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WASHINGTON — Shortly after Linda Thomas-Greenfield was announced as President Biden’s pick for ambassador to the United Nations, she introduced the American public to a new phrase: “gumbo diplomacy.”

The term, Ms. Thomas-Greenfield said, explained her professional philosophy developed over more than three decades in the Foreign Service: Diplomacy is driven by relationships, and talking about difficult topics while chopping onions for a gumbo sauce can break barriers and foster success, she said.

Now, with the Senate confirming Ms. Thomas-Greenfield on Tuesday by a vote of 78 to 20, her diplomatic approach will be taken to the United Nations, as she calls for American resurgence in a global body from which the United States retreated during the Trump administration.

“America is back,” Ms. Thomas-Greenfield, 68, said when Mr. Biden announced her nomination in November, echoing a phrase used by the president. “Multilateralism is back. Diplomacy is back.”

Ms. Thomas-Greenfield will have to plunge immediately — and publicly — into the U.N.’s work. Her confirmation came just as the United States is about to assume the presidency of the 15-member Security Council, the organization’s most powerful body, for March, under a rotating system. In that role, she will run the council’s meetings and announce its decisions.

Ms. Thomas-Greenfield’s confirmation is the latest chapter in a rise that started in her birthplace of Louisiana, where she attended segregated schools. Her childhood, in the early 1950s, was punctuated by racial tension, she said, when the “K.K.K. regularly would come on weekends and burn a cross in somebody’s yard.”

She attended Louisiana State University at a time when David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard, was a student on campus. She recalled having faced harassment in her dormitory and having a history professor use racial slurs against her.

After college, she went to the University of Wisconsin for graduate school and joined the Foreign Service in 1982. In 1994, she was sent to Rwanda, near the start of the country’s genocide, where at one point she was mistaken by a man for a Tutsi woman he had been sent to kill. She escaped death by talking to him, she said.

“I used the power of kindness and compassion, and I would survive,” Ms. Thomas-Greenfield said during a TED Talk. Her experience there, she said, “changed my life forever.”

From 2008 to 2012, she served as ambassador to Liberia, before moving on to become the director general of the Foreign Service for about a year. From 2013 to 2017, she served as the top United States diplomat for African affairs, where she helped oversee the response to the Ebola epidemic. In 2017, she was among the diplomats pushed out of the department by Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson.

Despite the warm response Ms. Thomas-Greenfield’s nomination received from diplomats and former State Department officials, Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill showed some concern.

In her confirmation hearing last month, it quickly became clear that Ms. Thomas-Greenfield would get pointed questions from Senate Republicans about her views on China, based on an optimistic speech she had given in October 2019 on Africa’s relationship with both China and the United States.

In the speech, at Savannah State University, she extolled the benefits of American cooperation with China in cultivating strengthened relations with the developing countries of Africa, one of her main areas of expertise.

The speech conspicuously lacked criticism of China’s human-rights record or pattern of predatory-lending practices in developing countries desperate for investment. It was sponsored by the Confucius Institute, a Chinese government educational organization that American officials have accused of spreading pro-China propaganda in schools throughout the United States and elsewhere.

Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida in particular focused on that speech during her confirmation hearing, using it to press the idea that Ms. Thomas-Greenfield was perhaps soft on China, naive about the Confucius Institute or both.

Ms. Thomas-Greenfield expressed regret for having agreed to make the speech but contested the insinuation about her record. “If you look at what I have done prior to that,” she said, “there is no question that I am not at all naive about what the Chinese are doing and I have called them out on a regular basis,” which included her sharp criticism of China at other points in the hearing.

Ms. Thomas-Greenfield has promised to aggressively confront China at the United Nations, where it is now the second-biggest financial contributor of the 193 members, behind only the United States, and has moved in recent years to gain leadership roles in important agencies and impose its own authoritarian standards of governance.

American experts on China and veteran diplomats who know Ms. Thomas-Greenfield said it was important to place her Savannah State speech in the context of the severe downturn in U.S.-China relations that accelerated in the final years of the Trump administration.

“The attitudinal shift has been so rapid that we forget that what two or three years ago was considered constructive bridge-building today looks like shameless pandering,” said Orville Schell, the director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society. “I think we’ve all been on that continuum.”

Mr. Schell said Ms. Thomas-Greenfield’s record in other speeches and testimony showed she was concerned that a U.S. retreat from international diplomacy, and the inward-looking views of the previous administration, had been an unintended gift to China.

If anything, he said, “her misstep in Savannah is going to propel her into a much more hard-line posture toward China.”

Aside from China, Ms. Thomas-Greenfield will have to more broadly strengthen America’s presence at the United Nations, which was scaled back as the Trump administration pursued an “America First” style of diplomacy that devalued multilateral institutions.

In his first month in office, Mr. Biden has rejoined the Paris Agreement, a U.N.-led collaboration to fight climate change. He has halted the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the World Health Organization, the U.N.’s public health arm. Mr. Biden has also moved to rejoin the Human Rights Council and has restored funding to the United Nations Population Fund, which provides family planning and reproductive services across the globe.

Jendayi E. Frazer, who served as President George W. Bush’s assistant secretary of state for African affairs, said the United States had “lost a lot of diplomatic credibility” in the United Nations during the Trump administration.

Ms. Thomas-Greenfield is “going to have to undo a lot of that work,” Ms. Frazer said. “But she’s the perfect person to do it, because of her diplomatic style.”

Throughout her diplomatic career, Ms. Thomas-Greenfield was known for mentoring young State Department staff, and for using an approach toward foreign policy that drew on relationships and personal connections, multiple former State Department officials said.

Dehab Ghebreab, a 27-year veteran of the Foreign Service who worked with her in Liberia, remembers one particular moment when Ms. Thomas-Greenfield was the ambassador posted in Monrovia.

In 2012, Ms. Thomas-Greenfield decided that the country’s rise in harassment against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youths needed to be addressed, Ms. Ghebreab said. To do so, she invited a group of eight people for lunch, and over a spread of gumbo, chicken, fish and rice, she brought together the country’s minister of information with two L.G.B.T. youths and members of the news media to talk and eat.

Hours after the country’s minister of information left, he released a statement condemning the rise in abuse, Ms. Ghebreab said, which caught some embassy staff by surprise, because most top politicians in the country had refused to address the issue.

“She’s very effective,” Ms. Ghebreab said.

Pranshu Verma reported from Washington, and Rick Gladstone from New York. Emily Cochrane contributed reporting from Washington.

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