Whither U.S. Ambassadors?
One of the many #notnormal aspects of the Trump presidency is a record number of ambassador vacancies. Here’s what that means for the rest of us.
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Earlier this year I spent six weeks in the UK working and visiting family, and shushing my children more than usual in an attempt to avoid anti-American sentiment. I realize this sounds like the world’s most bougie problem—help! I can’t travel in Europe without feeling ashamed!—but it’s also indicative of a global shift in the perception of the United States that’s troubling not just for those who like to travel but for those whose livelihood depends in part on a global marketplace. For the first time in more than 20 years I felt two things about being an American abroad: afraid and ashamed. I wasn’t shushing my children for fear of being the “ugly Americans.” I was worried about attracting anger and, potentially, violence.
And even amongst friends and family, there was the shame. I spent long stretches of time abroad during the Bush administration and fielded many comments during those years about “American imperialism” and the Iraq war. It was annoying, but I never stuck a Canadian flag on anything or started peppering sentences with “eh?” like a lot of my expat American friends. I was proud to represent my America, one where the opposition to the Iraq war was loud and proud, where political debate could be lively but still civil, where massive change and true freedom always seemed possible. America was still young, I explained to people, and we’d figure things out.
This is different. People are shocked, openly mocking or contemptuous toward the U.S., and any lingering respect for the country is quickly dwindling. And that’s in a country that’s a long-time ally and is home to plenty of its own version of team Trump. The message is clear: This iteration of America wants to be left alone and the rest of the world is only too happy to comply.
The American government’s desire for isolation is glaringly obvious in its immigration policies and its America First propaganda, but there’s a subtle and, in some ways, more disturbing example to be found in its dramatic withdrawal from diplomacy.
There are currently 56 U.S. ambassador positions vacant throughout the world. In some countries, including Afghanistan and Russia, ambassadors have been nominated but not yet confirmed. Others haven’t gotten that far yet. Of particular note right now is the fact that the ambassadorship in South Korea is vacant as Trump and Kin Jong Un trade schoolboy taunts backed by ballistic missiles. At a minimum, the right ambassador on the ground in Seoul might make South Koreans less worried about the American president. Currently, the general public there sees Trump as the larger threat to their safety.
Beyond any immediate diplomatic emergencies, it’s the largest number of ambassador vacancies we’ve had as a country, coupled with the highest number of vacancies at the State Department, which is traditionally staffed with career foreign service staff with a much better understanding of global politics than a reality TV star or the CEO of an oil company under investigation for fraud. Other than Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, only one of the 32 top State Department leadership positions has been filled, and only 5 nominations have been made for the other vacancies.
In the interim, acting career civil servants have filled some of these positions. But not all. There are 40 positions marked vacant on the State Department’s webpage listing the Assistant Secretaries and other senior officials.
To be fair, it’s not the first time many of these positions have been vacant. Last year, pre-election, 30 ambassador positions remained vacant. In its first several months, the Trump Administration more than doubled that number and although nominations have come more quickly this summer we still have nearly twice the vacancies we’ve ever had. Although some have blamed Democrat obstructionism for the vacancies, the data doesn’t back up that claim. Of 36 nominations, 19 have been confirmed. And 13 were just nominated in the past four weeks.
“[Reince] Preibus kept saying it was the Dems’ fault but the Administration just hadn’t nominated anyone,” says Zaid Zaid, former Special Assistant to the President and Associate White House Counsel, and a long-time foreign services officer. “They [the Trump Administration] seem to have a loyalty test that a lot of people probably aren’t able to meet. They can’t nominate anyone who was ever critical of Trump during the campaign. That didn’t really happen back with Hillary/Obama. There were plenty of Hillary people nominated by Obama.”
In general, the lack of ambassadors matters little to American travelers. All of the standard consular services are running as usual, and U.S. embassies without an ambassador in place are still staffed by career foreign service professionals through the State Department. The only time it really matters to have an ambassador, according to Zaid, is if something goes terribly wrong–there’s a terrorist incident, for example, or you are wrongfully imprisoned in a country. “In a situation like imprisonment, without an ambassador you don’t have the same kind of heft behind a call to release someone,” he says.
“Getting an ambassador in place of course always helps,” a press officer at the State Department told me. “I know we’ve had issues before on adoptions in Russia, for example, that maybe required attention at a high level to resolve.”
When terrorists bombed the subway in London in March, the U.K. ambassadorship was vacant. The position was also vacant as the Brexit process began, which some felt was an even bigger issue given the large role the U.S. ambassador to the UK has traditionally played in the economic relationship between the two countries.
Andrea Fernandez, an American businesswoman living in London, said she was shocked to learn that the U.K. doesn’t have a U.S. ambassador as Brexit negotiations get underway. “The U.S. ambassador here was very involved with the TPP, and he hosted loads of functions that are important for expats as well as US-UK business ties,” she says.
It can also impact diplomatic relationships more broadly, and serves to underscore the global impression that America is once again turning inward and becoming isolationist under Trump. “Most other countries are more hierarchical and protocol-conscious than the U.S., so it means a lot in these places if we don’t have a U.S. ambassador there,” Zaid says. “If it’s taking a long time then that can affect relations because they see it as a slight that we don’t have a representative of the President in their country. That can have an impact if something is going on and you’re trying to negotiate.”
Something like, say, the threat of nuclear war at the hands of a dictator who has never lived outside of a bubble that continually reinforces his warped view of the world (I’ll leave it to you to guess whether I’m talking about Trump or Kim Jong Un). Or election hacking. Or the restructuring of the European economy. The mismanagement of any one of these issues could spell disaster for the American public. And while it may seem unimportant that travelers both to and from the U.S. feel less comfortable, revoking our global citizenship has not traditionally gone well for America either.
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