As President Joe Biden prepares to travel to Rome and Glasgow for his first G20 leader’s summit and a crucial climate conference he’s in the challenging position of only having a handful of ambassadors confirmed nine months into his administration.
Lawmakers and diplomats say the lack of confirmed ambassadors will handicap Biden in his ability to perform on the world stage because it could leave him less prepared and informed about the dynamics of allies and adversaries.
Ken Salazar, the top US diplomat in Mexico who has been on the job for less than two months is his only pick in place abroad. He does have a UN ambassador in New York and four more nominees were confirmed on Tuesday, but it will be weeks before they take up their roles.
About 60 nominees are awaiting confirmation, primarily because Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Josh Hawley of Missouri have put a hold on the confirmation of most of Biden’s picks because they object to certain administration policies, rather than issues related to the diplomats’ qualifications.
The blockage has the administration concerned, diplomats overburdened and some Democratic lawmakers furious.
On Wednesday, Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut raised the issue when Wyoming Republican Sen. John Barrasso questioned whether the administration is effectively deploying resources to Afghanistan.
“Spare me the righteous indignation about whether or not this administration is conducting foreign policy according to your priorities,” Murphy railed, adding that Republicans were simultaneously “denying the personnel necessary to protect this nation. Never before has a minority gone to this length to stop a President’s diplomatic team from being put in place.”
Another factor is the fact that nine months in, the administration is yet to name a nominee for dozens of countries.
There are concerns that if this goes on much longer, it will undermine central pillars of Biden’s foreign policy agenda: restoring global alliances to tackle crucial challenges, including climate change and China’s increasing assertiveness, and rebuilding the State Department.
The Biden administration, with less than 10% of their nominees in place, is still far behind recent predecessors who had upwards of 50-75% of their nominees on the job at this point in their presidencies.
Clout is needed
US embassies around the world are still functioning but without the President’s picks in place, current and former diplomats say Biden is less likely to make progress on a plethora of issues – such as tackling the China challenge with coordinated action alongside allies, or developing a plan for how to deal with Iran – during his meetings in Rome.
While there are career diplomats standing in as acting ambassadors, those officials are often not taken as seriously, or afforded as much access by the host country as the officials nominated by the President. Career diplomats are seen as less likely to push back on the administration or be heard, so they are sometimes seen as less effective than the chosen political ambassadors, former US ambassadors told CNN.
Ambassadors with the clout of being confirmed as the President’s choice would also do key prep-work with foreign governments before major meetings like the G20.
“The place where the ambassadors would be most important is helping build the strategy to influence the foreign governments before the meeting,” said Ronald Neumann, a former US ambassador to Afghanistan and Algeria. “Having ambassadors there to engage, and then having them there to help shape our approach is a key function.”
Some believe had an ambassador been in place a recent diplomatic crisis, the clunky rollout of the US-led security pact with Australia and the UK which angered the French, may have been less severe.
“I think a confirmed ambassador in Paris probably would have insisted that the administration not notify the French more than six hours before we go public with a deal of this magnitude,” said one ambassador nominee. “The administration spent weeks trying to clean up the mess.”
Many also believe that the lack of confirmed ambassadors puts a black mark on America’s reputation abroad.
“At the end of the day, the rest of the world neither understands nor appreciates what can only be seen as a sign of disrespect and lack of commitment,” said Eric Rubin, the president of the American Foreign Service Association. He called on the Senate “consider all pending nominations promptly” and on the Biden administration “to quickly nominate candidates.
There are also currently more than 10 senior officials at the State Department – including Barbara Leaf, the nominee to be the top US diplomat for the Middle East – awaiting confirmation.
How to break the logjam
The ongoing challenge is beginning to leave some of the nominees quietly frustrated with the Biden administration because they do not think there has been an effective strategy to speed up the process, according to multiple nominees.
While the White House is in touch with Congress, some nominees think they should be doing more.
For those who have been voted out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, many have run into the block put in place by Cruz and Hawley. Cruz is making demands over the Biden administration’s Nord Stream 2 policy and Hawley is demanding Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s resignations due to the chaotic Afghanistan withdrawal.
Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement to CNN, that “the personnel crisis created by widespread vacancies is completely manufactured by Senate Republicans.”
“The failure to fill these key positions not only marks a stark departure from traditional Senate norms – it also puts US national security in danger by straining our ability to conduct diplomacy,” she said. “The safety of Americans at home and abroad is at stake, and Senate Republicans’ political grandstanding must stop.”
The White House has also voiced frustration, saying that the hold-up is preventing the administration from advancing America’s national security interests.
Because of the holds that Cruz and Hawley have put on the majority of the nominees the nominees can get confirmed only if Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer invokes cloture, a procedural step to break a filibuster, end debate and move to a vote that requires hours of debate.
Some nominees believe the Biden administration should be doing more to urge Schumer to keep the Senate in session for a weekend to fit in the floor time needed to push the nominees through.
Others point out that the administration may have more leverage if they work with Schumer closer to recess towards the end of the year.
But not everyone agrees that strategy should be pursued.
“That would require the entire institution to come to a screeching halt to debate non-controversial nominees. Republicans know Democrats are not in a position to spend hundreds of precious hours of Floor time on things other than infrastructure, build back better, or even life-time judicial appointments,” said a Democratic aide. “Something else has to give, that is not how the system is set up to work.”