one in many crises that this poor country has had to address, along with climatic crises and insecurity. There are numerous places where the world is on fire but there are also numerous places around the world where we do see hope. I was in the Sahel. I visited Niger in the middle of the desert. Niger had their first democratically-elected government in their history and were able to transition to a democratically-elected president who is extraordinarily thoughtful about what he wants to see for his country. So I left that country feeling extraordinarily positive about the future of a country that is dealing with all kinds of challenges.
MABRY: So let’s continue there. That was a Security Council trip you all made to Niger and Mali. Oftentimes, especially when one approaches Africa, even in a place like the council, which is a rather sophisticated approach, sometimes Africa is all lumped together. How can you distinguish the situation in those two countries, for instance, in Mali and in Niger? You talked about Niger a little bit there.
THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I always start, having been a professor and teaching African—a course on Africa at Georgetown, Africa is not a country. (Laughter.) It’s a continent, made up of fifty-four different countries, and Niger and Mali are two of them, and they are on the belt of the Sahel where North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa meets. In that belt, they’re dealing with dramatic climatic changes. They’re dealing with terrorism. They’re dealing with demographics that will raise your eyebrows. Mali has a huge youth population. In Niger, the median age is fifteen. So they have a huge youth population and they have people who are looking for opportunities. They want to—they want jobs. They want to be invested in the future of their country and the future of the world, and everything is working against them. Terrorism is a huge problem, and part of what the council went there for was to look at the situation in Mali where we have a U.N. peacekeeping force and to see how we can help that country address their insecurity, despite the fact that they have had two coups d’états in less than a year. So we had meetings with the president and with members of the government there. But we also met with civil society. We met with women’s groups. We met with the opposition, and we were able to express in no uncertain terms our concerns about the situation there but also our message to the president that he needed to move toward a transition as quickly as possible. We were concerned that they were expressing some intention to use a Russian mercenary organization that we had seen operate in other places in Africa, and we made sure that he heard from us that we did not see that as an alternative for dealing with the security issues in that country. But we were there to listen and learn and I think we did that. We were all pleasantly surprised when we got to Niger to see that that country had actually found a way to bring the entire country together, different ethnic groups and different issues, bring them together and address them in a common way that we were able to leave that country with a sense of hope. We will be meeting in the council on the extension of the MINUSMA peacekeeping force there and determine what that force should look like in the future, but also looking at how we can better support both countries to deal with the security situation that they both face.
MABRY: You came to this position after a long and distinguished career and went into retirement. Then you came back in to do this job. (Laughter.) We can talk later on about why one would make that decision. But I wonder, sitting in this seat, even with having sat in many other positions around the world representing the United States and its interest, what have you discovered in the seat you’re currently sitting in as far as what’s been your biggest surprise, let’s say, at the U.N. doing this job with this remit?
THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Well, first, I came to New York at the end of February, four days before I took the seat as president of the Security Council. So I had a very steep learning curve. I had four days to meet all fifteen members of the Security Council as well as the secretary general, and then meet my staff, and then learn how to preside over a meeting of the Security Council.
THOMAS-GREENFIELD: So what was surprising to me is that I was able to do it—(laughter)—and I’m still in shock that I got through that extraordinary month. But what was new to me and I think what surprised me when I arrived in New York was the way that the U.S. was embraced. There was a sense of euphoria about the U.S. being back and being back at the table and engaging, and we got it from friends and foe. Everybody was—seemed to be happy that we were back. So I have to say I was surprised by that. I was surprised by the warm welcome that I received. And I think I was given a bit of a pass for my first few months because everyone knew that—they’d seen me go through my hearing—they knew that I had been waiting and behind the curtain to come out and they were willing to be patient with me.
MABRY: What have you found to be, likewise, in that seat the biggest obstacles or challenges to the accomplishment of U.S. goals at the U.N.?
