Republicans grill Biden's pick for UN ambassador over speech at Confucius Institute at HBCU

Deirdre Shesgreen, USA TODAY
·6 min read

WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden's nominee to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said she regretted giving a speech in 2019 at a Chinese-funded institute in Savannah – remarks that quickly became a flashpoint at her confirmation hearing on Wednesday.

In the 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 historically black college.

Thomas-Greenfield said it was a "huge mistake" on her part to speak at the Confucius Institute. She said she agreed to address students at the university as part of her longstanding commitment to encouraging young Black students to consider a career in the foreign service.

Thomas-Greenfield, who is Black, said she came away from the event "frankly alarmed" at the way the institute was engaging with the Black community, which she said involved "going after those in need."

Sen. James Risch, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called Thomas-Greenfield's 2019 remarks "the elephant in the room." And Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., expressed shock that she did not seem to realize how China has used state-funded Confucius Institutes to spread propaganda. Many universities, including Savannah State University, have closed or otherwise severed their ties with such institutes in recent years.

"China is a strategic adversary and their actions threaten our security, they threaten our way of life," Thomas-Greenfield said, seeking to reassure lawmakers that she is clear-eyed about China's often predatory tactics. "They're a threat across the globe."

Democrats on the committee noted that in other settings, Thomas-Greenfield had issued many public warnings about China's growing aggression. And they suggested Republicans were twisting her words to make her sound soft on China.

Sen. Bob Menendez, the incoming Democratic chairman of the committee, said Thomas-Greenfield for years had been "sounding the alarm" that the U.S. withdrawing from the international community – as it did during the Trump administration – created a vacuum for China to fill. In her 2019 speech, Menendez said, she seemed to challenge to China "to promote values such as good governance, gender equity and the rule of law" in Africa.

"That was exactly my intention," Thomas-Greenfield responded.

She said she would push back aggressively against China's efforts to gain leverage and influence at the UN, among other multilateral institutions.

“We know China is working across the U.N. system to drive an authoritarian agenda that stands in opposition to the founding values of the institution – American values,” she said. “Their success depends on our continued withdrawal. That will not happen on my watch.”

In her 2019 remarks, she downplayed the idea that the U.S. and China were engaged in a new "Cold War" style confrontation.

"There is a growing sense that the U.S. and China are in competition to carve out their share of this African future. Some have even dubbed this a 'new scramble for Africa,'" she said. "These are certainly uneasy times in the U.S.-China relationship, but I disagree with these narratives and this zero-sum approach. We are not in a new Cold War – and Africans have far more agency than those narratives would have us believe."

Sen. Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat and the only Black lawmaker on the committee, blasted the GOP attacks on Thomas-Greenfield and sharply defended her decision to accept a speaking invitation from a historically Black college.

"You are one of the generations of women that are breaking down barriers and showing the way for women and African Americans," Booker said.

In her opening remarks, 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 an African American.

Over a 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 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," Thomas-Greenfield told lawmakers in her opening remarks.

If confirmed, Thomas-Greenfield may face lingering skepticism and resentment on the job after former President Donald Trump derided the United Nations and other multilateral institutions. He withdrew the US from the United Nations Human Rights Council and a United Nations’ aid program for Palestinian refugees. Trump's first ambassador to the UN, ex-South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, cut a high profile at the international body in championing Trump's "America First" foreign policy. Haley's successor, Kelly Knight Craft, seemed to eschew the spotlight.

Thomas-Greenfield's allies say she is widely admired inside the State Department and will help Biden restore America's reputation on the global stage.

"She understands peacekeeping, she understands the UN, she understands the developing world," Wendy Sherman, who served as undersecretary of state for political affairs in the Obama administration, told USA TODAY in November. Sherman is also poised to join the Biden administration, if confirmed, as deputy secretary of state.

In the face of burning crosses and machine guns

Thomas-Greenfield, was born in Baker, Louisiana, in the early 1950s and attended segregated schools as a child. In a 2019 speech, she described growing up in a town "in which the KKK regularly would come on the weekends and burn a cross in someone's yard."

When she attended Louisiana State University, David Duke, a white supremacist and Klan leader, had a significant presence on campus, Thomas-Greenfield said, in recounting the deep racism she faced during her college years.

In 1994, Thomas-Greenfield was dispatched to Rwanda to assess refugee conditions amid the genocide in that country. She said she was confronted by a "glazed-eyed young man" with a machine gun who had apparently mistaken her for a Tutsi he had been assigned to kill.

"I didn’t panic. I was afraid, don’t get me wrong," she said in her 2019 remarks. She asked him his name, told him hers, and managed to talk her way out of the situation.

Her secret negotiating tool, she says, is "gumbo diplomacy," which she employed across four continents during her foreign service. She would invite guests to help make a roux and chop onions for the "holy trinity" (onions, bell 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. "A bit of lagniappe (or 'something extra' in Cajun) is what we say in Louisiana."

On Tuesday, the Senate confirmed Antony Blinken to lead the State Department by a vote of 78 to 22.

Contributing: Maureen Groppe

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden pick for UN ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield talks China