WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden’s candidate for US Ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, regretted delivering a speech at a China-funded institute in Savannah in 2019 – remarks made at her confirmation hearing on Wednesday quickly became a focal point.
In the October 2019 speech, she appeared to downplay China’s expansionist ambitions and investments across Africa, which critics termed “debt diplomacy.” Her remarks were made at a “Confucius Institute” at Savannah State University, a historically black college.
Thomas-Greenfield said it was a “big mistake” on their part to speak at the Confucius Institute. She agreed to approach students at the university to encourage young black students to consider a career in international service.
Thomas-Greenfield, who is Black, said she got away from the event “openly alarmed” because the institute contacted the Black Community. She said it was about “going after the needy”.
Senator James Risch, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called Thomas-Greenfield’s 2019 remarks “the elephant in the room.” And Senator Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Said she was shocked that she didn’t seem to understand how China has used state-funded Confucius institutes to spread propaganda. Many universities, including Savannah State University, have closed or otherwise broken ties with such institutes in recent years.
“China is a strategic adversary and its actions threaten our security, they threaten the way we live,” said Thomas-Greenfield, trying to reassure lawmakers that she is keeping a clear eye on China’s often predatory tactics. “You are a threat all over the world.”
Democrats on the committee noted that Thomas-Greenfield had issued many public warnings of China’s growing aggression in other situations. And they suggested that Republicans twist their words to make them sound soft to China.
Senator Bob Menendez, the new Democratic chairman of the committee, said Thomas-Greenfield had “sounded the alarm” for years that the US withdrawal from the international community – as it did during the Trump administration – created a vacuum for China. In her 2019 speech, Menendez said she appeared to challenge China to “promote values such as good governance, gender equality and the rule of law in Africa”.
“That was exactly my intention,” replied Thomas-Greenfield.
She said she would aggressively oppose China’s leverage and influence efforts by the United Nations and other multilateral institutions.
“We know that China is working across the UN system to advance an authoritarian agenda that goes against the institution’s core values - American values,” she said. “Your success depends on our continued withdrawal. That won’t happen on my watch. “
In her 2019 remarks, she downplayed the idea that the US and China were embroiled in a new “Cold War” -style confrontation.
“There is a growing sense that the US and China are competing to work their part in this African future. Some have even called this a ‘new mess for Africa’,” she said. “These are certainly troubled times in US-China relations, but I disagree with these narratives and this zero-sum approach. We are not in a new Cold War – and Africans have far more agency than these narratives believe us would do.”
Sen. Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat and the only black legislature on the committee, has blown up the GOP attacks on Thomas Greenfield and vigorously defended her decision to accept an invitation from a historically black college.
“You are one of the generations of women who are breaking down barriers and leading the way for women and African Americans,” Booker said.
In her opening address, Thomas-Greenfield stated that as a woman or an African American, she was “not the norm” in the State Department’s diplomatic corps when she entered the foreign service in 1982.
During his 35-year international service career, Thomas-Greenfield held numerous diplomatic positions around the world – from Kenya to Pakistan. She was the US Ambassador to Liberia from 2008 to 2012 before becoming the top US diplomat on African affairs in the Obama administration.
She promised lawmakers that she would give the UN a different tone than her recent predecessors.
“When America emerges – if we are consistent and persistent – if we exercise our influence according to our values - the United Nations can be an indispensable institution for promoting peace, security and our collective well-being,” said Thomas-Greenfield lawmakers in her opening speeches .
If confirmed, Thomas-Greenfield could still face skepticism and resentment at work after former President Donald Trump mocked the United Nations and other multilateral institutions. He withdrew the US from the United Nations Human Rights Council and a United Nations aid program for Palestinian refugees. Trump’s first UN ambassador, ex-Governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley, made a name for himself on the international committee when he advocated Trump’s “America First” foreign policy. Haley’s successor, Kelly Knight Craft, appeared to be avoiding the limelight.
Thomas-Greenfield’s allies say she is widely admired at the State Department and will help Biden restore America’s reputation on the global stage.
“She understands peacekeeping, she understands the UN, she understands the developing world,” said Wendy Sherman, who served as secretary of state for political affairs in the Obama administration, US TODAY in November. Sherman is also ready to join the Biden administration, if confirmed, as Assistant Secretary of State.
In the face of burning crosses and machine guns
Thomas-Greenfield was born in Baker, Louisiana in the early 1950s and attended separate schools as a child. In a speech in 2019 she described growing up in a city “where the KKK regularly come on the weekends and burn a cross in a garden”.
When she attended Louisiana State University, David Duke, a white supremacist and clan leader, was heavily represented on campus, said Thomas-Greenfield as he shared on the profound racism she faced during her college years.
In 1994 Thomas-Greenfield was sent to Rwanda to investigate refugee conditions during the genocide in that country. She said she was confronted with a “glassy young man” with a machine gun who apparently mistook her for a Tutsi to kill.
“I didn’t panic. I was scared, don’t get me wrong,” she said in her 2019 remarks. She asked him his name, told him hers and managed to talk her way out of the situation.
Her secret negotiating instrument, she says, is “gumbo diplomacy”, which she used on four continents during her foreign service. She invited guests to make a roux and chop onions for the “Holy Trinity” (onions, peppers and celery) in the Cajun tradition.
“It was my way of breaking down barriers, connecting with people and seeing myself on a human level,” said Thomas-Greenfield. “A little Lagniappe (or ‘something special’ in Cajun) we say in Louisiana.”
On Tuesday, the Senate confirmed Antony Blinken to head the State Department by 78 votes to 22.
Contributor: Maureen Groppe