Biden’s UN Pick Boosts Morale for Diplomats Trump Sidelined

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When Linda Thomas-Greenfield was held at gunpoint on a diplomatic assignment in Rwanda in 1994, she tried her best to look calm as she explained to a “glazed-eyed young man” that she wasn’t the woman he was told to kill.

“I was afraid, don’t get me wrong, but I didn’t panic,” Thomas-Greenfield, now one of America’s most experienced diplomats and President-elect Joe Biden’s pick for United Nations ambassador, later recalled in a TED Talk. The Tutsi woman who was the intended target was among hundreds of thousands killed during the genocide that year.

Some 26 years after that harrowing experience, Thomas-Greenfield will soon be preparing for her Senate confirmation hearing, 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.

After four years of “America First” messaging from President Donald Trump and Secretaries of State Rex Tillerson and Michael Pompeo, Thomas-Greenfield’s appointment is a clear signal of a return to traditional diplomacy and to cooperation over confrontation at the UN. It’s also a vote of confidence in career diplomats whose influence has been diminished.

“America is back. Multilateralism is back. Diplomacy is back,” Thomas-Greenfield said Tuesday as Biden introduced his foreign policy team.

Biden’s UN Pick Boosts Morale for Diplomats Trump Sidelined

In a sign of how much this reflects a shift in attitude, Pompeo responded on Fox News hours later that “multilateralism for the sake of hanging out with your buddies at a cool cocktail party, that’s not in the best interest of the United States of America.”

Gumbo Diplomacy

Raised in Louisiana, Thomas-Greenfield was the oldest of eight children and was bused to a segregated school as a child. Her father dropped out of school in the third grade, and her mother had an eighth-grade education. She attended Louisiana State University, where she faced harassment and discrimination from students and faculty members, according to a person close to her.

The 67-year-old Thomas-Greenfield, who would be one of the highest-ranking Black officials in Biden’s administration, said Tuesday that she taps into her Louisiana roots to conduct “gumbo diplomacy.”

“Wherever I was posted around the world, I’d invite people of different backgrounds and beliefs to help me make a roux and chop onions for the Holy Trinity, and make homemade gumbo,” she said. The Holy Trinity of Cajun cuisine is a base made of onions, bell peppers and celery. “It was my way of breaking down barriers, connecting with people.”

Biden plans to give his UN envoy the full Cabinet status that current Ambassador Kelly Craft lacks, but the job at the world body won’t be easy. Under Trump, the U.S. took on other members of the organization on issues from reimposing sanctions on Iran to quitting the World Health Organization, a move Biden has pledged to reverse.

“Her appointment will be seen at the UN as a sign that Washington will re-engage with the world and that the Biden administration will not be staffed with individuals who are antagonistic to the organization,” said Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations

Thomas-Greenfield’s experience and contacts in Africa will come in handy at a time when African countries have grown exasperated with the U.S., which recently held up the appointment of African diplomats to head the UN mission in Libya in favor of a Bulgarian national.

Much like her recent predecessors, she would have to deal with China’s rise at the UN, where it has gained clout by getting its nationals tapped to head top agencies.

“China has been much more willing to play the game than the U.S.,” said Daniel Drezner, professor of international politics at the Fletcher School at Tufts University. “Anything that dents that and suggests the U.S. is paying attention to Africa, where China has been a major benefactor, will benefit U.S. diplomacy at the UN.”

Hands-On Envoy

Diplomats and African leaders view Thomas-Greenfield as a hands-on envoy who was determined to get out into the field as much as possible.

“She got to know Liberia, not only the capital, but also rural Liberia,” former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf said by phone. “As the deputy secretary for African affairs she was able to mobilize support from the U.S. for Liberia during the 2014 Ebola outbreak.”

Thomas-Greenfield’s appointment also will send a message to the career diplomats of the U.S. foreign service, who were largely sidelined from senior positions during the Trump administration.

Pompeo sought to rehire Thomas-Greenfield when he took over as Trump’s top diplomat in April 2018, but she declined, according to a person familiar with his thinking at the time who asked not to be identified.

In a November article for Foreign Affairs magazine that she co-wrote with William Burns, Thomas-Greenfield, who served for a time as director general of the foreign service, lamented the “wreckage” at the State Department and called for a commitment to investing in the people at the department.

“Her appointment sends an important message to the foreign service that one of their own, and a person of color, can become a Cabinet member,” said Wendy Sherman, a former undersecretary of state for political affairs under President Barack Obama who has worked closely with Thomas-Greenfield, including in her recent post at Albright Stonebridge Group LLC, a consulting group founded by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

Thomas-Greenfield is “very capable of holding a press conference and putting out a public narrative but does not need to be the shiny object in the room,” Sherman said.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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