‘Radically optimistic’ U.N. ambassador delivers Naval War College commencement speech

By: - June 17, 2023 10:46 pm

Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, U.S. Representative to the United Nations, gives the commencement address at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, R.I., on June 16, 2023. (U.S. Navy photo by Kristopher Burris/Released)

NEWPORT — Only a small percentage of the nearly 600 U.S. Naval War College graduates participating at a commencement ceremony Friday worked for the U.S. State Department. 

But that didn’t stop the high-profile commencement speaker, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, from enlisting the help of all of them.

“All of us here are diplomats,” Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said in her address on Dewey Field. “All of you are diplomats. A diplomat’s goal is peace, and that’s a goal we all share.

Thomas-Greenfield came to Newport to deliver remarks to an audience of intermediate- and senior-level military officers and government civilians who completed a 10-month program to earn a Master of Arts degree in national security and strategic studies. They included 103 international students representing 78 countries. 

Her selection to deliver the keynote was a significant choice for an institution that more often taps Pentagon leaders for the honor — U.S. Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro delivered the address last year — even as the ceremony, while livestreamed, was not open to the general public. Her presence at the podium also acknowledged a fundamental part of the mission of an educational institution that prepares leaders for fighting future wars but also preventing them.

“Today, we have a common mission,” Thomas-Greenfield said. “And that mission is to promote security, and to prevent war. And to accomplish that mission, we have to work together. We have to work as a team across agencies and across borders. That’s exactly what you all have been training to do here.”

Thomas-Greenfield serves on the U.N.’s 15-member Security Council, all of whom assume the council’s presidency for one month at a time in rotation. The Security Council has the power to order peacekeeping missions, impose sanctions and refer war crimes cases to international courts.

In her address, Thomas-Greenfield emphasized the need for collaboration, drawing on her own experience while serving as ambassador to Liberia from 2008-2012. She acknowledged efforts to share intelligence with U.S. allies and partners via diplomats and military attaches to unite international support for defending Ukraine against the Russia invasion.

The 70-year-old Louisiana native told graduates she was “radically optimistic” about their abilities to reform the international political system by creating and strengthening new bonds as a team across agencies and across borders.

After delivering the address in Newport Friday morning, Thomas-Greenfield visited Beautiful Day, a gourmet granola company in Providence that offers training programs for resettled refugees in Rhode Island and supports their transition to the job market. Thomas-Greenfield’s visit was to support the Biden Administration’s Welcome Corps initiative to welcome and empower communities to support refugees seeking freedom and safety.

Here is a condensed and lightly edited version of Thomas-Greenfield’s address Friday, June 16, 2023, at the U.S. Naval War College:

Today, I want to spend a little bit of time talking about peace: both how we make it and how we keep it. Because if you’ve learned one thing at this institution, it should be that our security is not about our ability to wage war, but it’s about our ability to prevent it.

And at this point in our history, we have learned a simple truth: No one wins a war. In today’s world, that’s one of the most important goals of our military and our international system: to deter the outcome no rational actor should want. And for that, we are all grateful to you. You are our greatest deterrents, and I want to personally thank you for your service.

I am privileged to represent the United States at another form of deterrence, an institution founded, as the U.N. Charter states on its very first page, to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” And for the most part, we have.

For while the U.N. has failed to prevent every war, it has succeeded in preventing world wars. It has served as a place to work out our disputes, to save face, to find common ground — and if worst comes to worst, castigate each other instead of launching bombs at each other.

The U.N. has been able to, in President Truman’s words, “provide sensible machinery for the settlement of disputes among nations.” And it’s hard to overstate the enormity of that accomplishment. All of the criticisms of the U.N. – and trust me, I have many, so you can get in line – cannot undo the peace that it has brought.

The U.N. has many other outstanding accomplishments, curtailing nuclear proliferation, lifting billions, billions of people out of poverty, providing humanitarian aid to those in desperate need, but our proudest should be the wars we have prevented. And yet, right now, today, at the U.N. and around the globe, war looms large.

Graduates, you are entering into a world that at this moment in our international system is facing a crisis of confidence. As President Biden says, we’re at an inflection point, and the post-war period is over.

Just look, for example, at Russia’s illegal and unprovoked full-scale invasion of Ukraine. I was in the Security Council when it happened, I had called for an emergency, last-ditch meeting to try to prevent it. We knew the invasion was imminent, and yet it was still shocking when it happened. This was – and is – one country trying to seize the territory of another. It seems Russia did not learn the lessons of World Wars. The invasion was a strike at the heart of the U.N. Charter. And it continues to threaten us all.

Since then, we have seen other threats to global security proliferate as well. The DPRK continues to test our will, and our patience, with its ICBM launches. Sudan is facing conflict. Haiti is in turmoil. Iran is deepening its military cooperation with Russia. And the CCP is seeking to shape the world in its authoritarian image.

These are but of a few of the looming concerns. And they don’t even include the global threats that we all face, like COVID-19 and climate change, and an unprecedented hunger crisis for the modern era. Let us also not forget the threats emerging from our rapidly advancing technologies, like cyber and AI.

I tell you this not to frighten you – and my guess is you are not a group that is easily frightened – but I tell you this to ask for your help. Our international system needs reform. It needs help. It needs a resetting. And we need to forge new relationships, we need to build new friendships, we need to create new bonds for security.

And we need you to do that. We need you to help make, and keep, the peace. Because while I know only a few of you work at the State Department – and I also want to thank you for your service, being one of you – all of us here are diplomats. All of you are diplomats. A diplomat’s goal is peace, and that’s a goal we all share.

