Biden’s U.N. ambassador on diplomacy at the Olympics: “A great opportunity”

United Nations – U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield will board a plane on Friday for Tokyo to attend the closing ceremony of the Olympics, eager to congratulate U.S. athletes and to meet with the Refugee Olympic Team.

In an exclusive interview with CBS News’ Pamela Falk for CBS News Radio, Thomas-Greenfield said the games can help build better relations among countries and said it’s important to support athletes like Simone Biles in a compassionate and sensitive way.

She also said she is “very worried” about the humanitarian crisis in Tigray, in northern Ethiopia. “We’re concerned that the conflict there is not getting any better, and that the situation on the ground is not improving,” she said.

On adversarial relations with Russia and China, she said: “At the United Nations, what matters is that the U.S. voice is clear, and it’s clear to the Chinese, it’s clear to the Russians, but it’s also clear to our allies that they can depend on the United States to be a trusted ally.”

Below are transcribed excerpts from her interview with CBS News:

Pamela Falk: I saw an interview with a South Sudanese member of the first-ever 2016 Refugee Team [Pur Biel, now a Goodwill Ambassador for the UN refugee agency]. He said, it’s important in sports to build bridges. Is sports a great equalizer? Tell us about it.

Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield: Imagine you’re having young people from all over the world come together in a single place, meet each other, compete, and then applaud each other’s victory. 

It doesn’t get any better than that, and I do see them as diplomats. I do see this as a diplomatic forum, and I do see it contributing to building better relations with countries around the world. 

So, I think it’s a great opportunity, and I certainly look forward to meeting these young people, these true diplomats that are out there spreading goodwill and spreading love.

Some U.S. sports had very few Black athletes – for example, swimming. Is the lack of diversity in some sports, even with the U.S. team, a legacy of racism?

No, I won’t say that. There’s some sports that don’t attract individuals. I’ll tell you that, you know, I don’t know how to swim. I never learned to swim for many different reasons. 

But I do think it is changing. We saw an extraordinarily talented young African American woman who competed in swimming. I don’t remember where she came out, but she was very, very competitive. We’re seeing African Americans participate in sports like fencing… so I think many of these opportunities are opening up.

Did you ever have an Olympic dream, and if so, in what sport? What do you watch the most in the Olympics?

I love to watch tennis and I love to watch the sprinting. Both my daughter and son, when they were in high school, they were sprinters. So I have always loved watching sprinters. I walk, I should say, it’s not competitive, but I don’t think anybody can compete with me on walking. Maybe if they started Olympics for over 60, I would join, and I know that I would win.

Many athletes have suffered in recent years. Michael Phelps has proposed mental health counseling, Simone Biles dropped out to deal with her issues. Are we, as a world, pushing our young folks too hard to excel and seek the rewards?

You know, I have been so proud of these young people who have been willing to address these issues in such a public way. And I’ve been proud of the response of their fans. So this just shows again that, we as a country and people more broadly, can address difficult issues in a compassionate, and a sensitive way, and I think they — Simone and others — are really an example for young people, and we should be supportive of them and encourage them in their efforts to address these issues. 

They’re public. Most people don’t have to deal with these issues in such a public way but they have done it with such aplomb, and in a way that I think makes all of us proud.

Can I turn to COVID-19 worldwide? You’re heading to Thailand. COVID is surging in Asia, [Southeast Asian] countries are a priority for U.S. foreign policy — tell us, what’s the message in Asia? Why is the Biden administration focusing on Asia right now?

Well, I mean in terms of COVID, the focus is the same. President Biden has made clear our commitment to be, as he described it, an “arsenal for vaccines,” and our work to increase vaccine supply across the globe is guided by three principles. 

We’re donating vaccines to the world because we know that we cannot address this pandemic alone. We’re scaling up production for the world. We’re working with U.S. manufacturers to ensure that we can get more out. And again, this is not a challenge that one country alone can tackle. And if we don’t succeed and come together to end the pandemic, nothing else matters. So that’s the message that I will be delivering in Asia, but it’s the same message that we’re delivering in Africa, and in Latin America, in the United States as well.

You push back against Russia and China at the U.N. We’ve heard the Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, also pushing back. Is the U.N. the best place, because you have a bully pulpit of sorts to push back on Russia and China?

I see the U.N. as being a place where we can find common ground. And so, in areas where we can cooperate with each other, we cooperate with each other. In areas where we have differences, we address those differences in quite a public way and we address them from a position of strength. 

And in areas where we have an adversarial relationship, we’re willing to deal with that as well, but ultimately here at the United Nations, what matters is that the U.S. voice is clear, and it’s clear to the Chinese, it’s clear to the Russians, but it’s also clear to our allies that they can depend on the United States to be a trusted ally, and that we are here to support both our allies and our friends, but we’re also here to promote U.S. interests to the benefit of the American people.

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Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the new U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, speaks to journalists at the UN headquarters in New York, on Feb. 25, 2021. Xinhua Xie E via Getty Images

And that’s true diplomacy and military power, carrot and stick?

Military power is not promoted here in New York. What we’re promoting here in New York is diplomacy.  And diplomacy can be both a carrot and a stick. We can either work with you, and work on common issues, or we can work in a way that does not show a relationship that can be beneficial to both sides, so we, as a diplomatic voice, our voice is very powerful here. 

And, finally, I can’t leave this without discussing Tigray. In 2013, August — exactly eight years ago — President Obama appointed you as the 18th Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs. Today, you sit at the White House Cabinet table. Is there any way to guarantee civilian safety in Tigray?

I am very worried about the situation in Tigray. We heard yesterday that the government suspended two very well-established international humanitarian organizations, which means that people who are in need of humanitarian assistance will not have their needs met. 

We’re concerned that the conflict there is not getting any better, and that the situation on the ground is not improving, and so we intend to continue to press these issues here at the Security Council, but also through our Special Envoy, and our Embassy in Ethiopia to encourage both sides to in the conflict and find a way forward for dialogue.