WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden’s Candidate for US Ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said she regrets giving a speech in 2019 at a Chinese-funded institute in Savannah – remarks that quickly became a hotspot at her confirmation hearing on Wednesday.
In her October 2019 speech, she seemed to downplay China’s expansionist ambitions and its investments across Africa, which critics have called “debt diplomacy.” Her remarks were made at a “Confucius Institute” at Savannah State University, a historic black college.
Thomas-Greenfield said it was a “huge mistake” on her part to speak at the Confucius Institute. She said she agreed to speak to students at the university as part of her long-standing commitment to encourage young black students to consider a career in the foreign service.
Thomas-Greenfield, who is black, said she came away from the event “honestly concerned” about the way the institute engaged in the black community, which she said involved “taking care of the needy.”
Senator James Risch, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called the 2019 remarks by Thomas-Greenfield “the elephant in space.” And Senator Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Expressed shock that she did not seem to understand how China has used state-funded Confucius institutes to spread propaganda. Many universities, including Savannah State University, have closed or otherwise severed ties with such institutes in recent years.
“China is a strategic opponent, and their actions threaten our security, they threaten our lifestyle,” Thomas-Greenfield said, seeking to reassure lawmakers that she is clear on China’s often predatory tactics. “They’re a threat all over the globe.”
Democrats in the committee noted that in other contexts, Thomas-Greenfield had issued many public warnings about China’s growing aggression. And they suggested that Republicans twist her words to make her sound soft on China.
Senator Bob Menendez, the incoming Democratic chairman of the committee, said Thomas-Greenfield had for years “alarmed” that the United States was withdrawing from the international community – as it did under the Trump administration – creating a vacuum for China to fill. In her 2019 speech, Menendez said she seemed to challenge China to “promote values such as good governance, gender equality and the rule of law” in Africa.
“That was exactly my intention,” Thomas-Greenfield replied.
She said she would aggressively push back against China’s efforts to leverage and influence the UN among other multilateral institutions.
“We know that China is working across the UN system to pursue an authoritarian agenda that goes against the institution’s core values - American values,” she said. “Their success depends on our continued withdrawal. It does not happen on my watch. ”
In her 2019 remarks, she downplayed the idea that the United States and China were involved in a new confrontation with the “Cold War” style.
“There is a growing sense that the United States and China are competing to carve out their share of this African future. Some have even called this a ‘new confusion for Africa,'” she said. “These are certainly turbulent 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 leeway than these narratives would have us believe. “
Senator Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat and the only black lawmaker on the committee, blasted the GOP attacks on Thomas-Greenfield and sharply defended his decision to accept a talking invitation from a historic black college.
“You are one of those generations of women who break down barriers and show the way for women and African Americans,” Booker said.
In her introductory remark, Thomas-Greenfield noted that when she joined the Foreign Service in 1982, she was “not the norm” in the State Department’s diplomatic corps as a woman or African American.
During his 35-year career in the Foreign Service, Thomas-Greenfield has held numerous diplomatic posts around the world – from Kenya to Pakistan. She was the U.S. Ambassador to Liberia from 2008 to 2012, before becoming the top U.S. diplomat for African affairs in the Obama administration.
She promised lawmakers she would bring a different tone to the UN than her recent predecessors.
“When America emerges – when we are consistent and persistent – when we exercise our influence in accordance with 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 introductory remarks.
If confirmed, Thomas-Greenfield could face prolonged skepticism and anger over the job after former President Donald Trump mocked the United Nations and other multilateral institutions. He withdrew the United States from the UN Human Rights Council and a UN assistance program for Palestinian refugees. Trump’s first ambassador to the UN, formerly South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, cut a high profile on the international body to fight for Trump’s “America First” foreign policy. Haley’s successor, Kelly Knight Craft, seemed to avoid the limelight.
Thomas-Greenfield’s ally says she is widely admired within the State Department and wants to help Biden restore America’s reputation on the global stage.
“She understands peacekeeping, she understands the UN, she understands developing countries,” Wendy Sherman, who served as secretary of state for political affairs in the Obama administration, told the United States in November today. Sherman is also ready to join the Biden administration if confirmed as deputy secretary of state.
In the light 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 town “where the KKK would regularly come on weekends and burn a cross in someone’s yard.”
When she attended Louisiana State University, David Duke, a white supremacist and clan leader, had a significant presence on campus, Thomas-Greenfield said as he recounted the deep racism she faced during her college years.
In 1994, Thomas-Greenfield was sent to Rwanda to assess the refugee situation in the genocide in that country. She said she was confronted by a “young man with glass eyes” with a machine gun who had apparently mistaken her for a Tutsi he had been assigned to kill.
“I did not panic. I was scared, do not give me wrong,” she said her remarks from 2019. She asked him his name, told him hers and managed to talk herself out of the situation.
Her secret negotiating tool, she says, is “gumbo diplomacy,” which she employed on four continents during her foreign service. She invited the guests to help 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 starting to see each other on a human level,” Thomas-Greenfield said. “Little of lagniappe (or ‘something extra’ in Cajun) is what we say in Louisiana. “
On Tuesday, Senate confirmed Antony Blinken to head the State Department with a vote of 78 to 22.
Contribution: Maureen Groppe
This article was originally published in USA TODAY: Biden chooses UN Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield talks on China