Today, we have a common mission. And that mission is to promote security, and to prevent war. And to accomplish that mission, we have to work together. We have to work as a team across agencies and across borders. That’s exactly what you all have been training to do here.

To that end, I want to tell you two stories – one from earlier in my career, and one from the past year – to show you what it looks like when teamwork fails, when it succeeds, and how much we need it today.

So you heard that I was Ambassador to Liberia, that country was still emerging from a brutal, decade of civil war. There was no responsible, organized military. And we needed to build it, we needed to build it from the ground up. And we saw this as an opportunity. We could vet incoming soldiers, we could forge a sense of duty, we could create a clear divide between the military and the civilian government. And the Liberians needed help to do that, and I needed help to help them do it.

This was a new kind of challenge for me, one that would require a coordinated interagency approach, and that would especially rely on my military colleagues. And as you know, in country – except in places where there is an ongoing war – the Ambassador is at the top of the org chart as the President’s representative.

But unfortunately, the man that was sent to work with me on this project in Liberia from our own military – and I’ll keep him anonymous just in case he’s in the room – didn’t see it that way.

So when he arrived and I shared with him my vision of how we would work as a team under my leadership, he told me, straight up, that he had a “different” org chart. He had a different plan. Of course, he refused to show it to me, but needless to say he had his own agenda, and he was sticking to it.

A few weeks later, his commanding officer came to visit. And he asked me I think just to be nice, “Ma’am, what can I do for you to help you?” I told him frankly, that his representative wasn’t interested in working with my team. And guess what? That person was on a plane the next day.

But soon after, I got a phone call, and according to my caller ID, it was the Arlington County Sanitation Department. And my home is in Arlington, so I was in panic. I thought, you know, my toilets were overflowing or something horrible was happening to my house. But the man on the phone was the head of the sanitation department, and he was also a reservist. And he’d been assigned to come out and work with me in Liberia and to work on the mission that we had determined was necessary.

When he arrived, we developed a strong working relationship, a partnership. Together, we made Liberia’s military the best it could be. And during the transition out of civil war, the U.N. had to send peacekeepers to Liberia. But today, Liberia’s military has evolved so much, it contributes peacekeepers to help conflict zones around the world.

We made that progress in less than 20 years. And we succeeded because we were able to work together as a team. We identified our shared mission. We executed as a team across agencies and even across national governments. And we brought diplomacy and defense together to forge a peaceful solution for the people of Liberia. That is exactly what you’ve learned how to do here in this program.

Which brings me to my second story, and that’s from my time at the U.N.. As many of you know, in the lead up to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, we knew we had to do everything in our power to try to prevent it, including my last ditch effort to call an emergency meeting of the Security Council. And we also knew if our worst fears came to pass – as they did – we had to make sure the world did not fall for Russia’s false flag operations.

So we did something nearly unprecedented. We worked hand-in-glove with our colleagues across the Pentagon, the intelligence agencies, the NSC, and everyone in-between to declassify our intelligence and share it with the world.

At the Security Council, Secretary Blinken and I spelled it out plainly and clearly. Day after day we provided evidence. We shared, point by point, what President Putin was planning and how it would happen. We shared our intelligence with our allies, with our partners. We provided information both through our diplomats and our military attaches.

Unfortunately, it didn’t stop the war. But it did bring the world together. By working together, we made it impossible for Putin to plant a false flag. We restored America’s word on the world stage. And we created a strong, united front that is now prepared to support Ukraine, for as long as it takes.

Together, we brought international opprobrium onto Russia. We kicked Russia out of the Human Rights Council. We brought a united front of sanctions against the leaders that perpetrated this unprovoked war. And across three votes in the General Assembly, more than 140 countries consistently told Russia that its invasion violated the fundamental principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity, and they condemned Russia for their actions.

The international unity was not easy to achieve or maintain. And it has served as a core part of Ukraine’s defense. It has strengthened the resolve and the determination of the Ukrainian people. After all, the one thing we did not expect – none of us counted on – was the will of the Ukrainian people. That, too, was Putin’s miscalculation. He underestimated their will. He underestimated our unity. And he overestimated his own strength. Since those early days, we have been able to maintain our information sharing, and in doing so, maintain steadfast support for Ukraine.

Graduates, I started this speech by reflecting on the new threats and dangers we face in our world order. But despite these challenges, I am not pessimistic. And I am actually not worried. In fact, I am radically optimistic. And I am bursting with hope, and with joy, and with pride.

I was asked, by some of you, to share the source of that hope. And the answer is simple. It’s you. The answer is you. You give me hope. You have forged bonds across units, across agencies, across teams, and across countries. You have pursued excellence at an institution of legends. You have learned about war in order to promote peace.

At a place steeped in tradition, you have sought innovation. In a profession of conformity, you have harnessed the power of diversity. And in an insecure world, you have stepped up to serve. You are our nation’s — and our planet’s — best and brightest. You are poised to lead us into a better, safer, and a more just world.

Our modern world needs leaders. And you are ready to be those leaders. And I can tell you – as I know everyone in this audience feels the same – that we cannot wait to see what you do next. Now get out there and make all of us proud. Thank you very much. 


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Janine L. Weisman
Janine L. Weisman

Rhode Island Current Editor-in-Chief Janine L. Weisman served as a reporter and editor during her 25-year career in the newsroom of The Newport Daily News. She is an adjunct journalism faculty member at Roger Williams University.