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US Ambassador at the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield Speaks with Axios’ Mike Allen

In the HBO interview, the American Diplomat talks about her day, and President Biden's first overseas trip that sets the tone for his administration

by US Mission to the United Nations-Office of Press and Public Diplomacy

MIKE ALLEN: Madam Ambassador, Mike Allen. Hi.

AMBASSADOR LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Hi, how are you?

MIKE ALLEN: Thank you so much for having us. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, you are the United States Ambassador to the United Nations. Thank you for hosting Axios on HBO.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Thank you very much.

MIKE ALLEN: The UN is a strange place now that you’re all back in person. What’s it like for you constantly interacting with every country in the world?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I’m on a treadmill every single day. I do four or five meetings with various countries on a daily basis, but I also think it is important – being the country that we are – that we engage with every single country at the UN. And I’m working down the list and, hopefully by September, I will have met everyone.

MIKE ALLEN: President Biden, your boss, is on his first overseas trip. A lot of fanfare and hoopla. But you’re a diplomat, so you always think about the downside. What could go wrong? What are the risks of this big trip?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Look. Nothing can go wrong on this trip. Everything that the President –

MIKE ALLEN: Wait, that’s a jinx if I’ve ever heard one.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: It’s not a jinx. The President has a very, very ambitious agenda. He is meeting with our allies. He’s being embraced and he’s being welcomed. He’s meeting with President Putin to lay out the concerns that we have in that relationship, but to ensure that, moving forward, we have a stable and predictable relationship with the Russians. His plan is very clear and his agenda is very clear. So, I’m confident that nothing can go wrong on this visit.

MIKE ALLEN: Vladimir Putin has been basically taunting Washington in the leadup to this trip. What happens if that meeting is a failure? What if it’s impossible to do the friendly smiles that you diplomats do?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I don’t know that it will be a meeting of friendly smiles. I think it will be a meeting that, in which the President will be candid and frank with President Putin. It’s the first step in – I think – a process of rebuilding a relationship that’s stable and predictable.

MIKE ALLEN:  You said the President will be frank. Will he be tough?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I know he will be tough. I know this.

MIKE ALLEN: He’s very concerned about cyber hacking.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: And clearly that’s an issue, given what you’ve seen happen here in the United States over the past few weeks. The President will make clear to the Russians that they cannot harbor cyberterrorists and criminals in their country, and not be held accountable for it, and they need to take the responsibility for dealing with this issue.

MIKE ALLEN: Vice President Harris is just back, her message in Latin America, was do not come. Is that your message?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: The message that the Vice President delivered was one that offers people hope where they live. And what we’d like to do is work with these countries so that they can provide for the needs of people.

MIKE ALLEN: But that message could be awkward in your day job?

Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield at the United Nations (UN Photo)

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I don’t find it awkward; we still have a very embracing society, we welcome people. The President has made the decision to resume our refugee resettlement program. Our immigration program is one that works, but if you have people trying to cross the border illegally, it can’t work for them.

MIKE ALLEN: I’m very blessed. I have two nephews and two nieces who were adopted from Ethiopia. Ethiopia, right now, has the world’s worst famine in 10 years, a human catastrophe particularly in the Tigray region, and you’ve been very assertive about what should be happening.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I have been very assertive, particularly in New York, and particularly in demanding that my colleagues in the Security Council address this issue in an open meeting.

MIKE ALLEN: But China and Russia are preventing that?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I wouldn’t call out China and Russia, it’s the entire Security Council. There are countries on the Council who have pushed back against holding an open meeting and it’s not just China and Russia.

MIKE ALLEN: What’s their excuse?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: They’re making a number of arguments. One, that this is a sovereignty issue. My view is sovereignty does not come into play when you have foreign troops in your country, when your people are crossing borders into other countries, and we’re watching on national TV your people starve to death. And I’ve said and I will say here, as I’ve said in the Security Council, don’t African lives matter?

MIKE ALLEN: You have taken a personal interest and put yourself out on conflict-driven hunger.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Yes. My first event as President of the Security Council was an event on food security. And we have seen what happens in conflict and the impact that it has on communities, and that this is a manmade disaster. This is manmade-created famine that we’re seeing in Ethiopia. And we have to address this.

MIKE ALLEN: You’re a career foreign service officer. And over that whole career you’ve been an advocate for women’s rights. You’ve talked about investment in women and girls as an investment in peace and security.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Absolutely. And I have worked on these issues throughout my career. We know that if we educate girls, we empower women, we empower their communities, we empower their nations.

MIKE ALLEN: And is there any hard edge to that? Is there anything that you’re going to insist on as you talk with other leaders, or really push or prod them on?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I will always push for women to be part of the negotiation teams. I will always –

MIKE ALLEN: You notice if they’re not there?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I notice when they’re not there –

MIKE ALLEN: And you call it out?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I notice when they’re not in the room. When I’m in the room –

MIKE ALLEN: And you’ll call –

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Sometimes I’m the only one. And I will call it out.

MIKE ALLEN: I mean that’s probably been the case a lot. What’s that been like for you?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I raised that in a particular country, before the head of state came in, and the men laughed.

MIKE ALLEN: What country?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I am not going to tell.

MIKE ALLEN: What continent?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Africa. Of course.

ALLEN: What was it like when you started, compared to what it’s like for a rookie, a new, young Foreign Service Officer today?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: When I walked into the State Department in 1982, there were very few people who looked like me. There were even very few women in senior positions. And we were dealing with a system that didn’t necessarily appreciate the diversity that a woman and a person of color would bring to the table. And I think that has significantly changed. We still have some challenges; it’s not yet perfect. And I would hope that young people who see me – who are black, who are women, who are people of color – will see me as an example for what they could achieve. And I’m hoping that I can use my voice and my presence to give them a reason to be hopeful.

MIKE ALLEN: Madam Ambassador, thank you for mixing it up with Axios on HBO.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Well, thank you very much. It’s been delightful to speak with you.

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