What Linda Thomas-Greenfield's hearing says about US leadership at UN

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, President Joe Biden’s nominee for U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Photo by: Exchanges Photos

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, nominated to serve as the next United States ambassador to the United Nations, used her Wednesday confirmation hearing to make a case for reengaging the U.S. as a leader on the international stage, with a platform rooted in “support for democracy, respect for universal human rights, and the promotion of peace and security.”

“We must have the courage to insist on reforms that make the U.N. efficient and effective,” Thomas-Greenfield, a long-term State Department careerist and former assistant secretary of state for African affairs, told the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.

“Of all of our diplomatic tools, perhaps our most powerful instrument is the United Nations itself,” she said later during her confirmation hearing. “That’s only true if America is leading the way. When America shows up, when we are consistent and persistent … the United Nations can be an indispensable institution for advancing peace, security, and our collective well-being.”

Much of Thomas-Greenfield’s hearing, which lasted more than two hours, focused on the rising political power of China. Republicans and Democrats repeatedly posed questions about her 2019 China-Africa relations speech, which some have criticized as too soft on China.

Thomas-Greenfield said that she would work to reopen humanitarian border crossings in Syria, closed by Russia since last year — a controversial point that could pose an early test for the new ambassador, U.N. expert Richard Gowan pointed out.

Her other answers to questions of development, humanitarian affairs, and U.N. reform offered the clearest idea yet on what to expect from the next likely U.S. ambassador to the U.N., who will also hold a Cabinet position in President Joe Biden’s administration for the first time.

Paying dues to the UN

Former President Donald Trump left office in January with the U.S. owing the U.N. nearly $2 billion in unpaid regular dues, including more than $1 billion in peacekeeping funding. Each member state of the U.N. is tasked with annually contributing a set amount, based on their gross national income, and the U.S. has long been the organization’s largest single funder.

Quickly addressing this funding shortage will be “one of my highest priorities in New York if I’m confirmed,” Thomas-Greenfield said.

With the US still owing nearly $2B, UN looks at how to fund 2021

The U.S. owes the U.N. more than it has in decades, following four years of unpaid dues piling up during the Trump administration. Closing that gap will be key to the U.N. moving forward on other priorities in 2021.

“Not paying our bills really does diminish our power, and it diminishes our leadership. We need to pay our bills to have a seat at the table. And our leadership is needed at the table,” she said. “We need to make sure we are there to push back on those who would have malign intentions at the United Nations.”

But the high price tag should also come with a demand for reforms within the U.N. system, Thomas-Greenfield said, adding that ensuring whistleblower protection should also be part of these changes.

US engagement with UN agencies

Thomas-Greenfield repeated her point on U.S. engagement at the U.N. several times throughout the hearing — and the message was succinct.

“We need to be there,” she said.

Biden has indicated that the U.S. “will run” to join the U.N. Human Rights Council, Thomas-Greenfield said, with the understanding that “when we’re at a table, there are fewer resolutions against Israel. We can push back on U.N. human rights violators who want to be legitimized by sitting at the table.”

She added that “if we’re on the outside, we have no voice.”

This message will also carry over to the U.S. refunding the U.N. Population Fund, the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, and UNESCO, as well as “how we deal with the WHO [World Health Organization],” Thomas-Greenfield said.

Richard Mills, acting representative with the U.S. mission to the U.N., reiterated this week that Biden intends to restore U.S. assistance to Palestinian programs.

“We need to be at the table to ensure that the reforms that are important … are addressed and we push back on those who might not support our values,” Thomas-Greenfield continued.

“When America shows up … the United Nations can be an indispensable institution for advancing peace, security, and our collective well-being.”

— Linda Thomas-Greenfield, nominee for U.S. ambassador to the United Nations


The Sustainable Development Goals made a very brief appearance during the hearing. Thomas-Greenfield said that she plans to look at how to make the U.N. more “effective in how they address the goals” and to make sure that the goals are actually accomplished by their 2030 deadline. Individual American cities have tracked their own progress on the goals, but there has not been a comprehensive, federal effort to date.

Goal 16, on good governance, received special attention. “Over the past four years, the U.S. presence, our leadership, and our voice has been missed on these key issues of good governance,” Thomas-Greenfield said.

Women’s health

U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, co-author of the Global HER Act, which would repeal the Mexico City Policy, asked Thomas-Greenfield about her commitment to women’s reproductive health. The U.S. is expected to announce plans to reverse the Mexico City Policy on Thursday and also to not invoke the Kemp-Kasten Amendment. This would grant funding to the U.N. Population Fund.

The exchange was short, but Thomas-Greenfield assured Shaheen of her commitment to the issue.

“I commit to you that I will be a leader on this issue in New York. It is an issue that is personally a priority for me, and I look forward to working with you to advance our goals in this area,” 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.