As President Joe Biden prepares for his first major foreign policy speech in office this week, his nominee for ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, awaits a vote in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to send her nomination to the Senate floor. In her hearing before the committee last week, senators questioned the longtime diplomat and former assistant secretary of state for Africa on topics ranging from Iran; to Israel and the Abraham Accords; to U.N. specialized agencies – including the Human Rights Council and World Health Organization (WHO), as well as technical agencies – and, especially, China.
The key national security takeaways from her confirmation hearing for the position, which Biden has returned to Cabinet-level rank, include:
The overwhelming focus of the hearing was on China. Thomas-Greenfield answered questions on balancing U.S. relations with mainland China and Taiwan; the characterization of Chinese treatment of the Uyghur minority as genocide; countering Chinese influence in U.N. agencies; working with China in the Security Council and on areas of mutual concern; competing for economic dominance; providing an alternative to Chinese influence in Africa and other developing countries; and, most persistently, on an Oct. 2019 speech that she gave at the Savannah State University chapter of the Confucius Institute, the controversial and powerful Chinese cultural institution.
Thomas-Greenfield expressed regret for having accepted the invitation. She noted that she did so as a favor to Savannah State University, a historically Black university (HBCU), where she hoped to inspire Black students to consider careers in the Foreign Service. She said her experience on campus rang alarm bells about the activities of Confucius Institutes in the United States, the extent of which she said she had not realized, having primarily seen their work in Africa. The Trump administration in August required the center that manages such institutes in the United States to register as a foreign mission, and the institute at Savannah closed last year.
Although some senators (notably, Senator Ted Cruz, R-TX) repeatedly returned to the speech to question Thomas-Greenfield’s judgment and integrity, a bipartisan majority of senators seemed to be satisfied with her explanation. She said she supports the Senate’s investigations and legislation on the Confucius Institute’s operations in the United States and reiterated her concern, expressed in her public statements since 2007, about China’s growing influence in Africa and around the world.
Drawing on her speech, several senators asked the nominee’s views on China and its relationship to the United States more broadly. Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) questioned a line in the speech in which Thomas-Greenfield asserted “we are not in a new Cold War,” asking, “What do you think the situation is between China and the United States right now if we’re not in a cold war?” Thomas-Greenfield answered that her characterization in the speech was meant “not to refer to the U.S. and China, but to Africa’s relationship with the U.S. and China,” and that she sought to contrast Africa’s position as a “pawn” in the Cold War with its situation now.
In subsequent discussion, Thomas-Greenfield characterized China as “a strategic adversary,” and stated, “Their actions threaten our security, they threaten our values, and they threaten our way of life, and they are a threat to their neighbors, and they are a threat across the globe.” She later elaborated, “China has engaged in gross human rights violations and has authoritarian ambitions that go against our democratic values.”
Johnson also asked about the U.S. role in defending Taiwan. Thomas-Greenfield voiced support for Taiwan as “one of the strongest democracies in the region.” She said the United States should “provide them with the security they need to push against any efforts by the Chinese to compromise their security.” However, the nominee deferred to “the powers who make those kinds of decisions,” on questions of weapons sales to Taiwan, though she suggested support for “providing them with the wherewithal to also support their own security.”
Thomas-Greenfield was asked repeatedly for her view on China’s treatment of Uyghurs, including the State Department’s determination in the waning hours of the Trump administration that China’s actions constitute genocide. Thomas-Greenfield replied:
What they’re doing there has been referred to as genocide, and I know that the State Department is reviewing that as we speak. What they’re doing is horrific, and I look forward to seeing the results of the review that’s being done… I think the State Department is reviewing that now because all the procedures were not followed.
She later clarified, in response to Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA), that her reticence to classify the treatment as genocide was out of a desire to ensure that the procedures for such designation had been followed, not a dispute about evidence: “What is happening with the Uyghurs is horrendous. And we have to recognize it for what it is.”
Iran and the Nuclear Agreement
On the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) negotiated with Iran by the United States, the European Union, France, Germany, Russia, and China, Thomas-Greenfield reaffirmed the need to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, and noted that “over the past four years, we’ve seen a tremendous amount of backtracking since we pulled out of the [JCPOA] agreement.” In addition to working with allies to revive the agreement, which the U.N. Security Council supported in Resolution 2231, Thomas-Greenfield said the United States should find common ground with non-allied Security Council members, especially Russia and China, to get Iran back into “strict compliance” with the JCPOA and other limitations. Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT) said the Biden administration should carefully consider the conditions on the ground in Iran before deciding whether to reverse Trump’s policies of maximum pressure, though he expressed willingness to work with the new administration on a change in policy.
