After four years of wandering lost in the desert, diplomacy is finding its way back to Washington.
With Joe Biden in the Oval Office, “America First” is out and “multilateralism,” “cooperation” and “alliance” are no longer dirty words. Washington is once again embracing longtime allies, blowing kisses at the United Nations, touting NATO and the European Union and shining a light on Biden’s new UN ambassador, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who is originally from Louisiana.
The new administration’s return to diplomatic basics, a 180-degree reversal from the ways of the Trump era, is getting a warm reception from United States allies, the American diplomatic community and Congressional Democrats but a steady barrage of criticism from Republicans, who are the traditional enemies of this kind of international politicking.
It was no accident that Biden set his first summit meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva, a city nestled at the heart of Europe and the UN’s second city after New York, hosting huge US and Russian missions. Flash back to Putin and Trump’s infamous talks nearer to Russia, in Helsinki — talks whose content they kept secret from US officials as American intelligence agencies were convinced that Moscow had interfered in the 2016 US election.
Similarly, consider the symbolism in Washington’s recent celebration of its commitment to women’s health and abortion rights, two issues spurned by the Trump administration.
The State Department on June 7 issued a “fact sheet” focusing on a key action taken by Thomas-Greenfield. The new ambassador met that day with Dr. Natalia Kanem, a Panamanian who is the executive director of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), the fact sheet disclosed.
The meeting was aimed at “revitalizing high-level engagement” with the UN agency . . . “in support of its essential work to address preventable maternal deaths and the unmet need for family planning, and prevent and respond to gender-based violence and harmful practices around the world,” it said. As part of that effort, the administration planned to funnel $30.8 million to UNFPA in the current fiscal year, it added.
When the Trump administration cut off US support to UNFPA, in April 2017, that news also came in the form of a State Department announcement. It said the step had been taken because the UN agency backed coercive abortion programs and sterilization in China.
The UNFPA denied any such involvement — and it has done so repeatedly in the past, when this accusation surfaces from the Republicans and other foes of legal abortion and contraception. But the response was again ignored by the US. Women and families around the world were the losers because the agency’s work to promote safe childbirth and maternal health, expand access to birth control, help victims of violence and end female genital mutilation and child marriage extended well beyond China.
When Trump dumped the agency, the US financed about 7 percent of UNFPA’s worldwide budget. The agency said the US contribution in 2016 enabled UNFPA to save 2,340 women worldwide from dying during pregnancy and childbirth, prevent 947,000 unintended pregnancies and 295,000 unsafe abortions and fund 1,251 surgeries for fistula, a devastating condition resulting from prolonged, obstructed labor that causes incontinence in the mother and often kills her baby.
Thomas-Greenfield’s role in the UNFPA re-engagement was just one of a spate of recent Biden moves to raise her public profile across the world. In early June, the administration dispatched her to Turkey, which has a particularly problematic relationship with Washington these days, “to focus on the extensive support provided by the United Nations and its partner agencies to meet the dire humanitarian needs in Syria,” the US mission to the UN announced.
The trip took place only days before Biden’s first meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on June 14, in Brussels. While in Turkey, Thomas-Greenfield traveled to the Syrian border to inspect the single remaining entry point for delivery of international humanitarian aid, where she conducted a media briefing and emphasized how crucial it was to keep this last channel open. The Russians, back in the UN Security Council, want it shut — by veto — when the mandate is up for renewal in July. Thomas-Greenfield also held talks with the Turkish foreign minister and Erdogan’s spokesman.
“I found my meetings with the Turkish government extraordinarily productive. And while we identified that we have both challenges in our relationships, we also have amazing opportunities in that relationship and we look forward to continuing to build on those opportunities as we move forward,” she told reporters in Ankara at the end of her trip.
Thomas-Greenfield was also asked to lead Biden’s first presidential delegation to attend the inauguration of Ecuador’s new president, Guillermo Lasso Mendoza. During that trip, she held side meetings with President Jovenel Moïse of Haiti, Dominican Republic President Luis Abinader and the foreign ministers of Argentina, Chile and Venezuela as well as Lasso. She also took a call on Biden’s behalf with Félix Tshisekedi, president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
“Linda Thomas-Greenfield in Demand as a Biden Stand-In,” Politico trumpeted in a June 2 newsletter.
And the ambassador, it seems, returns the love. “The President has a very, very ambitious agenda. He is meeting with our allies. He’s being embraced and he’s being welcomed,” Thomas-Greenfield said in a recent interview with Axios. “His plan is very clear and his agenda is very clear.”
It looks like Biden has made her a member of the top policymaking team, and she in return is acting that way.
Clearly, Thomas-Greenfield sees herself as a different kind of UN ambassador than Trump’s two picks, Nikki Haley and Kelly Craft. Haley, who like Thomas-Greenfield enjoyed cabinet status, saw herself not as a team player but as a gifted lone wolf laying the groundwork for a future presidential run. Craft, a foreign policy neophyte denied cabinet status by Trump, seemed content smiling in the background while repeating whatever then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was saying.
The new administration’s focus on the UN is part of a broad effort to promote diplomacy, the value of alliances and the global multilateral system as a signal that there’s a new team in charge in Washington, says Elizabeth Colton, a former US diplomat and journalist and now a professor of diplomacy for the UN Institute for Training and Research as well as the Diplomat-and-Journalist-in-Residence at Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, N. C.
“This is extremely important symbolism. It is all part of a planned messaging campaign,” Colton, who has written for PassBlue, said in an interview. “The promotion of Linda Thomas-Greenfield is a part of the overall orchestration. It’s one of the many ways they are saying, ‘We are back!’ They are back to working the way it used to be.”
It’s a message that Thomas-Greenfield has been zeroing in on from the start. “[O]n this day, I’m thinking about the American people, my fellow career diplomats and public servants around the world. I want to say to you: ‘America is back, multilateralism is back. Diplomacy is back,’ she said on the day Biden nominated her for the UN post.
Biden echoed those words recently, saying: “We’re back. The U.S. is back,” as he sat side by side with French President Emmanuel Macron during the recent Group of 7 meeting in Cornwall, England.
The meeting was an “extraordinary, collaborative and productive meeting,” Biden added at its close. “America’s back in the business of leading the world alongside nations who share our most deeply held values.”
Given the wave of setbacks to its domestic agenda that Biden has encountered in the Senate recently, these foreign policy successes could give the president solid ammunition when campaigning begins in earnest ahead of the November 2022 midterm Congressional elections.
Just how America’s right wing will play this, of course, is unclear. Judging from its treatment of the Biden presidency so far, its reaction will be unrelenting criticism. With luck, multilateralism will prevail.
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Irwin Arieff is a veteran writer and editor with extensive experience writing about international diplomacy and food, cooking and restaurants. Before leaving daily journalism in 2007, he was a Reuters correspondent for 23 years, serving in senior posts in Washington, Paris and New York as well as at the United Nations (where he covered five of the 10 years that Sergey Lavrov spent in New York as Russia’s senior UN ambassador). Arieff also wrote restaurant reviews for The Washington Post and Washington City Paper in the 1980s and 1990s with his wife, Deborah Baldwin.