.
S

hortly after being sworn in, President Biden gave a speech on the United States’ place in the world where he said, “America is back.  America is back.  Diplomacy is back at the center of our foreign policy.” Over a year into the Biden presidency, many U.S. embassies or offices of the United States in international organizations remain without ambassadors. As of January 20, 2022, the first anniversary of the Biden Administration, the American Foreign Service Association reported that 68 out of 190 ambassadorships remained vacant— and this comes after a flurry of senate confirmations in December 2021. If the Biden Administration is serious about working to restore U.S. leadership and cooperation on the global stage, it needs to fill these positions— but doing so is going to require a concerted effort.

While it is possible for the U.S. to conduct foreign policy without the use of ambassadors, doing so hampers the ability of the U.S. to promote its interests. Although the embassies are still in place and U.S. diplomats continue their work, the presence of an ambassador serves several critical objectives. First, the position of ambassador is as the official representative of the United States to a foreign country. While the embassy may be able to continue working without its ambassador, the prestige associated with having an ambassador in attendance is missing and the ranks of foreign officials that are willing to take meetings may be diminished. Secondly, the lack of an ambassador in a country may be viewed as a sign by other countries that the U.S. does not take them seriously. While it may not be true that the Biden Administration is not as concerned about countries or regions with fewer ambassadors, the perception of these vacancies can limit U.S. diplomatic efforts. Finally, given that ambassadors serve as the face of U.S. foreign policy, leaving these vacancies unfilled makes it all the more difficult for the United States to lead on the global stage. With over one-third of U.S. ambassadorships empty, Biden’s push to restore U.S. leadership in addressing global challenges is significantly more difficult. 

Not only does the United States have many ambassadorial vacancies, but several of the vacancies are with important U.S. allies or in regions where ongoing challenges demand more attention. In the first case, these include traditional allies like the United Kingdom as well as countries with large U.S. troop presences such as South Korea. While these countries have long and tight-knit relationships with the U.S., Biden needs to fill these vacancies to underscore the importance of these traditionally tight relationships and prove that the U.S. is truly “back.” 


Source: American Foreign Service Association. 2022. Tracker: Current U.S. Ambassadors. Last Accessed January 22, 2022.

Note: Some countries share a U.S. ambassador. In these cases, the ambassadorship is still only counted once. In cases where there is a U.S. embassy, but they do not currently exchange ambassadors, the spots were marked as vacant- no nominee.

On the other hand, there are countries across the globe where crises are ongoing, but the U.S. does not have an ambassador in place. While these include Syria and Eritrea with the U.S. does not exchange ambassadors, there are others where the presence of an ambassador would highlight that the U.S. takes ongoing challenges seriously and is committed to addressing them. These include vacancies in countries like Ukraine and Haiti. If the U.S. is going to show leadership in addressing these pressing challenges in these countries, having an ambassador on the ground is essential. Hosting summits intended to address these challenges or releasing presidential statements condemning bad actors without the ground support to tackle these challenges make U.S. leadership sound hollow and insincere. 

A similar trend is evident among U.S. ambassadors assigned to international organizations, where one-third of ambassadorial positions remain vacant. While the unfilled seats include UNESCO— which the United States withdrew from in 2018— the remaining seats include critical ambassadorships in the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Organization of American States, and the UN Human Rights Commission. Not having ambassadors in these positions limits the ability of the United States to influence or lead on critical issues. 

Source: American Foreign Service Association. 2022. Tracker: Current U.S. Ambassadors. Last Accessed January 22, 2022.

One issue is of course that the Trump administration gutted the U.S. State department and relished the use of “acting” cabinet members by refusing to nominate candidates. Turnover from regularly firing (or losing) senate confirmed appointees during Trump’s presidency also had its impact. Yet while this might explain some of the vacancies and the apathy towards filling them, it does not fully explain why so many ambassadorships remain empty. 

One of the challenges facing the Biden Administration in filling these positions has been the sluggish process of the Senate in confirming nominees—not just ambassadors, but across Biden’s nominees. While this is not a new problem, the Senate needs to speed this process for the good of the nation. The current sparsity of ambassadors limits U.S. leadership on the world stage and harms the national interest. However, we cannot place all the blame on the Senate. As Senator Jim Risch (R-ID) recently noted, Biden has been slow to put forward nominees for many of these positions. In fact, the Biden Administration has yet to put forward nominees for 45 of the missing ambassadorships.

While there is plenty of blame to go around for the number of vacant U.S. ambassadorships, all parties need to come together for the good of the country. If the U.S. is to play a role in shaping global politics in the 21st century, it needs to have a team on the field. Playing politics with ambassadorial confirmations or neglecting foreign policy due to other pressing national challenges will hinder the United States’ ability to lead into the future. If “America is back” and putting “diplomacy… at the center of our foreign policy” than U.S. leadership needs to prove it by nominating and confirming ambassadors so that the team is in place to address global challenges and opportunities.

About
Adam Ratzlaff
:
Adam Ratzlaff is special series editor and a specialist in Latin American foreign and public affairs.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

a global affairs media network

www.diplomaticourier.com

Vacancy! Missing Ambassadors and U.S. Leadership

U.S. Embassy, Nine Elms Lane, Vauxhall.

Photo by James Kenny via Unsplash.