THOMAS-GREENFIELD: You know, we are—again, we are the big player on the block but we don’t pay our dues. So we have huge arrears in the U.N., about $300 million, and I have been working with members of Congress and within the administration to ensure that we pay our dues, because when we pay our dues our voice is much more effective than when we don’t pay our dues. Now, people are giving us a pass because of who we are. But we do need to figure out a way to make others pay more in the U.N. system, which is a problem for us, to make the U.N. system more effective, to bring about some reforms. But we can’t do that if we have not paid our dues. And so that’s been the biggest challenge. There’s a sense that we’re competing with China. The Chinese are paying their dues. They’re not paying as much as we pay. Their assessed fee is about 12 percent. Ours is 25 percent. But we see their assessed fees going up and the more they pay the louder their voices can be, the more—the stronger their voice is. So we need to maintain our strong voice so that we can work against some of their malign efforts in New York.
MABRY: And how do you see that desire to pay the U.S. assessed fees—how do you see that going? What’s the state of play?
THOMAS-GREENFIELD: You know, I have met with members of Congress on both sides of the aisle and there are different views. But I have seen that there is—there’s a core group who understand the importance of us paying our dues and they have been working with me to find ways to make sure that we put that in the budget and that we catch up on our arrears but also continue to pay our assessed fees.
MABRY: So I’m going to—I’m going to ask, after Tuesday’s election results—which were, obviously, very tough for the president and his party—do you think the likelihood the political—I’m asking about the political balance of power. Does he think—does it get harder to get the administration’s goals like that one in Congress accomplished? Is it—is it harder after Tuesday? And then—I’m asking you to look in a crystal ball, so I appreciate—
THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Yeah, I don’t think so. I think it’s hard now, and so I’m not expecting it to be harder. I expect that I have to continue to work hard to prove how important it is that we continue to engage in this multilateral space because it’s in our interest.
MABRY: As you know, this is the term member annual conference, and so a lot of people here and out there in Washington and watching virtually are early—or some could say mid-career but I’d say early career, given how old I am now. And so to get a little personal about it, you and your peers are at the heights of diplomacy. Your background is not, you know, similar to most of them. So I’d like for you to on a personal level tell us about where you came from and how you came to where you are.
THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I’m from Louisiana, a proud, proud Cajun and I know there are a few of you here in the room, and you might have heard as I talked about my engagement that I practice gumbo diplomacy, and it does work. But I grew up in a small—a poor family. Neither of my parents were well educated. My father was, in fact, illiterate. The oldest of eight kids, and I always say to people that the first chapter of your life does not define what the last chapter is going to be, and I don’t know what my last chapter is going to be. This is probably chapter twenty-five. I hope I have another twenty-five more.
But in this little small segregated town that I grew up in, Peace Corps came there in the mid-’60s to train Peace Corps volunteers who were going to Africa. They were training them in siSwati, those who were going to Swaziland, and some who were going to Somalia, and they invited the young kids—I was in eighth grade—to come over to the campus to learn one of the languages and I learned siSwati. I don’t remember a word of it now so don’t test me on it. But it really kind of tickled my imagination that there was some places—there were some places in the world beyond this little small town that I grew up in. And I kind of forgot about the experience, but I always had that deep, deep urge to do something a little bit bigger than Baker, Louisiana, or Louisiana State University and I ended up going to the University of Wisconsin, started to study Africa. And, interestingly, while I was at the University of Wisconsin, the teacher who taught me siSwati in eighth grade was there as a graduate student.
MABRY: Oh, wow.
THOMAS-GREENFIELD: And I happened to see her in an audience and I heard people calling her name, Glory, and I went up to her and I said, are you Glory Mamba (sp), and she said, yes. And I said, my name is Linda Thomas and I’m from Baker, Louisiana, and she remembered, and for me, that was a huge sign, that connection, you know, to happen, you know, twenty—almost twenty years later was extraordinary. But that was where it started and here’s where I am.
MABRY: That’s amazing. My own background, too, is not traditional for where I sit during the day, and I’m the son of a single mom on public assistance growing up in the projects in Trenton, New Jersey. And, yet, we find ourselves here on this august stage at this moment. What message would you send to the people who are watching who are early in their career out there, especially in places other than New York or Washington? What lesson does our story—
THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Yeah, I’ll start with where I just concluded. First chapter is just that. It’s your first chapter, and you can rewrite your chapters all along your lives. So I will say what President Sirleaf, who I—who was president of Liberia when I was ambassador, she gave a speech at Harvard, I think. maybe around 2012, and she said to the young people, dream big, and if your dreams are not big enough, if your dreams don’t scare you, they are not big enough. And that’s what I would say to young people. Dream big. Dream big enough to scare you. You’re going to get to someplace you might not have imagined yourself getting to.
