President Joe Biden’s foreign-policy slogan is “America’s Back,” but he’s fallen behind even predecessor Donald Trump’s record-slow pace in nominating the envoys whose job it is to take that message to the world.
Ambassador posts in key countries including China, India, Afghanistan, Mexico, and Iraq are all vacant — and of those, only Mexico has a formal nominee awaiting Senate confirmation. In Biden’s first trip abroad last month, there was no ambassador to greet him on the airport tarmac in his three stops: the U.K., Belgium, and Switzerland. Nor does he have ambassadors to the other members of the Group of Seven, the world’s biggest economies.
For all his promises to re-engage with the rest of the world, Biden’s message has been undercut by a question that’s on the mind of foreign officials, career diplomats looking for a promotion, and many others: If America’s back, as Biden insists, why is it taking so long for him to announce nominees for all those jobs?
“It’s too slow,” said Eric Rubin, president of the American Foreign Service Association, the diplomatic corps’ union. “It’s true that every administration has challenges, but this is the administration that comes after Trump, and there’s really an urgency in terms of undoing damage that was done.”
Measured by ambassadors who have been nominated to individual countries, not institutions such as NATO or United Nations bodies, Biden trails Trump at this point in his presidency, according to the Partnership for Public Service, which tracks such appointments. As of June 30 in their administrations, former President Barack Obama had nominated 40 ambassadors, Bill Clinton 26, and Trump 19. Biden has nominated just 14.
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Biden’s team argues that Trump left him in an impossible position, for many reasons: Trump’s refusal to concede the election and the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol slowed the transition, as did turmoil from the coronavirus response. He has put more emphasis on diversity than speed — leading all presidents in the number of female nominees of color as of his first 100 days, for example.
The White House and State Department declined to comment. But officials familiar with the administration’s thinking say that in this era of hyper-partisanship in Washington, Biden wants to make sure his nominees face no uncomfortable surprises in their nomination hearings.
In addition, the clearance and ethics reviews for potential nominees are taking much longer than they have in the past, a person familiar with the process said. That’s partly because the department’s diplomatic security division has been under-resourced and also because the Biden administration is conducting deeper ethics reviews than the Trump team did, according to the person.
Some experts say there’s still time for Biden to catch up.
“The most important thing is to get it right,” said Stuart Holliday, a former ambassador and assistant director in the Office of Presidential Personnel under George W. Bush. “To evaluate by Labor Day would be the true litmus test of whether this is an anomaly or a true strategic process.”
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According to one person familiar with the matter, Biden had hoped to unveil a big slate of nominees early in his term as he looked to fill the ambassadorships that are now empty, roughly half of the 189 positions worldwide. But the required background checks and ethics filings has taken longer than anticipated, so the administration has been forced to release names piecemeal.
Along with nominees already put forward, Biden confidants have circulated the names of people likely to get ambassadorial jobs as vetting proceeds. Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO Nicholas Burns is seen as a lock for Beijing, while former Obama Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel may get Tokyo and Comcast Corp. senior adviser David Cohen, a Biden campaign fundraiser, may become envoy to Canada. On Wednesday, the German newspaper Der Speigel said University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann would be nominated to be the first female ambassador to Berlin.
The administration has also faced a more truculent Senate, especially in the form of Texas Republican Ted Cruz, who has vowed to place a hold on every State Department nominee that comes before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee over various policy demands.
Not that the confirmation process is typically fast and smooth. “It takes about as long to get an ambassadorship as it does to have a baby — nine months,” said Barbara Bodine, a former U.S. envoy to Yemen who is now director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University.
Even that’s now quaint. With Congress out of session until mid-July and then scheduled to be off most of August — and with Cruz keeping up his holds — Biden might not have many of his ambassadors on the job until more than a year into his first term.
Embassies usually function just fine in the absence of ambassadors, with day-to-day duties falling to the deputy chief of mission or a temporary ambassador, known as a charge d’affaires. But Senate-confirmed envoys have more authority to deliver the U.S. message or meet with senior leaders, and their presence demonstrates commitment to relationships.
Recognizing how formidable a fight it’s become to put ambassadors into jobs, Biden’s transition team instead focused on filling the jobs he could on day one. That meant that hundreds of people who didn’t require Senate confirmation were slotted into mid-level jobs at the State Department and other agencies.
Biden also has tried to circumvent the system. He’s put in a longtime diplomat, Atul Keshap, as charge d’affairs in New Delhi, and plans to give Philip Reeker, acting assistant secretary of state for Europe, the same role in London, according to a person familiar with the matter.
But the slow pace has caused many observers to argue that the U.S. should rethink the way ambassadors get their jobs, with its reliance on approval by a legislature with could be controlled or hijacked by the opposition.
“The slowness of this process, the amount it takes on both sides, to me really speaks to the need to rethink the number of positions that have to go through this nomination and confirmation craziness,” said Loren DeJonge Schulman, vice president for research at the Partnership for Public Service.
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