When she arrived in Turtle Bay the morning of Feb. 25, a day after being sworn in as United States ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield didn’t hide the tight timeline she had inherited in her new post, which includes president of the Security Council in March: “I’m not only hitting the ground running, I’m hitting the ground sprinting,” she said to the media at the UN that afternoon.
She kept up a fast pace in her first weekend in New York City, where she is now working, across the street from the UN, in Midtown Manhattan: “I’ve had the opportunity in a marathon of three days to meet with all the members of the Security Council, so that I could be ready to start this morning,” she said on March 1 at a press conference.
In her first meetings with each of her 14 Council counterparts over last weekend, she said she talked with them about Myanmar (calling it, as the State Department does, “Burma”), currently one of the most burning crises in international peace and security. The democratically elected government was deposed last month in a coup d’état, and uncertainty about the future of democracy remains high, especially after dozens of peaceful protesters were killed recently. (The Council met behind closed doors on Myanmar on March 5, producing no statement, but it heard remarks from the UN envoy to Myanmar, Christine Schraner-Burgener.)
Thomas-Greenfield has a lot on her plate: not only does she have to re-engage with many of the UN organizations the US left over the last four years, but she also has to rebuild relationships with traditional allies, notably in the Council, such as Britain and France, fellow permanent members. “We have re-engaged with the world by renewing our leadership in vital international institutions,” she said, “and we are repairing our alliances and restoring partnerships that advance our security and our prosperity.”
According to Peter Yeo, president of the Better World Campaign and senior vice president at the United Nations Foundation, the task for Thomas-Greenfield and her team is not to be underestimated: “We need to recognize that when we re-engage,” Yeo said, “and show appreciation for the fact that many other member states stepped up and advanced key human rights and development and humanitarian priorities while the US was not playing a helpful role.”
For March, Washington is prioritizing women’s rights by sponsoring an informal, open session, called the Arria Formula, on gender equality, with Ireland, Kenya, Mexico and Tunisia. It will take place on March 8, International Women’s Day.
“We will demand accountability for the rampant sexual exploitation and abuse that has increased during this pandemic,” Thomas-Greenfield said. She added that the US “will complement the work of the UN Commission on the Status of Women,” whose focus this year is on women’s participation and decision-making in public life. The CSW, as it’s called, takes place March 15-26 virtually.
The US will also hold an open debate on food and security on March 11 — concentrating on the “conflict-induced” starvation and hunger in Yemen and Ethiopia. Other regular topics the Council will address include South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Israel/Palestine and Libya.
Each month, PassBlue profiles UN ambassadors as their countries assume the Council presidency. To hear more details about the goals of the US in March and about Thomas-Greenfield, PassBlue interviewed a reporter in Baton Rouge, La., near where the ambassador grew up, and a former colleague, Ambassador Ruth A. Davis. The interviews can be heard in the latest episode of PassBlue’s podcast, UN-Scripted, on SoundCloud, Google Podcasts, Patreon, iHeartRadio or Amazon Prime Music. PassBlue also talked to Yeo of the Better World Campaign, based in Washington. (Excerpts of the podcast are below.) The ambassador did not make herself available for an interview.
US Ambassador to the UN: Linda Thomas-Greenfield, 68
Ambassador to UN Since: February 2021
Languages: English and French
Education: B.A., political science, Louisiana State University; M.P.A., University of Wisconsin-Madison
Her story, briefly: Linda Thomas-Greenfield was born in Baker, a small city outside Baton Rouge, the capital of Louisiana. She was educated, for the most part, in the legally segregated South. “At the time, Baker was really just a tiny couple of stores along the highway, and back in 1950, [it] started to grow very big,” Mark Ballard, a journalist for The Advocate, in Baton Rouge, told PassBlue. He’s written an extensive profile article of Thomas-Greenfield. “Then it was a suburb of Baton Rouge. After segregation, it has become a predominantly African-American suburb. . . .”
Thomas-Greenfield is the oldest of eight children, and many of her siblings went on to become prominent members of the Baton Rouge community, working in health care, education and law enforcement. A good student herself, she studied at Louisiana State University, also in Baton Rouge, and was part of the first cohort of African-Americans who attended after desegregation. “It was kind of a difficult time, but also a time that required a whole lot of . . . diplomacy to get through, because she was very much the minority when she was at LSU,” Ballard said.
