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 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,” Thomas-Greenfield 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.”
Under the Trump administration, the US 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.
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.
“I can tell you that there isn’t a person sitting in this room who hasn’t given a speech that they don’t wish they had back” Risch said. “I personally am not going to hold one speech against somebody, but you are going to have to speak to that.”
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 said. And Risch suggested that despite the controversy, he expected Thomas-Greenfield, 67, to be confirmed.
As UN ambassador, Thomas-Greenfield will 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, who would be one of the highest-ranking Black officials in Biden’s administration, plans to emphasize “old-fashioned, people-to-people diplomacy” while calling for making the UN more accountable.