Biden’s UN Nominee Urged to Counter China, Defend ‘19 Speech

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President Joe Biden’s nominee for United Nations ambassador was pressed to counter China’s influence at the organization as well as defend a speech she gave to a Chinese-sponsored institute in 2019 about Beijing’s strategy in Africa.

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, speaking at her confirmation hearing Wednesday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, pledged to restore American leadership at the UN and said China is trying to drive “an authoritarian agenda that stands in opposition to the founding values of the institution -- American values.”

“When America shows up, when we are consistent and persistent, when we exert our influence in accordance with our values, the United Nations can be an indispensable institution for advancing peace, security, and our collective well-being,” the veteran diplomat said. “If instead we walk away from the table, and allow others to fill the void, the global community suffers -- and so do American interests.”

Biden’s UN Nominee Urged to Counter China, Defend ‘19 Speech

Under the Trump administration, the U.S. repeatedly clashed with the UN and its organizations, withdrawing from the Human Rights Council and the World Health Organization. Critics argued that walking away allowed China to expand its influence, undermine human rights positions and sponsor resolutions that reflect its worldview.

Thomas-Greenfield testified that her “highest priority” if confirmed would be to “push back against Chinese influence in the Security Council.”

But signaling a concern of Republicans on the panel, Chairman James Risch of Idaho called on Thomas-Greenfield to explain a 2019 speech to a China-funded institute in Georgia at which he said she was too positive about Beijing’s role in Africa.

Thomas-Greenfield said she regretted giving the speech at a China-backed Confucius Institute at Savannah State University and vowed to push back on Beijing’s “parasitic” influence in Africa.

“I truly regret having accepted that invitation and having had my name associated with the Confucius Institutes,” Thomas-Greenfield said, adding she accepted the invitation to speak at the historically-black university in order to help promote a career in foreign service to minority students.

The issue comes after former Secretary of State Michael Pompeo ramped up pressure on U.S. universities to shut down the Confucius Institutes, saying they were a malign influence on higher learning, and ordering them to register as “foreign missions,” like embassies and consulates.

Savannah State has since terminated its relationship with the institute, Democratic Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland said. And Risch suggested that despite the controversy, he expected Thomas-Greenfield, 67, to be confirmed.

Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat and one of three Black members of the Senate, cited Thomas-Greenfield’s contribution to diversity as a Black woman who would have cabinet status in Biden’s administration, saying that having her “sitting there in that seat is a reason to rejoice.”

On other topics, Thomas-Greenfield said:

  • The State Department is reviewing procedural questions involving the Trump administration’s move to label China’s treatment of its Uighur minority as genocide but added, “What is happening with the Uighurs is horrendous, and we have to recognize it for what it is.”
  • She would push back against Russia’s aggressive behavior, but the U.S. needs to work with Russia and China on issues including to push “the Iranians and bring them back to strict compliance” with the multinational nuclear accord.
  • Arab nations that are recognizing Israel under the Trump administration’s “Abraham Accords” should help fight against the frequent criticism aimed at Israel by the UN and its agencies: “If they’re going to recognize Israel, they need to recognize Israel’s rights at the UN.”

As UN ambassador, Thomas-Greenfield would be leaning on her experience across four continents, including State Department assignments in Jamaica, Nigeria, Switzerland and Pakistan, as well as in Washington as assistant secretary of state for African affairs.

Thomas-Greenfield said she plans to emphasize “old-fashioned, people-to-people diplomacy” while calling for making the UN more accountable.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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