‘Russians Are Feeling the Pressure’

What U.S. ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield wants from the 77th U.N. General Assembly.

By , the editor in chief of Foreign Policy.
Linda Thomas-Greenfield appears before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Linda Thomas-Greenfield appears before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Linda Thomas-Greenfield appears before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in Washington on Jan 27, 2021, during a hearing on her nomination to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Michael Reynolds/Getty Images

The post of ambassador to the United Nations is one of the most important diplomatic positions in the world. The United States has long placed some of its biggest names in the role, including George H.W. Bush, who would go on to become president; Susan Rice, a former U.S. National Security Council advisor; and Madeleine Albright, who eventually served as U.S. secretary of state. Perhaps the most important period for the person holding this role is the week when the annual United Nations General Assembly’s meetings are at their peak: next week.

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, a career diplomat who has been the United States’ ambassador to the United Nations for more than a year, is gearing up for an especially difficult week of meetings and negotiations. Russia is still at war with Ukraine. There’s a global food crisis, rampant inflation, and an energy crunch. Iran continues to get closer to a nuclear bomb. Meanwhile, Washington’s differences with Beijing are growing, and a large section of the world is flirting with a new version of nonalignment.

What are the Biden administration’s priorities next week? I spoke with Thomas-Greenfield for FP Live. Subscribers can watch the full interview here. What follows is a condensed and edited transcript.

The post of ambassador to the United Nations is one of the most important diplomatic positions in the world. The United States has long placed some of its biggest names in the role, including George H.W. Bush, who would go on to become president; Susan Rice, a former U.S. National Security Council advisor; and Madeleine Albright, who eventually served as U.S. secretary of state. Perhaps the most important period for the person holding this role is the week when the annual United Nations General Assembly’s meetings are at their peak: next week.

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, a career diplomat who has been the United States’ ambassador to the United Nations for more than a year, is gearing up for an especially difficult week of meetings and negotiations. Russia is still at war with Ukraine. There’s a global food crisis, rampant inflation, and an energy crunch. Iran continues to get closer to a nuclear bomb. Meanwhile, Washington’s differences with Beijing are growing, and a large section of the world is flirting with a new version of nonalignment.

What are the Biden administration’s priorities next week? I spoke with Thomas-Greenfield for FP Live. Subscribers can watch the full interview here. What follows is a condensed and edited transcript.

Foreign Policy: Ukraine’s gains in the last few days in Kharkiv are nothing short of stunning. How does it change the trajectory of the war?

Linda Thomas-Greenfield: We have given our support to Ukraine to defend itself from the beginning of this war. This is a reflection of that commitment to ensure that Ukrainians have what they need to defend themselves. And they have done that over the past six months, pushing back on Russia’s efforts to compromise their borders and to defend their sovereignty and their independence.

FP: Much of the recent gains are in part because of help—military and otherwise—from the United States and NATO member countries in Europe. How much can America sustain that help over the coming months?

LTG: We’ve been consistent even before this war started in making a commitment to supporting Ukraine. And that commitment is ironclad. The commitment is long term, and we’re here to stay, as it relates to Ukraine. Europe has been unified. NATO has been unified. Our country has been unified in its support for Ukraine, and that will continue until Russia makes a decision to pull its troops out of Ukraine and end this unconscionable war.

FP: What do you expect will change in the coming months if the current trend of Ukraine making some gains continues?

LTG: I can’t predict that. But what I can say is that we want to see Ukraine be in a position where it is strong when it goes to the negotiating table with the Russians, and that has always been our goal. It’s been our goal to consolidate support for Ukraine at the United Nations. We were able to get 141 countries to condemn Russia, and 120-plus countries suspended Russia from the Human Rights Council. Over the course of the next few weeks and months, we want to strengthen Ukraine’s support here at the U.N. We want to continue to isolate and condemn Russia until this unconscionable war comes to an end.

FP: One hundred and forty-one countries is impressive, but there were many countries that either abstained or worse. The fact remains that a majority of the population of the world is represented in countries that did not directly sanction Russia or join some of the American-led sanctions.

LTG: Countries have to make their own choices about how they will view this war. It’s important for us to help those countries understand why there is no neutrality when it comes to an attack on the U.N. Charter. And so we have worked assiduously over the past six months to convince countries—to share with them the information that we have of the kinds of actions that the Russians are taking in Ukraine that cannot be defended. And we’ve said over and over that neutrality in the face of an attack on the U.N. Charter is very, very hard to defend. I don’t think the Russians expected to be condemned by that many countries, and they didn’t expect to be suspended from the Human Rights Council.

