United States ambassadors were conspicuously absent from the tarmac when President Joe Biden touched down in three different countries during his European tour last month. During his first trip abroad as president, he met with foreign leaders flanked by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security advisor Jake Sullivan, but there was not once a U.S. ambassador in the room. The reason? Mr. Biden has yet to appoint them.
Almost five months into his term, the president has failed to even nominate ambassadors to any of the G7 countries before meeting with their leaders, to call for solidarity against Russia and China. Since then, President Biden has announced his ambassador picks for to Germany and Canada, though they must endure a lengthy vetting and Senate confirmation process before being sworn in. At the current rate, 87 ambassador posts will remain vacant for the summer.
Joe Biden also has yet to nominate envoys for posts in Beijing, Seoul, Manila, Delhi, Kabul, Islamabad, Riyadh, Warsaw, or Kyiv—the list goes on. Many of these bodies are geopolitical hotspots where diplomacy with the U.S. will be tested by his more activist foreign policy agenda, says The Economist. The president has insisted the U.S. is “back at the table” after four years of former President Donald Trump’s “America First” policy. Yet, he still lacks the diplomats essential for repairing alliances and building strong relationships.
“[T]he stakes seem to be higher than usual,” admitted Dalibor Rohac, a foreign policy expert at the American Enterprise Institute. “[Y]ou need people who are on top of their game.” Instead, low-level diplomats needed to stand in as chargés d’affaires in many U.S. embassies. The effect simply isn’t the same. While several are experienced foreign-service officials, they do not have the kind of standing that a confirmed ambassador chosen personally by the president would.
According to a report by The Hill, several experts believe President Biden will strain foreign relations with longtime U.S. allies unless he fills ambassadorial vacancies quickly. “[M]uch of the world sees it as a sign of disrespect,” said Eric Rubin, a former ambassador to Bulgaria and head of the American Foreign Service Association. “[I]t’s handicapping our influence in all of these countries at a critical juncture,” agreed Brett Bruen, who served as director of global engagement during the Obama administration.
The vacancies have already made an impact. When tensions erupted between Israel and Hamas last month, there was still no U.S. ambassador to Israel. It wasn’t until after the fact that President Biden nominated Tom Nides to the post, whose absence was keenly felt during the conflict as Washington scrambled to conduct behind-the-scenes diplomacy. Having an ambassador on site with the political authority to intervene on the administration’s behalf may have proven critical. Left with no other choice, however, the U.S. sent the most senior official it could spare: Hady Amry, a deputy assistant secretary.
The lack of confirmed appointees will arguably hurt future ambassadors more than Biden’s foreign relations so far. Ambassadors are missing out on opportunities to sit in on high-level meetings, build relationships with foreign diplomats, and establish trust with their host countries. This is especially true in China, says Eric Rubin: “[G]iven the protocol-conscious and hierarchical-conscious nature of the Chinese government… there’s really no possibility of dialogue with senior officials in Beijing.” Biden’s nominee for U.S. Ambassador to China is unlikely to be confirmed for several months.
Meanwhile, Washington’s relationship with Beijing is growing increasingly strained as China continues its crackdown on Hong Kong and fails to cooperate with investigations into the origins of the coronavirus. As the U.S. takes the lead on getting the world vaccinated, coordination with allies will also be crucial. However, without ambassadors to grease the wheels of cooperation, they may face a rough ride.
Part of the delay is not President Biden’s doing. Vetting and confirming candidates is a notoriously long-drawn-out process for posts both abroad and at home. For instance, he has already nominated candidates for the critical role of Assistant Secretary of State—some as long ago as mid-April—but the Senate failed to confirm any of them. To Mr. Biden’s credit, he got off to a quicker start than his predecessor in staffing his administration, with 70 executive-branch appointees confirmed after five months compared to Trump’s 44. Still, this lags behind President Barack Obama’s 165 confirmations during the same period.
Bad luck has been another factor. The attack on the Capitol and the second impeachment of Donald Trump has kept the Senate preoccupied. While President Biden, unlike Donald Trump, came fully prepared on day one with 1,000 appointees that did not require Senate confirmation, other posts were slow to be filled. With a distracted Senate and a health and economic crisis to attend to, the officials already in place put off tedious questions about personnel. But the outstanding vacancies are becoming more problematic now that the Biden administration began shifting its gaze beyond its own borders.
Arguably the biggest source of delay, though, has been deciding whom to appoint. American presidents have a long but controversial history of reserving some “plum posts” in low-risk countries for political allies and deep-pocketed campaign donors. President Trump had a particularly strong penchant for doing this, as nearly 44% of his ambassadors were political appointees rather than career foreign service professionals. Under past presidents, it was closer to 30%—a proportion that Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said the Biden administration looks to restore.
This complicates President Biden’s selection process in a number of ways. For one, ambassadors who were appointed as political favors are traditionally replaced by an incoming administration. This means that he has an especially large number of vacancies to fill, given President Trump’s predilection for doling out ambassadorships to political allies instead of professional diplomats. For another, Mr. Biden’s four decades in Democratic politics mean that there is a long list of allies hoping to be rewarded with ambassadorships. This makes breaking tradition difficult for the president, says the Washington Examiner, and may explain the delays.
Finally, President Biden has vowed to diversify the slate of ambassadors he appoints, so that they are more representative of the American population. He wishes to ensure that his emissaries “represent the diversity of the country, and that includes people who are LGBTQ, members of the transgender community,” said White House Secretary Jen Psaki. Many of Joe Biden’s campaign donors are LGBTQ people, the Washington Blade points out, who reasonably expect to be named ambassadors for their support. Nevertheless, given his desire to avoid Republican opposition and foster greater bipartisanship by appointing more career professionals, it will be difficult to reward a diverse group of political allies with ambassador appointments.
President Biden’s efforts to add diversity to his representatives abroad is commendable, though he cannot lose sight of what is at stake. “[I]t is a huge mistake to get so carried away with background that one forgets quality,” warns former U.S. Ambassador Ronald Neumann, head of the American Academy of Diplomacy. At a time when foreign allies are doubtful of U.S. reliability, it is critical that his ambassadorial appointees have the necessary expertise to restore strained diplomatic relations.
This is especially true of the stable, prosperous countries whose ambassador posts have been popular political rewards in the past. “[I]t delays the effectiveness of an ambassador when they have to brush up on diplomacy 101, especially now that we face such challenges of credibility and influence and major threats around the world,” says Brett Bruen. Appointing more political allies also means that President Biden’s successor will inherit the problem of having to replace them with career diplomats. Instead, he has the chance to introduce some stability to U.S. foreign relations.
The consequences of nominating political allies is not limited to their performance once in office; they are also more difficult to confirm. The security clearance process is more complicated, especially for wealthy fundraisers who have convoluted financial disclosures to make, says retired U.S. Ambassador Dennis Jett. Seeing as President Biden is already quite behind on filling vacancies, he cannot afford to draw out the process any further. Not only does rewarding political allies threaten to undermine his attempts to restore America’s global standing, but the delays alone could rattle already fragile foreign relations.
“[T]he fastest and best way to move is to go with those [career diplomats] who have already been extensively vetted, who have the knowledge to move quickly through the confirmation process,” Bruen told USA Today. By doing this, President Biden also has a rare opportunity to do what makes sense on both policy and political grounds, by putting an end to the spoils system of ambassador appointments. With the memories of Donald Trump’s cronyism still fresh on the world’s mind, it will not suffice for Joe Biden to return to the status quo. If he is serious about his foreign policy agenda, he must throw his weight behind his words and put professionalism over patronage.