‘Gumbo Diplomacy’ and the rise of Linda Thomas-Greenfield

THOMAS MUKOYA/AFP via Getty Images
US Secretary of State John Kerry (R) gestures next to US Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Linda Thomas-Greenfield before their bilateral talks with Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta (not pictured) at the State House in Nairobi on August 22, 2016. 

When President-elect Joe Biden announced his foreign policy team, it was Linda-Thomas Greenfield — his pick for U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, a woman of color and a 35-year career diplomat — who stole the show.

On that Tuesday, Nov. 23rd, during her three minutes in the Delaware spotlight, Thomas-Greenfield, a Louisiana native, showed the world her singular style, coining the phrase #GumboDiplomacy, which she explained as “Cajun spin” on connecting with people to solve problems.

Sporting a gold Ethiopian Cross over a single strand of pearls, Thomas-Greenfield spoke about her parents who struggled to give her the opportunities that they never had and of her mentor, Edward Perkins, the first black American Ambassador to South Africa who told her never to harbor self-doubt.

“My mother taught me to lead with the power of kindness and compassion to make the world a better place. 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,” posted Thomas-Greenfield on Twitter after the ceremony.

The Washington Post, known for its “In and Out” list at the close of each year, declared of 2020, “Gun-boat diplomacy is out, and Gumbo diplomacy is in.”

Effusive praise — a political star is born.

But don’t let the easy-going, jovial, southern manner disarm you.

Behind Thomas-Greenfield’s broad smile, inviting personality and the carefully chosen words is a diplomat who is tough-as-nails, battled-tested and not afraid to step out of her comfort zone — nor to leave the security bubble imposed on American diplomats posted overseas.

Having worked with and admired Linda Thomas-Greenfield for over a decade — first as President Obama’s Ambassador to post-conflict Liberia, when she was director general of the Foreign Service, and as Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs during Ebola — I have some color to add to the list of “Things to Know” about Biden’s Cabinet-level pick for Ambassador to the UN. 

Linda can take the heat — I mean literally

While posted in Liberia from 2008 to 2012, with one year for added measure as a personal request of then-Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, Linda learned how to drip in sweat, with dignity. Anyone who has worked in Africa knows that the continent embraces tradition and ceremony, which can go on for hours while participants bake under the Equatorial sun. VIPs included.

Whether at the first-ever Women’s Colloquium, the opening of the Angie Brooks Center for women empowerment, Sunday church services, or the inauguration of street lights in Monrovia, Linda was there, often without sunglasses or a hat, holding a tissue to wipe her brow. She rarely sent a subordinate.

Linda can play poker with the best of them; she knows how to bluff and read a room

In a post-conflict nation like Liberia, old habits die hard — especially corruption — and at times rent-seeking behavior would interfere with the advancement of important legislative business, including critical development projects.

On such an occasion, it was rumored that Linda would hint to recalcitrant legislators that a list was being prepared of officials who would no longer be eligible for U.S. visas.

Her yellow-lined notebook, where the supposed inventory was kept, became an urban legend in the capital city of Monrovia.

Linda knows how to color outside the lines; she is not constrained by bureaucracy

When the Office of Management and Budget cut in half the U.S. technical assistance to the Liberian National Police — just at the time when the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) was planning its withdrawal — Linda made her displeasure known. Somehow, some way, the money found its way back through congressional appropriations.

And when the 2014 Ebola epidemic emerged in West Africa, during a politically-charged mid-term election year where some, including then businessman Donald Trump, argued that borders should be shut to infected African nations, Linda stressed that the best way to protect America was to support the disease response at its source.

Her advocacy was in no small part responsible for the passage of a bipartisan urgent supplemental funding bill and the deployment of the 101st Airborne to help Liberia set up a logistical supply chain.

Linda lives by the oath of office

She first took the oath nearly four decades ago: to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” a loyalty she holds above her personal or political views.

In April 2017, with the appointment of Rex Tillerson as Donald Trump’s first Secretary of State, and his promise to cut the State Department budget by 30 percent, many diplomats retired — but Linda persevered. She expressed hope that Tillerson, with his long experience overseas, would appreciate the importance of diplomacy, and she offered to stay on and serve him.

Tillerson took an unwise pass on her offer.

I wrote in The Hill at that time referring to Linda: “So my friend would retire, and with her, a set of leadership skills and an institutional memory which would have served the new Secretary of State well.”

In February 2012, at the close of her ambassadorship in Liberia, a ceremony was held to make Linda Thomas-Greenfield Liberia’s first-ever honorary citizen, conferring upon her the distinction of Dame Great Band in the Humane Order of African Redemption.

In presenting the award, President Sirleaf cited the many things that Linda had achieved, including helping to reform the Armed Forces of Liberia, to rebuild the social and physical infrastructure and to restore justice and the rule of law.

But then Sirleaf, as usual, veered from her prepared remarks and reflected, “while your accomplishments are many, it is not what you did, but what you shared with us as a person that we will remember.”

And there it is folks: Gumbo Diplomacy in action.

K. Riva Levinson is president and CEO of KRL International LLC, a D.C.-based consultancy that works in the world’s emerging markets, award-winning author of “Choosing the Hero: My Improbable Journey and the Rise of Africa’s First Woman President” (Kiwai Media, June 2016). You can follow her @rivalevinson

Tags Africa American diplomacy American diplomats Donald Trump Ellen Johnson Sirleaf experience foreign service Gumbo Diplomacy Joe Biden Liberia Linda Thomas-Greenfield Rex Tillerson

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