Aside from China, U.S. relations with Israel – and the relationship between Israel and the U.N. – attracted the most attention. Senators from both parties decried repeated condemnation of Israel by U.N. human rights mechanisms and asked the nominee about her position on the issue. She reiterated the Biden administration’s position that the United States and Israel will remain strong allies, united by shared interests and shared values. “I look forward to working closely with the Israeli embassy, with the Israeli ambassador to work to bolster Israel’s security and to expand economic opportunities for Israelis and Americans alike and [to] widen the circle of peace,” she said. “Israel has no closer friend than the United States.”
Asked specifically about the boycott, divest, sanction (BDS) movement to pressure Israel over its treatment of the Palestinians, Thomas-Greenfield criticized the tactic: “I find the actions and the approach that BDS has taken toward Israel unacceptable. It verges on anti-Semitism, and it is important that they not be allowed to have a voice at the United Nations, and I intend to work very strongly against that.” Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo similarly labeled the movement anti-Semitic during an unprecedented visit to an Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank in November. Thomas-Greenfield indicated that she would work with Senators Rob Portman (R-OH) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) on their bill to pressure Arab countries to fully normalize relations with Israel.
On the Abraham Accords, the nominee expressed cautious optimism that the agreements could provide new ground for engagement between Israel and Arab neighbors:
I see the Abraham Accords as offering us an opportunity to work in a different way with the countries who have recognized Israel. As I mentioned earlier, we need to push those countries to change their approach at the United Nations. If they’re going to recognize Israel in the Abraham Accords, they need to recognize Israel’s rights at the United Nations. And I will use my perch if I’m confirmed as the U.N. ambassador to push them on this effort. I intend to work closely with the Israeli ambassador [and] with my colleagues across the globe. This is not just an issue in New York, but also pushing our colleagues to address these issues with their countries bilaterally so that we can get a better recognition of Israel in New York.
Thomas-Greenfield cited concern with the operations of U.N. agencies, including the pressure placed on Israel by some human rights bodies and Chinese efforts to expand their U.N. influence. She explained that participation in the international system is key to countering this influence: “First and foremost, we need to be there. President Biden indicated that we will run to rejoin the Human Rights Council … If we’re on the outside, we have no voice…”
She said countering Chinese influence would be her “highest priority,” including in the Security Council, by collaborating with allies and “calling out” Chinese efforts to “bring a set of values to the United Nations that does not fit the organization that we all support.” She identified the previous administration’s approach of unilateral attempts to reform these structures as “one of the failings” of the administration.
Thomas-Greenfield also emphasized the need for the United States to pay its dues to the U.N. in order to retain its voice in international organizations. On Security Council reform, she expressed openness to restructuring, potentially to include increasing the number of members or creating permanent seats for Japan, Germany, or India.
Yemen received brief but detailed discussion. Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) asked Thomas-Greenfield her views on the next steps towards peace in Yemen, noting that the most recent Security Council resolution on Yemen, from 2015, is outdated and no longer reflects the reality on the ground. He also noted Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s reiteration of Biden’s commitment to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led military campaign there. Although she agreed with the urgent need for action and committed to reviewing the relevant Security Council resolution, Thomas-Greenfield did not specifically commit to seek a new resolution:
Let me start by saying the situation in Yemen is horrific. It is one of the worst humanitarian crises that we’re facing right now. We need to aggressively move forward to address finding a negotiated solution to this situation. Yemen is being used by both the Saudis and the Iranians who have contributed to the war. And so I think it is incumbent on us in New York, if I’m confirmed, to address this issue at the Security Council.
Russia was mentioned only a handful of times, in contrast to the overwhelming attention on China. Indeed, many of the questions and answers that referenced Russia lumped it in with China as a challenging Security Council member and strategic adversary.
