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Biden Wants To Reengage With The World, But His Ambassadors Are Mostly Absent

President Biden hopes to keep political appointments to about 30% of his ambassador picks, according to the White House.
Alex Wong
Getty Images
President Biden hopes to keep political appointments to about 30% of his ambassador picks, according to the White House.

Updated August 12, 2021 at 10:43 AM ET

President Biden promised to put U.S. diplomacy back in the "hands of genuine professionals," but more than six months into his administration only one of his ambassadors to another country has been confirmed.

That's raising concerns about how effectively the administration is conducting foreign policy — and the message such a diplomatic vacuum sends to the global community.

"There's no other country in the world, I think, probably that has ever had 80 vacant ambassadorships at one time," said Ambassador Eric Rubin, president of the American Foreign Service Association, the union for the diplomatic corps. "And while I'm quite sure it's not intended to be a signal of disrespect or lack of commitment to engagement with other countries, it can come across that way after a point."

On Wednesday, the Senate unanimously confirmed former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar as U.S. ambassador to Mexico. Linda Thomas-Greenfield was confirmed in February as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, a position based in the United States.

In comparison, at the 200-day mark (which was Sunday for Biden) former President Barack Obama had 59 ambassadors confirmed, George W. Bush had 53 ambassadors confirmed and Donald Trump had 19, according to Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, who tracks presidential appointees for the Brookings Institution.

"The sluggish pace is simply striking, and the dearth of U.S. ambassadors that have been confirmed at this point in his administration is a historic low," said Tenpas, who is also a senior fellow at the University of Virginia's Miller Center.

"And there's no question that this has to be affecting our diplomatic relations across the globe," she added.

Why so few ambassadors are confirmed

There are a host of reasons. The administration has put forth dozens of nominations that the Senate has yet to confirm.

Tenpas points to the evenly split Senate and a hefty congressional agenda. But Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, has also used a procedural tactic to stall many State Department nominees over differences he has with Biden's policy on a Russian gas pipeline.

The White House is not happy about it.

Press secretary Jen Psaki blamed the Senate on Wednesday, though not specifically Cruz.

"We are frustrated over the slow pace of confirmations, particularly for noncontroversial nominees," she said. "A number of these nominees who are sitting and waiting are highly qualified. A number of them have a lot of Republican support. So, what is the holdup?"

She defended the president, stating that he has sent over more nominees at this point than Obama or Bush did at the equivalent time.

Wendy Sherman, Biden's deputy secretary of state, urged senators last week to break the logjam during a Foreign Relations Committee hearing. Sherman argued a recent trip she took to China could have been more fruitful if she had the expertise of their nominees on board. The U.S. is currently at odds with China over ongoing trade issues and recent cyberattacks.

"We are currently hamstrung in our ability to advance America's interests around the world without confirmed ambassadors and senior leaders," she said.

Ivo Daalder, who was the U.S. ambassador to NATO from 2009 to 2013, called it a lost opportunity for an administration that pushed an ambitious diplomatic agenda.

But he also said Biden deserves credit for picking people with experience — including among the more controversial political picks, even campaign donors.

Then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar speaks at a 2013 Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce event. Salazar has been confirmed as Biden's ambassador to Mexico.
Joe Raedle / Getty Images
Getty Images
Then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar speaks at a 2013 Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce event. Salazar has been confirmed as Biden's ambassador to Mexico.

Salazar served alongside Biden in both the Senate and the Obama administration. Tom Nides, Biden's pick for U.S. ambassador to Israel, served under the Obama administration as deputy secretary of state and was awarded the secretary of state's Distinguished Service Award.

Daalder also cited Mark Brzezinski, another Obama-era diplomat with deep family ties to Poland, who has been nominated to serve in Warsaw, and Jane Hartley, a Democratic fundraiser who is widely expected to be heading to London after serving as ambassador in Paris for Obama.

"What Biden has done is look for people who are both close to him but also have the expertise to reengage in a diplomatic effort that is sorely needed after many years of neglect," Daalder said.

That's not easy.

Biden picks bring experience, along with campaign donations

Of the roughly two dozen-plus political ambassador appointees announced, more than half are political bundlers, according to Dennis Jett, a retired ambassador and Penn State University professor who wrote the book American Ambassadors.

He describes some of these postings as a national security threat.

"If we were talking about selling the command of an aircraft carrier to a real estate developer, people would go absolutely ballistic because that would be a threat to national security," he said.

Last week, Biden announced a new round of ambassador nominations that included two top donors to his 2020 presidential campaign.

Dallas lawyer Marc Stanley, who helped organize attorneys in support of Biden's presidential campaign, was tapped as ambassador to Argentina, a popular destination for nominees. The president nominated another big fundraiser to be the next U.S. ambassador to Switzerland, LGBTQ rights activist and philanthropist Scott Miller.

Presidents on both sides of the aisle have sought to strike the right balance between promoting career officials who have dedicated their lives to certain regions of the world while saving some of the more luxurious postings for donors and political allies who helped them get elected.

According to the American Foreign Service Association, more than 43% of Trump's ambassadorial appointments were political appointees, while 30.5% were political for Obama and 31.8% for Bush.

The White House said Biden hopes to keep political appointments to about 30% of ambassador picks.

Psaki said the president supports promoting career foreign service officers, but she added the president also feels there are qualified nominees in the private sector who will make "excellent representatives" overseas.

For some former U.S. diplomats such as Brett Bruen, who was director of global engagement in the Obama administration, that's not enough.

After four years of Trump's withdrawal from the world stage, Bruen argues that the percentage of political nominees should be much lower — at the most 10%.

"We're back in the same place," Bruen said. "Unfortunately, the world has gotten a heck of a lot worse, and you don't see my former colleagues recognizing and rethinking how we approach diplomacy."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.