She pursued a master’s degree in public administration at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She later said in a speech that when she left Louisiana, she put it in the rearview mirror, not wanting to form a family there. But she has stayed close to the community.
Thomas-Greenfield joined the State Department in 1982. That’s where she met her mentor, now-retired Ambassador Ruth A. Davis, who was the first woman of color to be appointed as director-general of the Foreign Service, in 2001. She remembers the day Thomas-Greenfield was nominated as UN ambassador, in November 2020, by incoming President Joe Biden. “I was just moved to tears because the day that President Biden announced her as his nominee, she took the time to send me an email to say thank you very much for having been my mentor from which I benefited greatly.”
At the State Department, Thomas-Greenfield rose to become assistant secretary of state for African affairs, working in that post from 2013 to 2017. Davis, who had been a diplomat herself in Benin, recommended her for the position of bureau chief. “She really was known for how brilliant she is, and how well she commanded the skills and the knowledge required to be an effective diplomat,” Davis told PassBlue. “She was known for her compassion and her kindness. She was also known for being committed to democracy, good governance, human rights and anticorruption.”
Throughout her career, Thomas-Greenfield has represented the US in such countries as Liberia, Pakistan, Kenya, Nigeria and Jamaica. She also has experience in the multilateral world, having worked at the US mission to the UN in Geneva. Thomas-Greenfield is known for what she calls “gumbo diplomacy,” in which she invites her counterparts to her home to cook and eat Creole dishes.
“I think ‘gumbo diplomacy’ works wherever she can get her kitchen together and invite diplomats over to make gumbo,” Yeo told PassBlue. “I think what’s exciting when you hear her describe ‘gumbo diplomacy,’ is that it’s not only the meal thats being served but her invitation to her guests to help her make the meal. And it’s in that more informal process of chopping and cooking that you really get to know people and have an opportunity to break down barriers.”
Thomas-Greenfield is married to Lafayette Greenfield, a fellow US diplomat, and they have two adult children.
Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield talked to reporters at the UN on March 1. Her remarks have been edited and condensed for clarity.
Could you describe in detail what areas you see for possible cooperation with China, particularly in the Security Council? Let me just say, our relationship is very complex. There will be areas where we will significantly disagree, in particular, as it relates to human rights. But there are some areas where there will be times when we hope to work with the Chinese in a cooperative way. I would give as an example, climate change. As we look at our relationship moving forward and the importance of diplomacy, we will never give up on diplomacy in trying to achieve what are our ultimate goals — and that is to put values and transparency into how the United Nations works, and we hope to be able to work with the Chinese on improving that.
Speaking in your national capacity and as a woman, don’t you think after 76 years it’s time for more than half the population of the world to be represented at the UN by a woman as secretary-general? That’s a loaded question, and I will take it as a loaded question. We will support the most qualified candidate for the job, but we absolutely believe in and support diversity. We want to support gender balance, and we will look at the candidates who are presented to us and review them accordingly.
What keeps you up at night, as an ambassador? What is keeping me up at night, or at least over the weekend, was getting ready for you guys today. Broadly, I think as we watch situations around the world, we are always worried about where the next crisis will be. To hear that 300 young girls were kidnapped in Nigeria last week was horrifying, and that is the kind of thing that will keep me up at night, but also any issue that might lead to the world becoming more insecure. I don’t know where the next crisis will be. None of us thought that we would be in crisis in Ethiopia now, when we looked at Ethiopia a year ago. . . . I’m a humanitarian at heart, I spent half my career working in the humanitarian area not only in Africa but actually working on refugees and migration issues when I served in Geneva. Those are the issues that worry me the most, because it leads to so much suffering.
Head of State: President Joseph Biden Jr.
Secretary of State: Antony Blinken
Type of Government: Federal, constitutional republic
Year America Joined the UN: 1945
Years in the Security Council: One of the five permanent members (Britain, China, France, Russia and the US)
Closest Allies on the Council: Britain and other European countries
Population (2020): 328.2 million
Memberships in Regional Groups: Group of Seven (G7), Group of Twenty (G20), NATO