The most substantive discussion of Russia was with Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), who referenced mass demonstrations against the detention of opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Navalny was detained upon his return from Germany to Moscow on Jan. 17 after months of treatment following his poisoning in Russia last year with a chemical agent linked to the Kremlin. Thomas-Greenfield emphasized the need for skilled diplomacy to counter Russian action:
It’s clear to us that Russian actions against the U.S. have been aggressive and adversarial. And we do have to respond aggressively to their actions. At the same time, we have to find a way to work with them in the Security Council on issues where we have common interest. I will look forward to working with them on issues, for example, to address the situation in Iran, but I will not hesitate in my engagements with them, to press them on tough issues, such as their interference in our election, such as their cyberattacks against the United States, and their own human rights violations, including what happened with Navalny.
Thomas-Greenfield, a former U.S. ambassador to Liberia who previously served in U.S. embassies in Nigeria, Kenya, Pakistan, The Gambia, and Jamaica, noted that she also worked extensively on humanitarian issues in the State Department, including as deputy assistant secretary for the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration. She stated that bolstering refugee protections worldwide is a high priority; she agreed with senators on the need to press for increased cross-border aid to reach rebel-held areas of Syria; and she reiterated the Biden administration’s intent to work with the WHO, which the United States has rejoined under Biden.
On North Korea, Thomas-Greenfield stressed the need to reengage with allies: “This is not something we can do alone, and this is, I think, one of the biggest failings of the Trump administration is that they did try to go it alone and our allies were left kind of holding the bag.” She noted the need to also engage with China and Russia on North Korea to increase the efficacy of sanctions.
On climate change, several senators highlighted the multifaceted threat, noting related increases in conflict, migration, and refugee flows. Thomas-Greenfield affirmed that she is looking forward to working with John Kerry, whom Biden has appointed as special presidential envoy for climate, and that he and the president have initiated plans to hold a climate conference as soon as April.
Nearly as notable as what was discussed were the topics that received little to no attention.
Despite frequent references to the nominee’s long career – and to Africa in general – the senators did not actually engage with African issues, the centerpiece of Thomas-Greenfield’s expertise. The nominee served most recently as assistant secretary for the Bureau of African Affairs under the Obama administration (2013-2017). She was ambassador to Liberia from 2008-2012 and held postings in multiple other U.S. embassies, including others on the continent, as well as at the U.S. Mission to the U.N. in Geneva.
Yet discussion of Africa was cursory except as it relates to China, Chinese influence, and strategic competition with China. Thomas-Greenfield discussed the dynamics of Chinese investment and influence in Africa:
Much of the time that I spent on the continent of Africa was spent making the case to African countries about why they should partner on economic growth with the United States [instead of China]… [Chinese investment] has not worked for Africans. And it has not worked in the same way that the Chinese would have expected. I have seen an increased amount of activity, but where they have failed is Africans still prefer, if possible, to work with the United States. We need to take advantage of that sentiment and be more proactive in our engagements. When they have a choice, they choose us… So if I’m confirmed, one of the areas I intend to work aggressively on is engaging with my colleagues on trying to address some of the issues they’re facing in dealing with the Chinese and pushing a more proactive engagement by the United States with Africa.
Yet the diverse issues facing Africa, including democratic struggles, climate change, migration, brain drain, youth unemployment, tropical and communicable diseases, burgeoning creative and technology industries, and even counterterrorism received scant mention – despite the nominee’s urging that Africa not be treated as, or allow itself to be, a pawn of the United States and China. Thomas-Greenfield did express concern over the ongoing conflict in Ethiopia and desertification in regions bordering the Sahara.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) was not mentioned at all. Although the Court is not an organ of the United Nations, it is part of the architecture of international law and interacts with the U.N.; for example, cases can be referred to the Court by the Security Council. Moreover, the Trump administration left office in the midst of an ongoing feud with the Court over investigations into alleged crimes by U.S. persons in Afghanistan – a feud which culminated in sanctions on ICC personnel and threatened penalties for others who engage with the Court. The Biden administration is currently reviewing how to rebalance relations with the ICC. The Court’s complete absence from the discussion was, therefore, notable.
Also absent from the hearing was any mention of Palestine or Palestinians, despite the extensive discussions of Israel.
Image: Linda Thomas-Greenfield appears before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on her nomination to be the United States Ambassador to the United Nations, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on January 27, 2021. (Photo by GREG NASH/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)