FP: You’ve said before that Russia’s attack on Ukraine is, in effect, an attack on the U.N. Charter. But given that, is there any enforcement mechanism? Can we do anything about that?

LTG: We can certainly continue to do what we have done. And I can tell you with total confidence that the Russians are feeling the pressure of the isolation that has been imposed on them since they started this war. They are feeling the pressure on their economy, and they have tried to turn that pressure on to many of the countries that, as you note, have taken what they consider to be a neutral stance. But what the Russians are doing is indefensible. What they are doing in Ukraine constitutes war crimes. And we have to absolutely continue to expose what they’re doing and hold them accountable.

FP: But let me ask you frankly: Do you think the U.N. is doing enough on that front?

LTG: I think the U.N. as an institution is the only institution that we have to hold any country accountable. I think if we had it within our powers, we’d certainly look at how we could kick Russia off of the U.N. Security Council. But they are a permanent member of the Security Council. They’re not behaving with the responsibility that we would expect a member of the Security Council to behave, but we also have to let them know that it is not business as usual for them here in New York.

FP: What are your priorities next week at the U.N. General Assembly?

LTG: It will be a frenzy of a week because we expect over 100 delegations; that includes heads of states in many of those delegations. What we hope to achieve during this week is to focus the world on three major priorities—the first being food insecurity. This is personal for me. I’ve engaged on this issue since I arrived here over a year and a half ago. The food crisis has been exacerbated by the war in Ukraine, but it already existed as a result of climate change, as a result of COVID-19 supply chain issues, and then, of course, as a result of conflict. But the war in Ukraine has made an already bad situation even more dire. So we will be hosting a ministerial, working with countries to commit to addressing the food insecurity issues.

Secondly, global health. As you know, the Global Fund will be holding a replenishment meeting. The U.S. president has committed to assisting with that. They have requested $18 billion, and we have committed to providing $6 billion of that; $1 for every $2 that other countries commit. Dealing with global health, dealing with AIDS, with tuberculosis, with malaria, with future pandemics, is extraordinarily important, and that will be a huge priority for us.

Third, we will be looking at U.N. reform and defending the U.N. Charter and looking at the future of the U.N. Included among the things we will be looking at is Security Council reform, as laid out in my speech in San Francisco.

FP: In that speech, you mentioned Russia and China and their overuse of the veto power. Critics of the Biden administration will point out that Washington’s policies have brought these two countries closer together this year. Do you agree with that, and how does that play out at the U.N.?

LTG: I would clearly not agree with that. I think Russia and China have decided that they are going to support each other in their malign efforts to undermine the charter and undermine the United Nations, the integrity of borders, and the sovereignty of nations. The Chinese have always stressed that as a key priority, but yet they have supported Russia. And so we all, as members of the Security Council but also as member states in the United Nations, have to push back against these efforts. And what I have heard since I came to New York is that countries are delighted that the United States is back, that we are taking a leadership role in this, and that our leadership is important for other countries as we address the issues that Russia and China are presenting to all of us at the United Nations.

FP: When it comes to China, there are so many sticking points. There is human rights. There were increased tensions recently between the two countries, provoked in part by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, plus tariff wars between the countries. These problems make it much harder to cooperate on other issues, such as climate change. How has that been affecting your work and cooperation with China?

LTG: There are areas in the Security Council and more broadly in our bilateral relationship where we can cooperate with the Chinese. Climate change is one of those areas where we have worked to cooperate with them. But there are areas where we are clearly in competition with each other and areas where we have significant disagreements with each other. And those areas, we’re not shying away from addressing with the Chinese. What is happening in Taiwan is clearly one of those areas. Our support for the “One China” policy has been very, very clear. But we also think in the situation related to Taiwan that the Chinese overreacted to that situation. They were not provoked. They made a decision to move forward on an agenda that I think put them in a difficult position moving forward.

FP: What can we expect in terms of progress next week on the Iran nuclear deal?

LTG: You know, we are committed to moving forward on this deal. Our primary goal in resuming our cooperation with Iran on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is that Iran never has access to a nuclear weapon. And we think that this deal is the best way to ensure that. So we’re continuing to move forward. But as you have probably heard and seen in the news, things have slowed down a bit, but we’re still committed to trying to find a way to conclude a deal.

Editor’s note: To watch the complete interview, click on the video via this link.

Ravi Agrawal is the editor in chief of Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RaviReports

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