Can Joe Biden’s relentless diplomacy work without diplomats?

ATHE MERICA CAMPAIGN to avert a Russian invasion of Ukraine intensified this week as U.S. and Russian officials met: first bilaterally, then collectively with NATO and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. For all its belief in the power of “relentless diplomacy,” however, President Joe Biden’s team is worryingly lacking in top diplomats. It still does not have ambassadors in major European capitals such as Berlin, London and Rome. Surprisingly, there is no envoy to Ukraine – and there hasn’t been since 2019, when Donald Trump impeached Marie Yovanovitch amid a scandal that led to her first impeachment (he was accused of illegally pressuring Ukraine to find dirt on Mr. Biden and his son, Hunter).

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The dysfunction hampering America’s relationship with the world comes just as Mr Biden wants to tighten alliances to balance his rivals. Trouble brews in the Middle East as nuclear talks with Iran break down. Yet America has no ambassadors to any of its main Gulf allies: Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. In Asia, where competition with China is greatest, there are no emissaries in India, the Philippines and Thailand. And despite deploying tens of thousands of troops to South Korea, America has no ambassador there either.

In Washington, the State Department has no assistant secretaries for the Middle East, for international security and nonproliferation, or for arms control. There is also no counter-terrorism coordinator or legal adviser. The post of inspector general, an internal watchdog, has been vacant since Mr Trump fired Steve Linick in 2020.

“It’s a huge problem,” warned Antony Blinken, US Secretary of State, on December 14. “On virtually every challenge we face, including relations with Russia, with China, with non-state actors, we are hampered by the fact that we don’t have our full national security and political team. stranger in the field.” More than 30 nominees were confirmed in a year-end push last month, including big hitters such as Nicholas Burns as Ambassador to China, Rahm Emanuel to Japan and Mark Gitenstein to Union European. Even so, Mr Biden still has 68 vacant ambassadorial posts out of a total of 190.

All presidents struggle to fill their administrations. They lead to some 4,000 political appointments, of which about 1,200 must be confirmed by the Senate. When it comes to nominations overall, Mr. Biden roughly trails predecessors such as George W. Bush and Barack Obama, according to data from the Partnership for Public Service (PPS), a non-profit group. Still, it’s a lazy pace, with only about 460 people named to the top 800 jobs. In terms of confirming officials in office, however, he does little better than the chaotic Mr. Trump.

With the largest number of positions requiring Senate confirmation, the State Department suffers disproportionately. Mr. Biden has yet to submit names for about a quarter of the ambassadors. The biggest problem is the obstructionism of 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 apply or to extract concessions on various foreign policy demands. Democrats can force confirmations with a full vote in the Senate, but that takes up little time when they have national priorities, such as nominating judges (see box).

It is difficult to assess the extent of the damage caused by the diplomatic holidays. Most business is conducted directly between ministers or heads of foreign affairs. Other civil servants can return to work. But no matter how professional, a charge d’affaires who heads an embassy often doesn’t have the clout that comes with being the president’s chosen, Senate-approved ambassador. It is possible that some waste, such as the failure to inform France last summer of the we– The British agreement to supply nuclear-powered submarines to Australia, rebuffing a French contractor, was due to poor coordination resulting from the absence of senior officials.

A bipartisan investigation into the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks found that delays in appointing key personnel to national security positions contributed to America’s failure to prevent them. At the time, just over half of the top national security personnel were in place. Two decades later, the PPS estimates, Mr. Biden had just over a third of the equivalent staff in their jobs.

In many countries, extended diplomatic holidays are an irritant, even an affront. They fuel the perception of America’s retreat, if not decline. The fact that Mr. Biden has not even named an envoy to Ukraine adds to his concern about being kept at bay. Perhaps Vladimir Putin read things the same way. Biden’s team wants to signal that he has not abandoned Ukraine, nor the security of Europe. But without ambassadors, his confidence is harder to convey and may seem less convincing.

For more coverage of Joe Biden’s presidency, visit our dedicated hub and follow us as we follow the changes in his approval rating. For exclusive insights and reading recommendations from our correspondents in America, sign up for Checks and Balance, our weekly newsletter.

This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the title “Diplomacy minus diplomats”

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