February 3, 2022

With so many vacant ambassadorships, the U.S. is at danger of vacating its leadership role globally. While there is plenty of blame to go around, these positions must be filled if the Biden Administration is serious about its claim that the US is "back," writes Diplomatic Courier's Adam Ratzlaff.

S

hortly after being sworn in, President Biden gave a speech on the United States’ place in the world where he said, “America is back.  America is back.  Diplomacy is back at the center of our foreign policy.” Over a year into the Biden presidency, many U.S. embassies or offices of the United States in international organizations remain without ambassadors. As of January 20, 2022, the first anniversary of the Biden Administration, the American Foreign Service Association reported that 68 out of 190 ambassadorships remained vacant— and this comes after a flurry of senate confirmations in December 2021. If the Biden Administration is serious about working to restore U.S. leadership and cooperation on the global stage, it needs to fill these positions— but doing so is going to require a concerted effort.

While it is possible for the U.S. to conduct foreign policy without the use of ambassadors, doing so hampers the ability of the U.S. to promote its interests. Although the embassies are still in place and U.S. diplomats continue their work, the presence of an ambassador serves several critical objectives. First, the position of ambassador is as the official representative of the United States to a foreign country. While the embassy may be able to continue working without its ambassador, the prestige associated with having an ambassador in attendance is missing and the ranks of foreign officials that are willing to take meetings may be diminished. Secondly, the lack of an ambassador in a country may be viewed as a sign by other countries that the U.S. does not take them seriously. While it may not be true that the Biden Administration is not as concerned about countries or regions with fewer ambassadors, the perception of these vacancies can limit U.S. diplomatic efforts. Finally, given that ambassadors serve as the face of U.S. foreign policy, leaving these vacancies unfilled makes it all the more difficult for the United States to lead on the global stage. With over one-third of U.S. ambassadorships empty, Biden’s push to restore U.S. leadership in addressing global challenges is significantly more difficult. 

Not only does the United States have many ambassadorial vacancies, but several of the vacancies are with important U.S. allies or in regions where ongoing challenges demand more attention. In the first case, these include traditional allies like the United Kingdom as well as countries with large U.S. troop presences such as South Korea. While these countries have long and tight-knit relationships with the U.S., Biden needs to fill these vacancies to underscore the importance of these traditionally tight relationships and prove that the U.S. is truly “back.” 


Source: American Foreign Service Association. 2022. Tracker: Current U.S. Ambassadors. Last Accessed January 22, 2022.

Note: Some countries share a U.S. ambassador. In these cases, the ambassadorship is still only counted once. In cases where there is a U.S. embassy, but they do not currently exchange ambassadors, the spots were marked as vacant- no nominee.

On the other hand, there are countries across the globe where crises are ongoing, but the U.S. does not have an ambassador in place. While these include Syria and Eritrea with the U.S. does not exchange ambassadors, there are others where the presence of an ambassador would highlight that the U.S. takes ongoing challenges seriously and is committed to addressing them. These include vacancies in countries like Ukraine and Haiti. If the U.S. is going to show leadership in addressing these pressing challenges in these countries, having an ambassador on the ground is essential. Hosting summits intended to address these challenges or releasing presidential statements condemning bad actors without the ground support to tackle these challenges make U.S. leadership sound hollow and insincere. 

A similar trend is evident among U.S. ambassadors assigned to international organizations, where one-third of ambassadorial positions remain vacant. While the unfilled seats include UNESCO— which the United States withdrew from in 2018— the remaining seats include critical ambassadorships in the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Organization of American States, and the UN Human Rights Commission. Not having ambassadors in these positions limits the ability of the United States to influence or lead on critical issues. 

Source: American Foreign Service Association. 2022. Tracker: Current U.S. Ambassadors. Last Accessed January 22, 2022.

One issue is of course that the Trump administration gutted the U.S. State department and relished the use of “acting” cabinet members by refusing to nominate candidates. Turnover from regularly firing (or losing) senate confirmed appointees during Trump’s presidency also had its impact. Yet while this might explain some of the vacancies and the apathy towards filling them, it does not fully explain why so many ambassadorships remain empty. 

One of the challenges facing the Biden Administration in filling these positions has been the sluggish process of the Senate in confirming nominees—not just ambassadors, but across Biden’s nominees. While this is not a new problem, the Senate needs to speed this process for the good of the nation. The current sparsity of ambassadors limits U.S. leadership on the world stage and harms the national interest. However, we cannot place all the blame on the Senate. As Senator Jim Risch (R-ID) recently noted, Biden has been slow to put forward nominees for many of these positions. In fact, the Biden Administration has yet to put forward nominees for 45 of the missing ambassadorships.

While there is plenty of blame to go around for the number of vacant U.S. ambassadorships, all parties need to come together for the good of the country. If the U.S. is to play a role in shaping global politics in the 21st century, it needs to have a team on the field. Playing politics with ambassadorial confirmations or neglecting foreign policy due to other pressing national challenges will hinder the United States’ ability to lead into the future. If “America is back” and putting “diplomacy… at the center of our foreign policy” than U.S. leadership needs to prove it by nominating and confirming ambassadors so that the team is in place to address global challenges and opportunities.

About
Adam Ratzlaff
:
Adam Ratzlaff is special series editor and a specialist in Latin American foreign and public affairs.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.