Joe Biden will on Monday hold a high-stakes virtual summit with the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, his latest initiative to restore US authority on the world stage. But the president’s efforts are being hampered by a logjam in Washington that threatens to cripple American diplomacy.
Biden had made 78 ambassadorial nominations as of 5 November, according to the White House, but just seven of them – or 9% – had been confirmed by the Senate. Former presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump had 77% and 70% of their ambassadorial nominees confirmed respectively at this stage.
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The inertia has left posts in vital world capitals unfilled – Biden is yet to even nominate an ambassador to the UK – and America confronting complex foreign policy crises with one arm tied behind its back.
“We’re 10 months into the Biden administration and only a fraction of its diplomatic players are in place to engage the world,” said Philip Crowley, former US assistant secretary of state and author of Red Line: American Foreign Policy in a Time of Fractured Politics and Failing States.
“The president has said repeatedly that ‘America is back’. The lack of ambassadors in scores of countries undercuts that message. Sure, the top priorities essentially are still being addressed, but lots of valuable initiatives get placed on the back burner waiting for ambassadors to arrive. Country by country, it is just hard to build a lot of momentum in the relationship with the country team operating at less than full capacity.”
The problem was starkly illustrated during a recent row over France’s loss of a submarine contract with Australia, which opted instead for nuclear-powered submarines to be developed with the US and UK. There was no US ambassador in Paris for the French president, Emmanuel Macron, to deal with; like many world leaders, he does not engage with the chargé d’affaires or other substitutes.
The depleted diplomatic corps is a symptom of Washington’s polarized politics and evenly divided Senate. Two rightwing Republicans, Ted Cruz of Texas and Josh Hawley of Missouri, have been slowing down the process by objecting to the Senate moving forward via unanimous consent.
Cruz is taking a stand because he objects to a pipeline that will carry natural gas from Russia to Germany and wants the Biden administration to impose sanctions to stop it. His office told the Associated Press he was committed to using whatever leverage he has to force “mandatory sanctions”.
Hawley, for his part, has demanded that the secretary of state, Antony Blinken, and defense secretary, Lloyd Austin, resign because of the “botched Afghanistan withdrawal”. He said: “Until there is accountability, the least we can do is actually vote for nominees to leadership positions at the state department and department of defense.”
Without these holds the nominees could be confirmed through a voice vote, a process taking only minutes that can be used so long as no senators object. This is how more than 90% of nominees were confirmed at similar stages of the George W Bush and Obama presidencies.
But Cruz and Hawley are insisting on a more convoluted and time-consuming process in a Senate that already has an overwhelming to-do list. Democrats regard such tactics as playing politics with the national interest.
Jamie Raskin, a congressman from Maryland, said: “It’s a terrible impediment to our resuming democratic partnership and leadership in the world.
“The rightwing plan has been to dismantle and disable democratic governance and leadership. They want to make the government dysfunctional so they can take it over and use it for their own purposes. We’re just trying to defend the idea of the reality of democracy at this point.”
There was finally some progress last month when the Senate confirmed, via voice vote, former senator Jeff Flake as ambassador to Turkey, Cindy McCain, wife of the late senator John McCain, as ambassador to the UN Agencies for Food and Agriculture, former senator Tom Udall as ambassador to New Zealand and Victoria Reggie Kennedy, widow of ex-senator Ted Kennedy, as ambassador to Austria.
Notably all four had links to the Senate, a claim that not every nominee will be able to make. The snail’s pace of confirmations has caused alarm at the American Foreign Service Association, which is the both the union and professional association of the US foreign service with 17,000 members in six agencies and departments.
Its president, Eric Rubin, said: “No other country doesn’t send ambassadors on a regular, timely basis, and no other country in history, including ours, has ever had this many vacant jobs for this long.”
Rubin added: “The world is changing. It is by no means in a stable state and we have to work out and defend our role in this new world. The time has passed when the world is just going to tolerate our peculiarities. ‘The US doesn’t fill half its ambassadorships for a year? Oh, well, that’s the US.’”