Thomas-Greenfield is the 'right pick' for US-UN ambassador, experts say

U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield. Photo by: Exchanges Photo / CC0

NEW YORK — U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield had a clear message when she accepted President-elect Joe Biden’s nomination to serve as the next U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

“I want to say to you, America is back. Multilateralism is back. Diplomacy is back,” Thomas-Greenfield said during a speech on Tuesday.  

Thomas-Greenfield, a career diplomat with the State Department for more than 30 years, has held top foreign service posts on four continents. She served as the U.S. ambassador to Liberia, as well as the assistant secretary for the Bureau of African Affairs before the Trump administration asked her to leave in 2017.

“Another thing about her that I think is really powerful and underreported is her deep passion for refugee and asylum and immigtation issues. She has said to me on various occasions that this really is her first love.”

— Travis Adkins, African and security studies lecturer, Georgetown University

Thomas-Greenfield — or “LTG,” as she is known by some colleagues, is also a “powerful, elegant, and brilliant diplomat,” who is the right pick to suit the complicated political reality that will greet her at the U.N., according to Travis Adkins, an African and security studies lecturer at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. Adkins, who has taught alongside Thomas-Greenfield at Georgetown, explained why he feels she “more than deserved” the nomination.

“There is this palpable sense of joy and excitement and relief that a person that is just so competent, so knowledgeable, and really so supremely qualified has been selected to meet this moment,” Adkins said. “That is, this moment on the world stage — that is, this moment of the U.S. really getting engaged in the world and repairing relationships.”

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Development experts also applauded Biden for restoring the ambassadorship to a Cabinet-level position — in 2018, after the departure of Nikki Haley, Trump moved it to a non-Cabinet position. United Nations Foundation President Elizabeth Cousens called the restoration an “essential move” and reflective of the increased importance likely to be afforded to the U.N. under the new administration. 

Thomas-Greenfield will next require Senate confirmation before she can assume her new job early next year. But already, there is some clear indication of how Thomas-Greenfield will lead on global development at the U.N.

Africa 

Thomas-Greenfield is widely known and respected by African leaders, according to Adkins. Her work in Africa stretches back to April 1994, when she arrived as a staffer at the U.S. mission shortly before the start of the Rwandan genocide. Security forces were searching for Prime Minister Madame Agathe, who was killed shortly thereafter. Thomas-Greenfield happened to live close by.

“The security forces looking for her, broke into the residence looking for an African woman and they found one. That was me. They didn't know I was an American diplomat. It was a bit of a scare, having an AK-47 cocked in my face. And being threatened with my life. Again, I survived it, and I see it as an experience that helped me build my character,” Thomas-Greenfield said in an interview in 2016.

Under Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. organized the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit of 2014, the largest U.S.-hosted convening of African leaders. Thomas-Greenfield has regularly spoken about the importance of supporting democracy and governance, youth, and business growth across Africa.

Thomas-Greenfield’s “deep” experience and relationships in Africa will be “so important at the U.N., where a majority of the Security Council’s agenda items are Africa-related,” Samantha Power, the former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. under the Obama administration, wrote on Twitter,

“Her expertise will be critical,” Power wrote. Power also commented that the return of the “highly-respected, beloved colleague” will be a “much-needed 1st step towards revitalizing U.S. diplomacy.”

Her appointment could also help improve rapprochement in U.S. foreign policy with regards to Africa, Adkins said.

“For someone who is so well respected across the African continent, so well known with the capacity to be tough and to call out human right abuses and to promote strong representative governance at home and abroad, I think that is key,” Adkins said.

Migration and displacement

Thomas-Greenfield served as the deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration from 2004-2006, among other migration- and refugee-related roles.

“Another thing about her that I think is really powerful and underreported is her deep passion for refugee and asylum and immigtation issues. She has said to me on various occasions that this really is her first love,” Adkins said.

The U.N. warned recently that the pandemic could cause food insecurity and migration — already at high levels before the crisis — to “surge.”

Jeffrey Crisp, a research associate at the Refugee Studies Centre at the University of Oxford, praised Thomas-Greenfield’s nomination and noted her speciality in the field.

“I think she has many qualities that will make her a great choice for her new job. She's a career diplomat, with a proven understanding of and commitment to the U.N. She knows the humanitarian world and refugee/migration issues well, and of course has specialist knowledge of Africa,” Crisp wrote in an email.

‘Power of kindness and compassion’

Thomas-Greenfield, who has touted promoting diversity as one of her main objectives while working at the State Department, will be the 23rd female permanent representative to sit on the Security Council in its history, according to Security Council Procedure. With Ireland, Norway, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and the United Kingdom, Thomas-Greenfield will be 1 of 5 women serving on the Security Council next year.

Thomas-Greenfield grew up during the Jim Crow era in Louisiana, and was raised by parents who had limited formal education. But Thomas-Greenfield explained in a 2019 Tedx Talk that she learned how to practice a diplomatic smile from her mother, who taught her to “use the power of kindness and compassion” when facing a challenge.

During her speech on Thursday, Thomas-Greenfield referenced her “Cajun” spin on “Gumbo diplomacy.” She routinely has invited people around the world to cook with her, she said, and to work past barriers to find common ground.

“That is the charge in front of us today. The challenges we face, a global pandemic, a global economy, the global climate change crisis, mass migration and extreme poverty, social justice are unrelenting and interconnected, but they are not unresolvable if America is leading the way,” Thomas-Greenfield said.

About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.