MABRY: I’m going to ask you another semi-personal question in that I’m the dad of two eleven-year-olds, so two Gen Z-ers. Some, you know, Gen Z-ers may be watching. Older Gen Z-ers may be watching. And that I love Gen Z. It’s a very exciting generation. You know, they have very high standards and they let us know that all of our past standards were too low, and my kids do that at eleven, and my kids are lucky enough to be blessed with phenomenal educations already. Actually, one of them is in seventh grade and did a whole report on Libya and what the climate change means to Libya. So he knows there’s fifty-four countries in Africa. But as biracial kids and one actually being transgender, they are learning the very complete history of America and that was one of the things that roiled elections this past—this week. This kind of illusion of what critical race theory is, for instance, has been a very effective wedge issue in the electorate and it has been actually painted kind of as an indictment of all things, really, diversity, equity, and inclusion wise in many places, and that’s a very effective political discussion happening out in the country right now. So my kids have the opposite of—having grown up with a very fulsome understanding of American history and of our struggles and of our creation, and sometimes they are, frankly, very jaundiced in their view of our country and its role in the world. And I try to explain to them why, despite our history, warts and all, they should be very proud of—to be Americans and of America’s role in the world.
In your job—this is part of your job is to go out there and spread this message—what can I say to my kids? How can I let them understand, despite understanding the fulsomeness of our history, there’s a lot to be proud of here?
THOMAS-GREENFIELD: There is so much to be proud of. Our country is not perfect but our country embraces its diversity. You can be different in this country. I have traveled around the world. I’ve been in countries where people are not allowed to be different. And while sometimes it comes back on us in ways that none of us appreciate—we’ve all experienced racism, we’ve experienced sexism—but we know that we have laws in this country that we can use to support us and we have people around us who will support us and we don’t have to deny who we are. And there’s nothing that I have seen in any other country that allows you, your sons, to be who they are, where they are, and be able to fight for what they are and who they are. They are not going to find a perfect country in this world. But if there’s one close to perfect, it’s ours, and I can say that with confidence, having traveled all over the world.
MABRY: Excellent. Thank you for that. I’m going to take that back to them. (Laughter.) With that, we are going to open up our discussion. We’ll get all those questions. (Laughter.) Before we start, I’m going to hit on just a few ground rules. At this time, I’d like to invite the members to join our conversation with their questions. A reminder that this meeting is on the record. We will take our first question—sorry, New York—from the virtual audience and we’ll go back and forth. But we’ll come back to you guys soon. I promise.
OPERATOR: We’ll take the first question from Emerita Torres.
Q: Hi. It’s so great to be here virtually. My name is Emerita Torres. I’m the vice president for policy research and advocacy at the Community Service Society of New York. Also a proud former diplomat and alum of USUN, so this is a really special conversation for me to be a part of. So thank you. My question is around—so the secretary of state, Tony Blinken, talked about last week modernizing diplomacy and some of the ways to do that, and one thing that he talked about was including state and local actors in foreign policy discussions. And, you know, from my purview, you know, foreign policy is pretty elitist—you know, how we talk about it, how we engage with it, and how we do outreach around it. And so I think local diplomacy is really key to creating a foreign policy constituency. So I’d love to hear, Ambassador, what you think about that, especially given your incredible career and what you’ve done and what you’ve seen, and now working at the U.S. mission, you know, leading our efforts there. So thank you.
THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Thank you so much for that question, and absolutely. The president started at the beginning saying that we were creating a foreign policy for America, and I think one of our biggest failings as diplomats is that we have not done a good enough job in engaging American people and helping them understand that what we do we’re doing it for them, for their prosperity. When we are overseas and we are engaging companies and trying to get companies who are looking to invest in the U.S., we’re promoting trade with the U.S. We’re creating jobs for American citizens. When we work on the pandemic and look for—here in New York for mechanisms that will help us address the next pandemic of the future, we’re doing that not just for ourselves. We’re doing it for the American people. And what I think we need to do a better job of, and I’m trying to do that in this position and I know that others are as well, getting out to not just around the world but getting out to America, going to far-flung places like Baker, Louisiana, and speaking to a high school or going to—as I did when I was assistant secretary for Africa, talking to a high school in Clarkston, Georgia, going to Minnesota and speaking at the University of Minnesota, or in Riverside, California, to talk to ordinary citizens about what it is that we do and why it’s important, that they understand what we are doing and how it impacts their lives. And I am looking forward over the course of my assignment here to make sure that I do that and not just—actually, you know, I talk about going to Baker, Louisiana. I want to do it here in New York City as well because what I’ve discovered is the U.N. is a little bubble around Turtle Bay, and you can go across the river to Brooklyn and people don’t even know what we do. So I’ve talked to some of my colleagues in the Security Council about taking the Security Council to a high school. So if any of you have some ideas about a great high school for us to go to, let me know and I will work with some members of the council to see if they will join me in going to talk to young people. Because once we start to talk to young people about what we do and once they start to understand what we do, then they understand why it’s so important for them to vote, why it’s so important for them to advocate for certain policy positions, why it’s important for them to understand what is happening in a country like Ethiopia or what is happening in DPRK or anywhere else in the world, how that impacts their lives.
MABRY: Thank you, Madam Ambassador. Our first question is right here, the young lady in the red jacket.
Q: Thank you so much. My name is Tara Hariharan. I work for a hedge fund here in New York. Thank you so much for your service, Ambassador. I would love for you to expound a bit further on how you see the tenuous U.S.-China relationship playing through at the U.N., both the cooperative and the competitive elements, and especially not just because China is such a big financial player but also because of its increased influence in the developing markets. Thank you.
THOMAS-GREENFIELD: You know, we see China—the relationship is a complex one. We see them as a competitor when we need to compete with them. We see them as a partner when we need to partner with them and we see them as an adversary when they play adversarial roles. So it’s a complicated and complex relationship that we have. When we can cooperate with them we look for opportunities to cooperate. On climate change, we’ve found an area where we have some cooperation with them. But when it comes to the values of the multilateral system, the role that they’re playing is not a positive role and we will push back against that. They push for the sovereignty of the state over the sovereignty of the human rights of the people within the state. We fight against that. We call them out when they commit human rights violations against their own people. We call them out when their malign efforts are bringing a message to countries where we see different values. So, again, I have found that since I’ve arrived here that we do have a respectful relationship with each other. But we know where our red lines are and I’m not afraid to make sure that I raise my concerns with them and I do it publicly. It’s not always about fighting, though. If the international system is to work, if we are to accomplish what we need to accomplish, we also have to find a way to work with our adversaries.
MABRY: There’s always a question with China and it’s vacillated over the decades, of, you know, if they’re inside the system they’ll be better partners than if they’re outside the system, trying to bring it down from the outside, and it waxes and wanes. Given the policies of Xi and where they are now—some would say they’re in a kind of internal re-consolidation and not being open, especially as they take on their own business sector, which is kind of shocking to those of us who’ve known China for the last few decades—do you think it’s a moment right now where we have to write them off as far as being part of the multilateral system or is there—
THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Oh, no.
MABRY: —are there opportunities to—
THOMAS-GREENFIELD: No. We certainly can’t write them off. They are proactively engaged in the multilateral system. They are aggressive in the multilateral system. They are present every single day. They’re looking for opportunities to push their agenda that benefits their country, their economy, that promotes their values. So they’re there and we have to be there. And what we have found during the four years that we pulled back from the multilateral system, we left vacant space and they filled it. So we’re now pushing back against that.
MABRY: Excellent. Thank you. So we’ll go to Washington, or to the virtual space. You guys tell me; who’s next?
Q: Hi, Ambassador. My name’s William Wagner. I’m also a USUN alum, a proud USUN alum, like Emerita before. I work for Bechtel now. My question is about the Security Council and your views on the Security Council’s impact. I think between persistent P-5 division and, you know, the Council’s sort of peripheral role on new, emerging threats like cyber and the pandemic, it’s hard to feel a lot of optimism about the Council’s impact these days. So I wondered if you could share your thoughts on sort of your outlook for the future of the Council, the Security Council as an institution and its impact.
