More than a quarter of ambassador positions are without a Senate-confirmed official, hindering American diplomacy
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More than a quarter of ambassador positions are without a Senate-confirmed official, hindering American diplomacy

Date
July 15, 2022

A year and a half into President Joe Biden’s administration, the U.S. is operating its foreign policy without Senate-confirmed appointees in more than one quarter of all top diplomatic posts.

Data from the Partnership for Public Service and The Washington Post’s Political Appointee Tracker shows that 27% of 194 ambassador positions are currently without a Senate-confirmed official. This includes ambassadorships to countries as well as to international organizations and ambassadors-at-large.

Currently, there are no Senate-confirmed U.S. ambassadors in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and United Arab Emirates at a time when high oil prices are a major U.S. concern, and as Biden visits the Middle East this week. Additionally, there is no Senate-confirmed ambassador in Niger as continued armed conflicts in and around the country threaten the stabilization of the Sahel region of Western and North Central Africa.

At a comparable time during his administration, President Donald Trump filled almost the same percentage of ambassadorships, with about 28% at that point lacking a Senate-confirmed official, according to data from the American Foreign Service Association.

The causes of these vacancies lie both with the Senate and the administration. Biden has nominated officials to fill an additional 21% of the positions, but those nominations are pending in the Senate—some for long periods of time. Both the nominations of Eric Garcetti as ambassador to India and Francisco O. Mora for the U.S. Representative to the Organization for American States were submitted to the Senate nearly a year ago and are still awaiting votes.

The Center for Presidential Transition’s recent publication on the slow nomination and confirmation process to fill top national security positions conveys the challenges faced by new  administrations. There are many reasons why such critical positions stay vacant for long periods of time, and this phenomenon extends to ambassadors.

As the top representative to foreign nations and international organizations, ambassadors exert American policy interests and protect American citizens living abroad. The Senate confirms ambassadors because the Constitution enumerates this role, and the absence of Senate-confirmed ambassadors can put the communication and evaluation of foreign interests to the U.S. government at risk.

Without a confirmed ambassador, the job falls to senior foreign service officers who have not been approved by the Senate. While these officials are usually capable of representing U.S. interests for certain periods of time, there is added weight behind communications from an ambassador endorsed by two branches of the U.S. government. Without a confirmed ambassador, senior officials and chargés d’affaires who are designated as the head representative of a U.S. mission, can face challenges in conducting U.S. foreign policy and may lack the same access to foreign officials as confirmed ambassadors. 

In addition, countries with vacant U.S. ambassadorships receive lower U.S. exports and are more likely to engage in militarized disputes against the U.S.

U.S. responses to migration trends, conflicts that threaten regional stability and U.S. economic interests also can face impediments by vacant ambassadorships in places where American influence is crucial. For example, when the Islamist terrorist organization Boko Haram abducted more than 200 school girls in Nigeria in 2014, the U.S. had no Senate-confirmed ambassadors in neighboring Niger and Cameroon, which hampered building regional cooperation

Recent events in Afghanistan and Ukraine highlight the importance of empowering ambassadors to convey U.S. policy to other nations, communicate foreign interests back to the U.S. government and provide expert assessments of facts on the ground. 

Neither Afghanistan nor Ukraine had a Senate-confirmed ambassador at the onset of recent violence in both countries.

There has not been a Senate-confirmed ambassador to Afghanistan since January 2020, with U.S. embassy in Kabul closed after the Taliban takeover in August of 2021, and American diplomats now operating thousands of miles away in Doha, Qatar.

As Russia began building up forces on the Ukrainian border last spring, the job of ambassador to NATO remained vacant from Jan. 20, 2021, to the nomination of Julianne Smith on June 15, 2021, and her Senate confirmation on Nov. 18, 2021. American leadership was hindered during that crucial period for building regional cooperation and a strong response to Russia’s aggression.  

The Senate confirmation process can work swiftly when there is consensus that filling a position is a national priority. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine earlier this year, the Biden administration nominated Bridget Brink on April 25, 2022, to be the first ambassador to Ukraine in three years, and the Senate confirmed her on May 18, 2022.

Challenges in confirming critical ambassadorships affect our country’s ability to address pressing national security concerns. The progress made by the Biden administration in nominating ambassadors has begun to bridge the gap in American leadership worldwide. However, the number of positions that remain without a Senate-confirmed ambassador weakens the country’s influence in many parts of the world.


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