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Biden’s UN Nominee Fends Off Questions About Being Soft on China

Linda Thomas-Greenfield’s hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Jan. 27, 2021. Republicans accused her of being too upbeat about China, based on a speech she gave at a university in Georgia. She repeatedly voiced “regret” for accepting the speaking engagement.

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, appearing before a Senate committee confirmation hearing on Jan. 27 for her nomination as United States envoy to the United Nations, handled a barrage of Republican accusations that the new Biden administration and she were not tough enough on China.

The rhetoric from the Republican camp reached a crescendo when Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who has refused to recognize that Joe Biden won the November election, accused his administration of “embracing the Chinese Communist Party.”

As if sharing Trump-Pompeo talking points, more than half a dozen senators used their brief remarks in the hearing to focus on growing Chinese influence in the UN system and China’s “malignant influence,” as some called it, globally. The rise of China in the UN primarily occurred under the Trump administration’s watch, which the senators did not mention.

Thomas-Greenfield was personally attacked for a speech she made in October 2019 at Savannah State University in Georgia, where the Beijing-sponsored Confucius Institute, an educational-exchange program with propaganda ambitions, had attracted a student following. She denied repeated accusations from Republicans in the hearing that the institute arranged the program or paid her a $1,500 honorarium. In fact, she was invited by Savannah State, a historically Black university, for speaking about African-Chinese policy and engaging with students about international affairs and diplomacy.

The university paid her fee, which she did not repay, she told Cruz after he asked about her doing so. She reiterated her “regret” for accepting the invitation. Savannah State University and many other educational institutions in the US have since severed all ties with the Confucius Institute.

None of the accusations leveled against her were true, Cory Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey, noted, saying he was “particularly galled” that someone who had “whipped up a storm at the Capitol” — apparently referring to Cruz — should be accusing Biden nominees of being apologists for China.

Despite the drumbeat from Republicans on everything Chinese, the hearing was conducted politely on Wednesday morning, with numerous senators physically present and others attending virtually. Democrats and Thomas-Greenfield responded with low-key assertions that the Trump administration had created the problem of rising Chinese dominance at the UN by the US withdrawing from international organizations, leaving a vacuum that China eagerly filled.

Thomas-Greenfield, with 35 years’ experience in the US foreign service, is a leading American expert on Africa, the continent most insulted and neglected by Trump during his presidency. 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 diplomacy, 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.

Thomas-Greenfield, an African-American, was born in 1952 into hardship and segregation in Louisiana. This year, she and 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, chaired an advisory group at the Council on Foreign Relations, focusing on a report about how to fix the perilous state of American diplomacy. Burns is now President Biden’s nominee to head the Central Intelligence Agency.

Thomas-Greenfield and Burns have co-written a searing summary of the study’s findings. Their article was published in the November-December 2020 issue of the journal Foreign Affairs.

In her Senate hearing, Thomas-Greenfield defended the UN as “uniquely poised to take over global challenges.” Diplomacy, she said, was “an indispensable tool for advancing American interests” and cooperation with allies was essential. She often referred to the UN as “New York,” where it is based.

Other issues raised by Democrats and Republicans included bias against Israel at the UN. Thomas-Greenfield said that she would work closely with the Israeli ambassador at the UN on the matter, adding that President Biden has indicated he aims to return the US to the Human Rights Council. The Trump administration withdrew from it in 2018.

In general, Thomas-Greenfield added, changing actions and attitudes can be achieved at the UN if the US leads the way. As for walking away from international bodies again, she said, “That will not happen on my watch.” She called the UN “the world’s most important diplomatic forum.”

Her nomination, assuming no more hurdles, will go to the full Senate for final approval, and Thomas-Greenfield could head to New York City by early February. That could depend, however, on when Bob Menendez, a Democrat of New Jersey, assumes the chair of the Foreign Relations Committee.

Today’s hearing was conducted by Senator James Risch, a Republican from Idaho, who led the charge on Democrats and China in his opening remarks, although he said that one speech — Thomas-Greenfield’s in Savannah — should not be held against her.

Risch was named the “Most Conservative Member of the Senate” by the National Journal. Menendez has been unable to take his place as chair of the committee because Republicans are delaying the handover process to a Democrat.

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.

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