THOMAS-GREENFIELD: The Council will always be important on the international stage. I will agree with you that we are not as effective as we could be. But we are able to accomplish a great deal in the Council and we are able to find areas of agreement, even with the P-5. As I look back on my brief period—again, and I mentioned this earlier; one of our biggest accomplishments, working within the Council, was to get the Council to agree unanimously to continue with the Syria resolution that kept a single border open that provides subsistence and support, humanitarian assistance to over a million people. It was clear that this was not an easy thing to accomplish, but the Council was able to do it and I think that was an important accomplishment. And there are others that—where we have been able to come together as a Council and move forward our agenda. Also, the rest of the world, and particularly ordinary people, look to hear what the Council has to say. When the Council is quiet, people are—feel that they’re being ignored. When we’re able to have a meeting, as we are going to tomorrow, on Ethiopia, the people of Ethiopia are listening to what the Council has to say. Our travels to the Sahel were important, the engagements that we had with people. We’re able to engage with heads of state but we’re also able to advise and assist the secretary-general to carry out his agenda as well. So it’s not a perfect organization. It’s an organization that is constantly struggling from within. But we still have a strong voice and we are still able to accomplish what we need to accomplish.
MABRY: Back to New York. Yes, right here.
Q: Hello, Ambassador. I’m Grace Choi, formerly the director of policy with the New York City’s Mayor Office so I do have some suggestions of schools in New York—(laughter)—to teach more IR to, and formerly also with the Obama administration serving in the White House liaison’s office at the State Department. So it’s good to see you again. My question is related to pipeline building for women of color in particular within the foreign policy space. I know you’re already aware of Ambassador Bonnie Jenkins’s Women of Color Advancing Peace and Security, which I’m a board member of, and Diversity in National Security that Laura Kupe and Camille Stewart founded. But we still see the political pipeline of women of color needed still in the State Department, at USAID, at Defense, and all of the foreign policy think tanks and institutions in the U.S. too. So I guess my question is, how do we fix that—(laughs)—and what are things that you feel like you can do from your vantage point as the permanent representative at USUN?
THOMAS-GREENFIELD: You know, it is a problem. It’s a problem that we have to acknowledge, and acknowledging the problem is a major step. So having wins and other organizations that are bringing young women together to encourage and support and mentor them I think also is a huge step forward. I have seen more women named in senior positions in this administration than I’ve seen in any administration in the past, so I do think we are making progress, but it’s still not enough. I spend a tremendous amount of my time mentoring and encouraging, and when I was out of government, I had even more time to do it, and that’s pretty much all I did, teaching at Georgetown, encouraging young people to look at foreign affairs careers and to engage in the policy arena. It’s important that we do because we bring a different perspective. And anybody who’s different will bring a different perspective. So we need diversity to do that. I always talked about that we actually need to have a conscious bias toward encouraging diversity, because if we’re not conscious about it, it doesn’t always happen. So I am always in a room—people don’t know—I’m counting; I’m looking at how many women are sitting in this room. If there were not enough women sitting in this room, I would have already raised that as a concern. But it’s not just for me to do; it’s for our male colleagues as well. Male colleagues have to be conscious when they’re the only ones in the room and there are no—there’s no diversity in the room with you. You have to also take this on and make it a value and make it a priority for you. But again, I think we’ve seen some progress, but we can’t sit on our laurels and say, oh, but we’ve achieved some success. We still have to encourage young girls to think about foreign policy careers. And sometimes people—you know, it’s family issues. Well, family issues are male and female. And so we need to make sure that it’s not just the female side of the family that’s taking on the burden of—and that probably wasn’t the right word—the responsibility of family that your partner has to—and if you don’t have a partner, then you build a community around you that will support you to have a family. And you can do both. I have two children, so I know it’s possible to do both and I know it’s possible to do both successfully. My children may disagree with me, though. (Laughter.)
MABRY: (Laughs.) I also think you raise a question about male partners or male colleagues in the room. When women are in the room, you also have to watch and see well, who’s speaking, even women are in the room—who’s speaking in the room? I think the next question is going to be a virtual one.
OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Tracy Roosevelt.
