U.S. lawmakers Wednesday expressed concern about China's growing influence at the United Nations during their questioning of President Joe Biden's intended U.N. ambassador, seeking assurances that she would vigorously push back against Beijing's "malign influence."
"Despite the fact that the United States is by far the largest donor to the United Nations, the Chinese Communist Party is attempting to reshape the U.N. to serve the needs of the Party," Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman James Risch said at the opening of Linda Thomas-Greenfield's confirmation hearing. "And it has had some successes in that regard."
Senators from both parties repeatedly grilled the 35-year State Department veteran about a speech she gave as a retired diplomat in 2019. The focus was on the U.S. and China's investment in Africa, and several senators criticized her for being soft on Beijing.
Thomas-Greenfield was invited to speak by the historically Black Savannah State University in Georgia, with which she had a long relationship. The event was at the campus' Confucius Institute, which is funded by the Chinese government.
"I accepted the invitation as a response to the university," Thomas-Greenfield explained. "I truly regret having accepted that invitation and having had my name associated with the Confucius Institute."
Firm stance on China
But she pushed back against accusations by some senators that she has gone easy on China, saying she has spoken out about its behavior throughout her career, including what she called China's "self-interested and parasitic development goals" in Africa.
"And I see what they are doing at the U.N. as undermining our values, undermining what we believe in," she told members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "They are undermining our security, they are undermining our people, and we need to work against that."
Thomas-Greenfield was also asked whether she believes China's treatment of minority ethnic Uighur Muslims is genocide.
"Absolutely," she told Senator Marco Rubio. "What is happening with the Uighurs is horrendous and we have to recognize it for what it is."
She briefly mentioned her experience as a U.S. diplomat in Kigali, Rwanda, in April 1994 as ethnic Hutu extremists began their 100-day genocide against minority Tutsis.
"I lived through and experienced and witnessed a genocide in Rwanda," she said in speaking about the atrocities committed against the Uighurs. "So I know what it looks like, and what it feels like. This feels like that, we just have to call it for what it is."
She said that if confirmed, she would take a firm stance on China at the United Nations.
"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," Thomas Greenfield said. "Their success depends on our continued withdrawal; that will not happen on my watch."
The Trump administration was largely indifferent to the United Nations and pulled back its support - both financial and diplomatic - on several fronts. Biden has vowed to reengage with the world body and embrace multilateralism.
The U.N. has been at the forefront in trying to rally global cooperation on combating climate change and fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. Both are areas where U.S. leadership is critical to success, but senators barely raised a query on either subject.
Middle East challenges
They only fleetingly touched on two long and catastrophic conflicts that the U.N. is trying to resolve - Yemen and Syria.
Yemen is the world's largest humanitarian disaster and millions are on the brink of famine. Syria is about to reach the grim milestone of a decade of civil war that has created 5.5 million refugees and internally displaced another 6 million people who are living in poverty and insecurity.
Even Iran, which is a favorite talking point of many on Capitol Hill, was also only touched on in passing, despite being on the U.N. Security Council's nonproliferation agenda.
Thomas-Greenfield echoed newly sworn-in Secretary of State Antony Blinken, saying the new administration would make every effort to ensure Tehran does not gain access to a nuclear weapon.
The only Middle East country the longtime diplomat was questioned in any depth about was Israel, and what she would do to protect America's ally at the United Nations, where it often comes in for sharp criticism over its treatment of the Palestinians.
"It goes without saying, that Israel has no closer friend than the United States, and I will reflect that in my actions at the United Nations," she said.
The Trump administration also pulled out of the controversial U.N. Human Rights Council, which then-U.N. envoy Nikki Haley called a "cesspool of political bias" over its treatment of Israel. Thomas-Greenfield said the Biden administration will run for a seat to rejoin the HRC, saying, "If we are on the outside, we have no voice."
She also told the only female senator to question her that she would work to restore funding to the U.N. Population Fund, which was cut by the Trump administration. UNFPA provides reproductive and maternal health care to millions of women worldwide.
Thomas-Greenfield grew up during the civil rights era in the state of Louisiana. She graduated from a segregated high school and went to Louisiana State University, which had to be forced to accept Black students by a court order.
Parts of her Southern culture are embedded in her diplomatic style. She has spoken of inviting her counterparts at foreign postings to her home to cook a spicy Cajun stew of chicken, sausage and shrimp, known as gumbo. She has said her "gumbo diplomacy" was a way to break down barriers and forge relations.
During one light moment in Wednesday's confirmation hearing, Senator Tim Kaine told her that he and his wife had tried her gumbo recipe and really liked it.
"I'm so glad it's good because we made such an enormous quantity of it that we are going to be eating it for the next month," he said.
"It freezes well," she assured him.
Thomas-Greenfield's nomination must now be approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee before going to the full Senate for a vote.