Can Joe Biden’s relentless diplomacy work without diplomats?

1/12/2022 6:06:00 AM

More than one-third of America’s ambassadors are missing from the action

It is hard to assess how much damage is being done by America’s diplomatic vacancies

More than one-third of America’s ambassadors are missing from the action

Ukraine will intensify this week, when senior American and Russian officials meet: first bilaterally, then collectively with NATO and at the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.and many more injured in a drone strike on Friday on a camp in north-western Tigray for people displaced by Ethiopia’s brutal 14-month conflict.(Image: GETTY ) The US sent 20 ships carrying LNG to Europe (Image: Eric Kayne/Bloomberg via Getty Images) The gas crisis has intensified in recent weeks as the Yamal Europe pipeline, which sends gas into Germany from Russia, has been in reverse for three weeks, while other pipelines have recorded below-average flows.President Joe Biden will push the Senate to eliminate the filibuster in order to pass voting rights legislation in a speech in Atlanta.

For all his belief in the power of “relentless diplomacy”, however, President Joe Biden’s team is worryingly short of senior diplomats.He still has no ambassadors in important European capitals such as Berlin, London and Rome.Biden expressed concern that “ongoing hostilities, including recent airstrikes, continue to cause civilian casualties and suffering”, according to a White House statement.Strikingly, nearly a year into his presidency, there is no envoy in Ukraine—and has not been since 2019, when Donald Trump removed Marie Yovanovitch amid a scandal that led to his first impeachment (he was accused of illegally exerting pressure on Ukraine to find dirt on Mr Biden and his son, Hunter).However, Mr Putin’s plan to use Russian gas to further his agenda may be foiled after the news of US tankers arriving halved gas prices in the EU.The dysfunction that hampers America’s dealings with the world comes just when Mr Biden wants to tighten alliances to counterbalance rivals.An Ethiopian government spokesperson said on Tuesday she had no information on the alleged strikes.Beyond Europe, trouble is brewing in the Middle East as nuclear talks with Iran falter.Bided needs all 50 Democratic senators to support changing Senate rules.

Yet America has no ambassadors to any of its major Gulf allies: Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.Their withdrawal followed a government offensive that led to the recapture of a string of strategic towns, and had raised hopes of a possible opening towards a ceasefire.The Nord Stream 2 is another Russian pipeline currently in the works and has Germany and the Kremlin locked in negotiations.In Asia, where the contest with China is America’s biggest geopolitical concern, there are no envoys in India, the Philippines and Thailand, or to the Association of South-East Asian Nations, a regional grouping.And though it deploys tens of thousands of troops in South Korea, America does not have an ambassador there either.The fighting between forces loyal to Abiy and the TPLF and their allies has killed thousands of people and forced several million from their homes since it erupted in November 2020.In Washington the State Department has no assistant secretaries for the Near East, for international security and non-proliferation, or for arms control.Nor is there a counter-terrorism co-ordinator or a legal adviser.The World Health Organization chief, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, himself a Tigrayan, said on Twitter he was “deeply concerned about reports of another drone strike in Tigray, resulting in injuries and death of too many civilians”.

The post of inspector-general, an important internal watchdog, has been vacant since Mr Trump fired Steve Linick in 2020.“This is a huge problem,” Antony Blinken, America’s secretary of state, warned on December 14th.The aid workers who spoke to AFP also said the attack on the displaced persons camp in Dedebit in northwestern Tigray had killed 59 people, with one reporting 138 wounded.“On virtually every challenge we face, including dealing with Russia, with China, with non-state actors, we’re hampered by the fact that we don’t have our full national-security and foreign-policy team on the field.” More than 30 nominees were confirmed in an end-of-year spurt last month, among them big hitters such as Nicholas Burns as ambassador to China, Rahm Emanuel to Japan and Mark Gitenstein to the European Union.Topics.Even so, Mr Biden still has 68 empty ambassadorial positions out of a total 190, according to the American Foreign Service Association, the diplomats’ union.

All presidents in recent decades have struggled to fill their administrations.They bring in their train some 4,000 political appointees, of whom about 1,200 must be confirmed by the Senate.On nominations overall, Mr Biden’s is roughly keeping up with predecessors such as George W.Bush and Barack Obama, according to data from the Partnership for Public Service (PPS), a non-profit group.Yet that is a slothful pace, with only about 450 people named to the 800 most important jobs.

In terms of confirming officials in their jobs, though, he is scarcely doing better than the chaotic Mr Trump.Having the largest number of posts requiring Senate confirmation, the State Department suffers disproportionately.Mr Biden has yet to submit names for about one-quarter of ambassadorial positions.The bigger problem is obstructionism by Republican senators.Between them Josh Hawley of Missouri, Marco Rubio of Florida and, above all, Ted Cruz of Texas have delayed or blocked dozens of nominations, whether to posture or to extract concessions on various foreign-policy demands.

Democrats can force confirmations by a full vote in the Senate, but that takes up scarce floor time when they have domestic priorities, including Mr Biden’s “Build Back Better” spending bill.And they have confirmed about 40 judges—the highest number since the time of Ronald Reagan.It is hard to assess how much damage is being done by the diplomatic vacancies.Much business is conducted directly between foreign ministers or leaders.Other officials can take up the work.

But however professional, a chargé d’affaires running an embassy often lacks the clout that comes with being the president’s chosen ambassador, endorsed by the Senate.It is possible that some foul-ups, such as the failure to tell France last summer about the US-British deal to provide nuclear-powered submarines to Australia, pushing out a French contractor, was down to poor co-ordination resulting from the absence of senior appointees.A bipartisan investigation into the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001 found that delays in appointing key personnel to national-security positions had contributed to America’s failure to prevent them.At the time just over half of the most important national-security personnel were in place.Two decades on, the PPS reckons, Mr Biden had about a third of the equivalent staff in their jobs.

In many countries, the prolonged diplomatic vacancies are an irritant, or even a slight.They feed the perception of America’s withdrawal, if not decline.Mr Biden’s failure even to name an envoy to Ukraine reinforces its worry of being kept at arm’s length.Perhaps Vladimir Putin has read matters similarly.The Biden team wants to signal that he has not forsaken Ukraine, or the security of Europe.

Without ambassadors in place, though, his reassurance is harder to convey—and may sound less convincing..

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