Q: Hi, my name is Tracy Roosevelt. I’m an attorney at Foley Hoag where I represent states in treaty breaches and other conflicts. I wanted to say first that I think you’re making my great grandmother, Eleanor Roosevelt, very proud, and my mentor—(laughs)—my mentor from Louisiana, Judge Helen Ginger Berrigan, agrees as well. And so what I wanted to ask was how your time in Liberia prepared you for dealing with conflict and in particular the COVID crisis.
THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Wow. It was tough. I mean, I came to Liberia after Liberia had gone through almost two decades of conflict. But I actually got the opportunity to watch a president, who happened to be a woman, really—I watched her operating and I watched her deal with the politics in the country, but what really impressed me with her is that her compassion never diminished. She could not—she would be on her way to a political meeting with her parliament and children would be on the side of the road and she would stop and talk to them; she would stop and engage with them. She engaged with women. She would start her day at 6:00 in the morning where women would line up just to come and talk to her. And what she taught me during that period is that you can deal with hard political issues and still be compassionate and true to yourself. Liberia also—immediately after I left Liberia, Ebola hit the country, so there they were; they had gotten out of the worst part of their civil war and then they had to address this terrible disease. And where they were able to succeed where others didn’t was having leadership, and that same leadership meant not just leadership at the top, it meant leadership all the way down the line. And so they were in a much better position to deal with COVID when COVID happened. I happened to be in Liberia on the 2nd of March in 2020 when COVID hit. In fact, I was worried I was going to get stuck there. We were hearing that planes were going to stop flying. But when I arrived there on March 2nd and COVID—the crisis was just starting. When we got off the plane, we were—our temperatures were taken and we had to wash our hands. And everywhere you went in a public building there were handwashing stations, as early as the 1st of March. So they were able to start to deal with this issue very early on because of the experience that they had had with Ebola. But I came away from my four years in Liberia feeling a lot more empowered as a leader and as a woman because I was able to see strong leadership work.
Q: Thank you.
MABRY: Come back here to New York. Right here in the middle. The black mask. (Laughs.)
THOMAS-GREENFIELD: The black mask. The masked man.
Q: Thank you so much. Dhruv P. Singh from DEWS Holdings. First off, thank you so much. This is absolutely wonderful. A question I had was, how much of a disadvantage is our four-year time horizon and really just continuity of international policy making, is part one of the question. And part two—and of course, that’s when compared to others, say, China or Russia, with much longer time horizons. So that’s part one. And part two is, what’s your strategy to overcome this?
THOMAS-GREENFIELD: You know, we have—while our presidents change every four years, or every eight years in many cases, we have strong institutions. And I say that somewhat guardedly because our institutions were under attack, but our institutions survived. And it is our institutions that provide us with the continuity that we—that gives us our strength to continue to engage internationally. And our policies will change, but I think that’s also part of our strength, that we’re not stuck on the same policy track for twenty years because we haven’t changed our leadership. So I don’t see it as a disadvantage. Every four years or even every year, this year, we give the American people an opportunity to speak to their leaders. They can vote and say whether they’re happy or unhappy. And what that will do is force our leaders to recalibrate, and we’re seeing that play out as we speak.
MABRY: You don’t have a political position, but I have to ask because you left an opening for me. What recalibration should we take from the message that happened this week?
THOMAS-GREENFIELD: You know, President Biden has been on the news. I have been watching the news all day and it’s like the American people have spoke. They want us to take some actions and they want to see these bills that the president has put forward passed. I’m not political. I’m very much still a career person, despite the fact that I’m in a political job. I’m a—I’m a professional bureaucrat, so being on the political space—in the political space is uncomfortable for me. But I think the president has been very clear in his messaging today that we need to listen to the American people.
MABRY: All right. I’m going to go to Washington for the next question.
Q: Ambassador, first, thank you so much for some really insightful comments tonight. My name is William Denn. I’m a military officer currently serving on the Joint Staff at the Pentagon. At this point, the U.S. military and particularly the U.S. Army is going through, I think, a period of some real institutional and self-reflection, observing after Afghanistan the Afghan security forces fell and the Afghan government fell in August. I’m curious from your perspective, as well, what are we doing to have that same self-reflection across the U.S. government and particularly with your role at the United Nations now? The reality was that Afghanistan was a multinational effort between NATO and the United Nations. What are our allies and partners saying about what we should take away from this effort over the last twenty years? Thank you.
THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Well, the—we had tremendous support from our allies and partners on the president’s decision on Afghanistan. We were there for twenty years. For twenty years, we gave America’s treasure to the people of Afghanistan. We helped them in years of conflict. We provided opportunities for young women to be educated. But at some point they have to take the reins themselves and the U.S. could not stay there forever. And all of our allies agreed with us on that decision. None of us could have speculated how it was going to turn out, and I will say we have not turned our backs on the people of Afghanistan. We are still engaging. We’re still insisting and demanding that the Taliban respect human rights, that they provide opportunities for women to work and for women to go to school, that they allow for humanitarian assistance to continue to be provided, that they allow for free passage for Afghans to be able to travel or not travel in their country, and we’re holding them to this. We’re not going—they’re not going to get international respect or recognition until they are able to show that they’re ready to be part of the nations of the world who respect human rights. But no one can question the commitment, the sacrifice, the contributions that we gave to Afghanistan over the past twenty years.
MABRY: What did you hear? What were you hearing, sitting in your seat, as we were all watching those traumatic images, even those who understand the foreign policy decisions? The pullout, of course, didn’t look like anyone would have wanted it to look, and it was gut-wrenching. What did you hear from your peers around the—
THOMAS-GREENFIELD: You know, what I was hearing—and I was hearing it on a regular basis—is we support your decision. We support your decision. We see this is not going well, but it is not your fault or your responsibility that it is not going well. Afghans have to accept some responsibilities for this, and we all have to work together to help the people of Afghanistan address these issues. We worked together in the Security Council. And while there was some tension within the Security Council, particularly from our Russian and Chinese colleagues—who, interestingly, in normal circumstances would say having your military is interfering in the internal affairs of a country—they were saying it’s because you’re leaving that this country is falling apart. And we had to remind them that this is the—an internal situation in Afghanistan that we have—you know, we’ve given our best to. So I’m sure that there were people saying things that I wouldn’t have wanted to hear, but they weren’t saying them to me.
MABRY: OK.Yes, sir. Right here in the front.
Q: Hello. My name is Stephen Schlesinger. I’m with The Century Foundation.
I actually wrote a book about the San Francisco conference in 1945 that set up the U.N. Charter. The U.N. Charter only gave five members of—five states the permanent membership on the Security Council. Ever since then, there have been efforts to reform the Council and either expand it or abolish the permanent members. What is the U.S. position today on that particular issue? And have you found that there is any movement on the issue of reforming the Security Council as far as the permanent membership goes?
THOMAS-GREENFIELD: It’s a constant issue that is being raised across the board. Our position is we support Security Council reform and we support the expansion of the Security Council. How that happens, of course, is—will always be an issue of contention. You know, who should be the new permanent members? Will they have a veto power or not? Will the five permanent members give up their veto power? Our position is, no, we won’t give our veto power up and we don’t want to see others with the veto power. But we do want to see the Council reformed and we do think it’s important that other countries—other regions of the world have more permanent—a more permanent presence on the Security Council. But, you know, how that happens I think is much more complicated than just saying it.
MABRY: We’ll take a virtual question next.
OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Sarah Miller.
Q: Hi. This is Sarah Miller from Refugees International. Thank you so much for your thoughtful words tonight. I wanted to go back to Ethiopia, which I’m glad has come up a few times. We’ve been working a lot on the situation in Tigray and, of course, you’re very aware of what’s been going on in recent days. And I was wondering if you could share a little more about what you hope for from the Security Council, what you think might be possible? And maybe that can also speak to broader questions about the tools at the disposal of the U.N. to effect change in countries where we’re seeing civil war, mass displacement, human rights violations, sexual violence. So really keen to hear your thoughts. Thank you.
THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Now, the Security Council has expressed itself on the—on the situation in Ethiopia. Again, always a battle on what we say and how we say it. I think we have a statement coming out tonight. I don’t know, Jeff, has it come out yet? We’re working on a—on a—we were working on a statement when I left the office that we hope to get out tonight that would support the secretary-general’s call for a ceasefire, encourage the two parties to come together in talks, encourage humanitarian assistance to be allowed to come in, and supporting the efforts of the region to bring the parties to the table. But the first thing that has to happen is there has to be a ceasefire, and without a ceasefire you cannot provide humanitarian assistance. The situation in Ethiopia has been extraordinarily distressful for all of us. As I mentioned, this was a country that really was on the verge of development success. They were the fastest-growing country in the region. And to see this country having this internal fight where, again, thousands of people have been killed and a humanitarian crisis is in front of us—a famine, in fact, is looming—is unacceptable. Having the humanitarian community being restricted from giving needed humanitarian assistance is unacceptable. So it is important that the humanitarian community, organizations like Refugees International, and others raise your voices as loudly as you can on this issue. In the Security Council, we will continue to push the parties to come to a ceasefire agreement. We will continue to support the efforts of the Kenyan president, who has been proactively engaged in negotiations, the efforts of the AU special envoy. And as we speak, our envoy, Jeff Feltman, is in the region, and has had meetings with the Ethiopian authorities, and is continuing to push for a ceasefire. We have also pulled out some of our other tools, such as the possibility of sanctions. We have not placed significant sanctions on the government yet, but we do have those sanctions available to use as needed. And we have—we will have no hesitation in using them if we’re not able to get the parties to accept and move forward in ending this carnage that is taking place on—in this country.
MABRY: We’ll come back to New York for our last question. In the back there.
Q: I hope it’s good wrap-up question. Thank you so much, Ambassador, for your service. My name’s Flynn Coleman of Harvard University. And I also studied African politics at Georgetown, so we’re honored to have you as part of that community at Georgetown as well. So we talked a little bit about Gen Z, Ethiopia of course, China, a rising tide of digital threats, cyber. I’m curious if you’re seen the need or perhaps there already is a rising tide of changes in how we practice diplomacy. When we’re thinking about Gen Z, China, cyber, all of those things, what do you see is happening or needs to be happening at that level to meet the challenges of today?
THOMAS-GREENFIELD: You know, it’s technology. I would not have believed even three years ago that we would have virtual Security Council meetings or virtual meetings like this. We’re able to engage with people all over the world because the technology allows us to do that, and that technology I think is important. It has to be managed. It has to be managed in such a way that we’re able to do our work without fear, without fear of people invading our privacy, but we’ve been able to do it. And we’ve had international meetings. We hosted a COVID meeting virtually at the White House. We are—as I said, we hosted—the entire month that I was president of the Security Council, we hosted all of our meetings virtually. So we know that that can happen, and we know that we can transfer information and news a lot more quickly than we could in the past. One of the things that has shocked me is the impact that Twitter has. I very much recall when I was assistant secretary saying to one of our ambassadors that we don’t do diplomacy over Twitter. You know, we’re not going to tweet our communications to another government. Well, here we are today and—(laughter)—you know, the first thing I do when I get up in the morning is look at what’s been tweeted and sometimes tweet back. So Twitter has become a tool of diplomacy. But again, we have to be careful because those tools are not always as effective as being able to sit in the room. To do effective diplomacy, you want to sit across from someone. You want to be able to look them in the eye. You want to be able to gauge from their body language whether they’re being sincere. And you can’t do that virtually. So I think there will always be a role for face-to-face diplomacy, for talking to people face to face, but we’re also able to start those conversations in ways that we might not have been able to five or ten years ago. And this new Gen X—no, Gen Z?
MABRY: Z. (Laughter.) Gen X, woo! (Laughter.)
THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Yeah. (Laughs.) They will perfect this in ways that we can’t even imagine, so they probably will have a way of actually doing virtual meetings where they can look a person in the eye and gauge from their body language whether they’re actually genuine. But what they won’t be able to do is gumbo diplomacy—(laughter)—and bring people over a wonderful meal where you’re able to know who you’re talking to and understand who you’re talking to and develop a relationship that will help you move your agenda forward.
MABRY: Thank you all for joining today’s Sorensen Distinguished Lecture. Please join me in thanking the ambassador. (Applause.)
This is an uncorrected transcript.