WASHINGTON – Joe Biden’s pick to be the next U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, a low-key, veteran foreign service officer, reflects the president-elect's intent to return to a more traditional role at the world body as well as offer an olive branch to a beleaguered diplomatic corps.
If confirmed by the Senate, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, would be neither the first African American nor the first woman, nor even the first African American woman, to serve as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. But she’s a groundbreaking diplomat nonetheless. Thomas-Greenfield joined the State Department more than three decades ago, when Black women were even more of a rarity in the U.S. diplomatic corps than they are today.
That makes her the most experienced diplomat of the six people named by Biden for top national security positions on Monday. Her tenure at the State Department rivals that of previous U.N. ambassadors like Richard Holbrooke, John Negroponte and Thomas Pickering, all of them white men.
Thomas-Greenfield's background positions her well to carry out Biden’s goal of returning the United States to a role as a leading force at the world body, after four years of an administration that has had little use for multilateralism or international organizations.
“My mother taught me to lead with the power of kindness and compassion to make the world a better place,” she said in a tweet Monday. “I’ve carried that lesson with me throughout my career in Foreign Service – and, if confirmed, will do the same as Ambassador to the United Nations.”
Biden's office announced on Monday his intent to Thomas-Greenfield, who currently heads his transition team for the State Department, and for the job to retain its Cabinet-level rank.
She is a 35-year veteran of the State Department who served as ambassador to Liberia, director general of the foreign service and top diplomat for Africa before being forced out during the early months of the Trump administration.
While she won’t be the first African American to serve as America’s U.N. envoy — Andrew Young, who held the job during President Jimmy Carter’s administration, holds that distinction — Thomas-Greenfield’s selection is a signal to Biden supporters that his diversity message and plan to elevate career diplomats is not just lip service.
Biden also named two white men, Antony Blinken and Jake Sullivan, to top positions in his administration — respectively, secretary of state and national security adviser, and so Thomas-Greenfield's appointment will offer a balance. Susan Rice, who was also under consideration to be secretary of state, was the first African American woman to hold the U.N. post, but she was not a career foreign service officer, though she held a senior State Department position in President Bill Clinton’s administration.
Other than secretary of state, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations is often the most high-profile foreign policy portfolio in a presidential administration. The influence of these ambassadors has waxed and waned depending on the nature of the president and secretary of state, but Democratic administrations have traditionally leaned more heavily on them than Republicans have.
Thomas-Greenfield's immediate predecessors — all women — highlight that dichotomy: Rice, Samantha Power, Nikki Haley and Kelly Craft.
When then-President-elect Barack Obama named Rice to the job after being elected in 2008 and announced that the position would return to the Cabinet after eight years during George W. Bush's administration, he did so at the same time as announcing that his Democratic primary rival, Hillary Clinton, would be his secretary of state.
At the U.N., Rice was clearly influential in the Obama administration, and Power followed suit after she replaced Rice when Rice was named national security adviser, retaining Cabinet rank. Haley, the former South Carolina governor, won some plaudits during Trump's early years in office but was dogged by persistent reports of clashes with the president's first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson. Craft, by contrast, has played a far less-high profile role since taking over the U.N. job.
Even before the transition made it public, Thomas-Greenfield’s expected nomination, along with that of Blinken's, was hailed by a number of former Democratic foreign policy appointees.
Thomas-Greenfield “is a valued colleague and veteran diplomat who will restore US leadership and cooperation at the UN,” said former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, for whose consulting company, Albright Stonebridge, the nominee now works.
“This will be a phenomenal team,” said Power. “(They) bring decency, professionalism, judgment, and decades of foreign policy experience to these essential jobs. And America will be SO well served."