Last week The Washington Post reported that an unusually large number of ambassador appointments are being held up by the U.S. Senate, threatening both American interests abroad and a variety of humanitarian interests around the world. This backlog is unacceptable, and the Senate needs to act immediately to ensure the United States embassies are fully staffed.
First, a quick recap: as of last week, 33 nominations to ambassadorships around the world have not been voted on by the U.S. Senate, along with several other key foreign service posts. These include ambassadors to Canada, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Kuwait, Argentina, Cameroon, Switzerland, Bosnia, and New Zealand, among many others. They range from the U.S.’s most important allies to key players in crises in the Middle East and Africa to strategic partners in Europe, Latin America, and the Pacific. Half the ambassadorial nominations have been waiting for over six months, apparently held up by the use of the “nuclear option” to end the use of the filibuster on most presidential appointments. It seems a new, less formal filibuster has developed.
Why does this matter? After all, recent hearings have shown some nominees to be rather ill-prepared for their postings; many ambassadors traditionally have been celebrities or wealthy political donors, like the recently departed Shirley Temple Black. Do they make that big a difference?
Ambassadors are decision-makers and run the daily lives of embassy staff. They play an important role in relationships with foreign governments, helping to coordinate treaties and align policy goals. When key allies like Canada, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait have no ambassador, how can we expect those allies to take our diplomatic entreaties seriously?
But it gets worse. Cameroon, for instance, is a key destination for refugees fleeing Central African Republic. Without an ambassador making decisions, guiding policy, and explaining that the lives of these refugees matter, it’s more difficult for the U.S. to ensure that the refugees are treated responsibly. Saudi Arabia is a key player in the Syrian crisis; without an ambassador in Riyadh, it is harder to make sure they fund rebels responsibly, help refugees, and stay out of conflicts with Iran. Most importantly, perhaps, diplomacy is about building coalitions and working with governments to get help on various international policy matters, such as war and peace, international trade, and many more. Ambassadors at each posting communicate with those governments to verify that each of these goals can be met.
And this is just the U.S. government side of the coin. Each foreign government expects to have a designated person to whom it can communicate its priorities. Each American abroad wants assurance she has someone who can protect her interests in that state. Businesses and NGOs must be able to coordinate their activities with an embassy that has a chief administrative officer.
Instead, the U.S. Senate dawdles, playing blame games about filibusters and nuclear options.
Diplomacy is the key principle to accomplishing goals in international relations. Sometimes this is accomplished using a Secretary of State or a Deputy Secretary of State, and occasionally Presidents contact Presidents to talk about the most serious issues.
Relationships with our allies abroad are maintained through our vast network of embassies and ambassadors. Diplomacy is preserved through the actual human beings on the ground doing the daily work of state dinners, one-on-one conversations, and just showing that the United States cares enough about these countries to have a senior diplomat in the country every day.
The U.S. Senate needs to start confirming these ambassadors immediately. Both the interests of the United States and the goals of the broader global community demand it.