Ambassador to UN meets with W&M students


Friday, Feb. 17, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield HON ’23 met with students in the Global Scholars program, a collaboration between the Washington Center and the Global Research Institute. George and Mary Hylton Professor of International Relations and Director of GRI Michael Tierney led the delegation. The students are currently enrolled in Tierney’s course, “Politics and Policy of International Organizations.” 

The meeting took place in the basement of Kaplan Arena after Thomas-Greenfield received an honorary degree from the College of William and Mary and gave a keynote address at the annual Charter Day ceremony. 

“You know, I’m from Virginia,” Thomas-Greenfield said to The Flat Hat. “I say I’m from Louisiana. I grew up in Louisiana, but I retired in Virginia before I came back to government service. My family lives here. My kids live in Virginia. And I’m just honored that this state, my state, would honor me with an honorary doctorate. So when I was asked, I was elated and had no doubts that I would say yes.”

During her Charter Day speech, Thomas-Greenfield emphasized the moral and collective responsibilities we have towards the world’s most poverty-stricken communities. Noor Scavotto ’24 asked her what moment in her diplomatic career changed her thought process and made her reconsider her moral bearings. 

“My life has changed in 1994, during the Rwandan genocide,” Thomas-Greenfield said. “I fortunately or unfortunately, was there and was a witness to the genocide. I saw the power of our voice and I saw us not using that power. And 800,000 people were killed. And so I changed my entire approach to diplomacy. I came away from that feeling very, very strongly that when you’re in crisis, you need a leader who’s going to make a decision and make a decision quickly. You don’t — you can’t wait to check all the boxes. You can’t wait to get all the information you need. You’ve got to make decisions. You’ve got to make them quickly. And sometimes you’ll be wrong. But wrong is better than nothing.”

Thomas-Greenfield also highlighted the importance of compassion and finding common ground to promote a healthier and more impactful dialogue. 

“My approach to negotiation is I always get to know the person I’m going to negotiate with, you know, and it always takes them off guard,” Thomas-Greenfield said. “I might spend the first 10 minutes of a conversation just shooting the bull, but once I get a piece of information I want, then I move into what I need.” 

Students also asked the Ambassador questions that hit closer to home for most college students. Elijah Tsai ’25 asked Thomas-Greenfield how she overcame doubts about her future and made difficult decisions throughout her career. 

“Challenge your doubts, just challenge them,” Thomas-Greenfield said. “I challenge my fears, my team knows I’m afraid to fly all the time. Big planes, little planes, whatever. I’m absolutely afraid to fly. I’m on a plane almost every other day. But doubts can hold you back. And so you need to challenge your doubts, Question your doubts. Why are you doubting? Why are you thinking something different?”

Katherine Walter ’25 asked Thomas-Greenfield for advice on how to get out of your own head and think of things spontaneously. 

“When I’m sitting at the [Security] Council table and the Russians say something really stupid that I have to respond to, I’m writing notes to myself, texting my team, I need to respond to this,” Thomas-Greenfield said. “I’m constantly writing what other people are saying. So if I need to respond, I got in my head what they’re saying and what I need to respond to.”

Some questions focused more on pressing international affairs. Bennett Hawley ’23 asked her about the role of the U.S. military and humanitarian forces in responding to the recent earthquake in Turkey and Syria. 

“The military is there, you just don’t see it,” Thomas-Greenfield said. “I mean, this kind of crisis, it does take a while to mobilize… the first stage is just to rescue people and to try to save lives and get those who are injured to a place where they can be assisted. But when I talk to the NGOs, when I talk to the U.N., what they want is money. That’s what they need to get money in people’s hands so they can buy blankets, they can get shelter, they can get food.”

In response to a question from The Flat Hat about potential Security Council reforms, Thomas-Greenfield described her efforts and ideas to make the Council more representative of its member states. 

“We think the Security Council doesn’t represent what the world looks like now,” Thomas-Greenfield said. “When the Security Council was created … [there were] maybe 40 countries. We have 193 countries in the U.N. [today], and the Security Council is not representative of the 193.”

Thomas-Greenfield explained that she is currently on a listening tour across the U.N. to come up with a comprehensive reform and discussed potential reforms to the P5’s veto power. 

“We’ve also announced we’re not willing to give up the veto power and we don’t think others should have the veto power,” Thomas-Greenfield continued. “So nobody agrees with us on that. But what we have said is we will limit our use of the veto power and we supported a resolution put forward by Liechtenstein as co-sponsor that requires the P5 when they use their veto power, we have to come and explain to the entire U.N. membership why we felt necessary to use the veto power.”

Thomas-Greenfield also told The Flat Hat what she would like the College to do in order to create a campus environment focused on public service, calling on the College to reach out to local communities. 

“Sometimes universities are in communities and you have disadvantaged people who can’t access … the advantages that a university like this provides,” Thomas-Greenfield said. “This university should have all of you volunteering in local communities just to make sure you’re in touch with the local community and they know who you are.”

At one point during the meeting, Thomas-Greenfield cold called a student and asked her to ask a question, surprising them.

“You’re catching me a little off guard,” the student said.

“I know — that’s how diplomacy works!” Thomas-Greenfield responded.


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