January 27, 2021, Senate Committee on Foreign Relations
On Wednesday, January 27, the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations held a hearing on President Biden’s nominee to lead the U.S. Mission to the United Nations (UN), Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield. The hearing was relatively positive, though several Senators took issue with a speech Thomas-Greenfield delivered in 2019. Topics included U.S. competition with China, support for Israel, countering China’s influence in Africa, the conflict in Yemen, and nuclear nonproliferation in Iran and North Korea.
- Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield’s October 20, 2019 Speech at Savannah State University – Senators on both sides of the aisle raised concerns about a speech Thomas-Greenfield gave on U.S.-China relations in Africa. The event was associated with a Confucius Institute, an organization that is funded by the Chinese Communist Party to spread soft power/propaganda, at Savannah State University, a Historically Black College and University (HBCU). Thomas-Greenfield clarified that she had accepted a speaking invitation from Savannah State to encourage students to consider careers in the Foreign Service. She said she regretted accepting the invitation after seeing the outreach by the Confucius Institute to the Black community in Georgia, especially to high schools, which she said appalled her and reminded her of Chinese actions to spread influence across Africa. She emphasized that she prioritized engagement with HBCUs to encourage students to consider careers at the State Department.
- Competition with China – Senators raised concerns about Chinese influence in the UN, especially through actions on the Security Council and their push to increase influence over UN Institutions. Referring to the speech mentioned above, Senators Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Ron Johnson (R-WI) criticized Thomas-Greenfield for not pushing back enough on Chinese influence in Africa. Thomas-Greenfield defended her record of condemning malfeasance by the Chinese government, noting that she raised alarms about Chinese actions in Africa specifically. She discussed China’s authoritarian ambitions and noted that China takes actions that threaten U.S. security and values as well as threaten their neighbors and others around the globe. She said she would work to counter China’s influence at the UN, fighting against their efforts to insert harmful language into resolutions and resisting their efforts to overfill UN positions with Chinese citizens. She noted it would be important for her to stand up to China by calling them out when they cross lines or norms, particularly with respect to aggressive tactics around the globe. She stated this might require other instruments, including sanctions or increasing military support for regional actors like Taiwan. Thomas-Greenfield emphasized that U.S. withdrawal from international organizations like the World Health Organization creates opportunity for bad actors, like China, to take advantage of the leadership vacuum.
- UN Dues – Senator Todd Young (R-IN) asked about the United States using the $1 billion owed to the UN as leverage to ensure strong influence throughout UN institutions. Thomas-Greenfield pushed back on this notion, stating it was important the United States paid its debts. She argued that only by having a seat at the table and standing up for U.S. interests to call out bad behavior would reforms be accomplished. By not paying dues, she implied, America would be viewed as not committing to or investing in the UN, providing more opportunities for China, and others, to fill the vacuum of American leadership.
- Support for Israel – Multiple Senators raised concerns about how Israel is treated at the UN, noting that there have been 17 condemnations of Israel through the UN General Assembly in 2020, compared to a total of 6 condemnations of other countries over the same time. They asked Thomas-Greenfield what role the United States could play at the UN to better support Israel. Thomas-Greenfield stated that President Biden has long been a strong supporter of Israel, noting the relationship is based on common strategic interests and common values, stating that Israel has no better friend in the world than the U.S., and her actions at the UN would reflect that. She stated her hope that the recognition of Israel through the Abraham Accords would lead to greater recognition of Israel at the UN, and she condemned the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement as unfair and bordering on antisemitic, stating the U.S. should work to ensure the BDS movement does not get a voice at the UN.
- Development Programs in Africa – Senators from both parties raised concerns about China’s increasing influence in Africa, especially through “debt trap diplomacy,” and asked Thomas-Greenfield to elaborate on how to address this spread of malign influence. Thomas-Greenfield stated that when given the chance, African countries choose partnering with the United States over partnering with China on development projects, noting that often the Chinese projects are poor quality, leave the country in heavy debt, and are constructed with Chinese workers, frustrating local constituents. She highlighted that U.S. absence in the region results in African countries not having a choice in who they work with on development projects and advocated that the U.S. should increase partnerships in Africa to counter Chinese influence and suggested the Development Finance Corporation could play a role.
- Yemen – Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) raised concerns about the war in Yemen, noting his approval for President Biden’s commitment to end support for the Saudi-led coalition and stating that the current UN resolution on the war constrains U.S. actions with outdated and unrealistic demands. Thomas-Greenfield said Yemen is turning into one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world, and she committed to working with the UN Security Council to update the resolution.
- North Korea – Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) asked what role the U.S. can play at the UN in encouraging North Korea to seek denuclearization. Thomas-Greenfield stated that addressing North Korea will require working with allies and partners, including South Korea and Japan, and would involve working with and pushing back on Russia and China to ensure they honor the sanctions against North Korea.
- Iran – Several Senators asked Thomas-Greenfield how to address the challenge of an Iran increasingly closer to nuclear breakout. Thomas-Greenfield said it was important to engage with allies and partners, as unilateral action taken by the Trump administration had divided America from its allies. She reiterated President Biden’s firm commitment to ensuring Iran never gets a nuclear weapon.
There was bipartisan concern expressed about the Savannah State speech, as Members have sought to push back on the influence by Confucius Institutes. However, most Senators were satisfied by Thomas-Greenfield’s explanation. Outgoing Chairman Jim Risch (R-ID) gave Thomas-Greenfield time to speak on the issue, noting: “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. I personally am not going to hold one speech against somebody….” We do not expect these concerns to impact her confirmation.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will need to vote to advance Thomas-Greenfield’s nomination before the full Senate can vote. The Committee has yet to schedule the vote on her nomination.