When President-elect Joe Biden nominated Linda Thomas-Greenfield to be the next ambassador to the United Nations, he was signaling that American diplomacy would face big changes. If she is confirmed by the Senate in the new year, the UN will have a seasoned, top-rank diplomat in the United States’ Security Council seat, a break from the two diplomatically inexperienced political appointees of the Trump years, Nikki Haley and Kelly Craft.
Thomas-Greenfield, with 35 years in the American foreign service, is a leading US expert on Africa, the continent most disparaged, insulted and neglected by Donald Trump. From 2013 to 2017, she was assistant secretary of state for African affairs. Earlier, she had been ambassador to Liberia and served in other diplomatic missions in Gambia, Kenya and Nigeria as well as Jamaica, Pakistan and the US mission to the UN in Geneva.
Besides her award-winning diplomatic work, Thomas-Greenfield served in 2012-2013 as director general of the US foreign service and head of human resources at the State Department, giving her an inside view of American diplomacy.
This year, Thomas-Greenfield, an African-American born into hardship and segregation in the American South, Louisiana, joined William Burns, a former deputy secretary of state, who grew up in a white military family and is president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, to lead a timely initiative. They co-chaired an advisory group at the Council on Foreign Relations on a report about the perilous state of American diplomacy and how to fix it.
The two experts have co-written a searing summary of the study’s findings. Their article has just been published in the November-December 2020 issue of the journal Foreign Affairs.
“The wreckage at the State Department runs deep,” they wrote. “Career diplomats have been systematically sidelined and excluded from senior Washington jobs on an unprecedented scale. The picture overseas is just as grim, with the record quantity of political appointees serving as ambassadors matched by their often dismal quality.”
Given what they see as the politization and militarization of the diplomatic corps in recent decades, especially under the Trump administration, the authors say that it is not surprising that “the Foreign Service has experienced the biggest drop in applications in more than a decade.”
Adekeye Adebajo, the director of the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation, echoed in a recent South African television interview the observation that militarism in US foreign policy has compounded the underlying weakness of American diplomacy in Africa. The continent, he said, had never been given much importance.
Adebajo, who served in several UN missions in Africa (South Africa and Western Sahara) and Iraq, holds the administration of George W. Bush responsible for militarizing contemporary US policy, which has persisted to one degree or another. Thomas-Greenfield and Burns noted in their article that efforts to build more diversity into American diplomacy have actually been reversed: only four of the 189 US ambassadors abroad are Black, they wrote.
As for women, “Overall female representation in the Foreign Service remains roughly the same today as it was in 2000 — still 25 percent below female representation in the wider US labor force,” they reported.
So far, there are no signs that Thomas-Greenfield will face challenges to her confirmation as ambassador to the UN after the inauguration of President-elect Biden on Jan. 20. However, the Senate’s Republican majority leader, Mitch McConnell, was responsible for Trump’s choice of the last two envoys to the UN: Craft from Kentucky and the senator’s home state; and Haley from South Carolina. McConnell may still be in charge of scheduling — or blocking — confirmation hearings if Republicans hold the Senate in 2021. If the Republicans lose control in the two runoff-senatorial elections in Georgia on Jan. 5, that would make approval of Thomas-Greenfield’s nomination certain. The races remain in flux. (When Craft leaves her post on Jan. 20, the US mission to the UN will be led temporarily by Ambassador Richard Mills, a career foreign service officer and the mission’s deputy permanent representative.)
When Thomas-Greenfield speaks to audiences in Africa or the US, her tone is measured and her attention focused, as illustrated in her many public engagements. She observes details from the humanity around her and incorporates scenes from daily life in her thinking. “Africa for me is a passion, not a job,” she says.
Meeting with an aid organization in 2014, she turned an account of the severe shortage of electrical power into a poignant recollection of dozens of Liberian children doing their homework huddled under streetlights outside the walls of the US embassy compound in Monrovia.
“Imagine if those children could study in the comforts of their homes with a desk lamp in front of them,” she said, adding that hospitals needed power to store medicines safely and to light operating theaters and that Liberia generally still needed an adequate power supply to spur development. “Imagine what a difference that would make on the continent,” she said.
On a global issue — maybe hinting of her approach to Security Council business — she takes a practical, independent view of Chinese activities in Africa, with no ideological overtones. In remarks to the Foreign Policy Association in New York City in March 2016, the last year of the Obama administration, she said:
“Africa is a huge continent; it has huge opportunities. It has huge problems. There’s no need for the US and China to compete over Africa’s resources, or over influence on the continent of Africa. African countries can really balance and complement what we have to offer them with what the Chinese have to offer them, so that [they] get the best from both relationships.
“We have coordinated and cooperated with the Chinese in a number of areas on the continent,” Thomas-Greenfield said, mentioning South Sudan and Liberia.
“The Chinese have consulted with us,” she added. “We have a regular consultation with the Chinese government on where we can cooperate and coordinate each other’s activities on the continent. So I see it as a complementary relationship.
“Do the Chinese have interests that are not our interests? I would say so,” she went on. “Do we have interests that might not be in the Chinese interests? It’s possible. But for Africa, we have worked closely together.”
At least one African ambassador at the UN, from South Africa, said recently that he was looking forward to the arrival of “my friend” Thomas-Greenfield at the UN.
“Having Linda here, I think, will be a very big injection, a new spirit, building on the predecessors. . . . We think that she’ll bring to bear a vast experience, over three decades of diplomacy, and that’s what we needed now,” said Jerry Matthews Matjila at a press briefing on Dec. 1.
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.