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Biden Taps Veteran US Diplomat Linda Thomas-Greenfield as UN Ambassador

FILE - Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Linda Thomas-Greenfield, right, testifies during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, January 9, 2014.

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden has named veteran diplomat Linda Thomas-Greenfield to join his forthcoming Cabinet as his pick for U.N. ambassador, his transition team announced Monday. The post requires Senate confirmation.

Thomas-Greenfield has worked in both Democratic and Republican administrations during her 35-year State Department career. An Africa specialist, she served as U.S. ambassador to Liberia, and held posts in Kenya, The Gambia and Nigeria. Under President Barack Obama, she served as the assistant secretary for the Bureau of African Affairs (2013-2017), developing and managing Washington's policy toward sub-Saharan Africa. She has also worked in Geneva at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations.

Thomas-Greenfield was a senior manager at the State Department, where she served as director general of the Foreign Service and director of Human Resources from 2012 to 2013, handling matters related to the State Department's 70,000 employees.

She took to Twitter on Tuesday saying she was "blessed for this opportunity."

"I've had the privilege to build relationships with leaders around the world for the past thirty-five years. As U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, I'll work to restore America's standing in the world and renew relationships with our allies," the longtime diplomat tweeted.

Earlier, Thomas-Greenfield tweeted her mother taught her to lead with kindness and compassion and she would bring that ethos to her mission at the United Nations if she is confirmed.

Former colleagues also responded to her selection alongside long-time Biden foreign policy aide Anthony Blinken as the president-elect's choice for secretary of state.

Former U.S. Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman told VOA that the choice of the "highly respected" Thomas-Greenfield is "brilliant" and would be a big morale booster for career foreign service officers. Feltman, who was also the United Nation's political chief from 2012 to 2018, said he saw Thomas-Greenfield in action many times.

"I saw Linda work the room at African Union summits, and she is amazingly effective and efficient at pushing her agenda with 54 African leaders," he said. "She leavened her diplomatic approach with real human empathy and warmth. I think she will be perfect for restoring U.S. leadership at the U.N. and sort of rebooting the U.N. and our multilateral alliances for meeting today's challenges."

President-elect Biden is elevating the post of U.N. ambassador to Cabinet level. In recent Democrat administrations the position has been part of the Cabinet. President Donald Trump chose to make his first U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, a Cabinet member, but did not elevate his current envoy, Kelly Craft.

Early life

Born in 1952 in the southern state of Louisiana, Thomas-Greenfield, who is African-American, was one of eight siblings. She said her father left school in the third grade to help support his family.

"He couldn't read or write, but he was the smartest man I knew," she said of him in a TED talk last year.

Thomas-Greenfield said her mother also had limited education, but a big heart. In addition to raising her own children, she took in eight siblings who lost their mother so they would not be separated.

"I didn't have successful, educated role models in my life, but what I did have – I had the hopes and dreams of my mother, who taught me at a very early age that I could face any challenge or adversity put in my path by being compassionate and being kind," Thomas-Greenfield said.

The former assistant secretary of state grew up during the civil rights era and graduated from a segregated high school. She then went on to Louisiana State University, which had to be forced to accept Black students by a court order.

Thomas-Greenfield said she faced harassment there and noted that David Duke, the former leader of the white supremacist group the Ku Klux Klan, was an LSU student at the same time she was, and had already started to preach hatred.

In 2012, LSU asked her back to speak at graduation.

"I thanked the university for giving me the experiences that made me into the successful person that I had become," she said. "Adversity is a source of strength."

Life-changing experience

In April 1994, Thomas-Greenfield arrived in Kigali, Rwanda, as ethnic Hutu extremists began their 100-day genocide against minority Tutsis.

She very nearly became a causality of the atrocities, confronted by a "glaze-eyed man" who was ready to kill her. She remained calm and spoke to the man and survived. But of the genocide, she said, "It changed my life forever."

FILE - United States Secretary of State John Kerry, center, reacts as Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari shakes hands with Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Linda Thomas-Greenfield at the presidential villa in Abuja, Aug. 23, 2016.
FILE - United States Secretary of State John Kerry, center, reacts as Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari shakes hands with Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Linda Thomas-Greenfield at the presidential villa in Abuja, Aug. 23, 2016.

Thomas-Greenfield's deep knowledge of Africa will serve her well at the United Nations, where more than half the peace and security operations the Security Council authorizes are based on the continent.

She has a traditional diplomatic style, said Ambassador Ronald Neumann, president of the American Academy of Diplomacy, of which Thomas-Greenfield is a member.

"She puts a lot of attention on listening, on understanding where the other person is coming from, and therefore ensuring that she can prepare the best way of persuading them to do what she wants," Neumann told VOA. He added that she will also be ready to build alliances.

Thomas-Greenfield will need to employ her diplomatic style in coping with challenges to U.S. influence at the United Nations, where the Trump administration has cut funding, withdrawn from agencies and international accords, and pursued an "America first" policy.

"The United States is going to have to compete for influence far more assertively than we are accustomed to doing at the U.N.," Feltman said. "China has become far more assertive at the U.N. than it was, say at the beginning of Obama administration. You have a lot of middle powers that are not willing to defer to the great powers – they have their own interests in their own region."

There will also be a long list of other issues awaiting her attention if she is confirmed: COVID-19, climate change, Iran's nuclear program, the changing Middle East, and the growing refugee and migrant crisis.