Biden meets with foreign leaders as ambassadorships sit vacant

President Biden meets with leaders of the Group of Seven in England
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President Biden’s lack of ambassadors nearly five months into his term is on prominent display during his first trip overseas as he meets with leaders of the Group of Seven (G-7) nations, none of which even have an ambassador nominee.

Experts says the lack of confirmed appointees on the ground may actually hurt the future ambassadors more than it hurts Biden’s ability to have a successful trip. Ambassadors are missing out on chances to sit in on meetings and build their own relationships with their foreign counterparts over the course of a week where Biden is meeting with leaders from the G-7 and NATO — as well as Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“There are a lot of interviews and opportunities to advance our foreign policy that we won’t have,” said Brett Bruen, who served as director of global engagement during the Obama administration. “In practical terms, it’s handicapping our influence in all of these countries at a critical juncture.”

Biden met with leaders from the United Kingdom, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan during the first days of his trip to Europe. The president has yet to nominate ambassadors for any of those countries, even as some of his expected picks have been publicly reported for weeks.

In Biden’s first bilateral meeting with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the prime minister was accompanied by several foreign affairs and national security advisers, including his ambassador to the United States.

Biden was flanked by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, national security adviser Jake Sullivan and other national security officials. But there was no ambassador in the room, only Biden’s chargé d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy, Yael Lempert.

Jon Alterman, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said he’s known Lempert for 20 years and credited her expertise and background working in previous administrations.

“But she doesn’t have the standing as a personal emissary of the president that a confirmed ambassador would have,” Alterman said.

Alterman noted the foreign policy process may generally be more insular with Biden, who came to the White House with decades of experience in Washington, D.C., and a small cadre of inner circle advisers he has relied on for years, including Sullivan and Blinken.

The White House has repeatedly dodged questions about when the president might roll out his first batch of high profile ambassadorships, even as reporting has already emerged about some of the choices.

Biden is expected to name former Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel as ambassador to Japan and former State Department senior official Tom Nides as ambassador to Israel. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti is viewed as the likely pick for ambassador to India, and Biden is expected to pick career diplomat Nicholas Burns as his ambassador to China.

“It usually takes a while to vet people and to get them ready for public presentation and nomination. In a perfect world that would’ve happened around March or April,” said one former senior State Department official who served in multiple administrations. “If it extends deeper into the summer or into the fall it will start to get less typical.”

Officials suggested the vetting process and desire to find a diverse slate of ambassadors could both be contributing to the delay. One source close to the administration argued Biden has wisely prioritized nominating agency officials over diplomatic roles, which often go to political allies — who could face vocal Republican opposition as Biden seeks to highlight his domestic efforts at bipartisanship.

Others close to the administration noted Biden tends to rely on personal engagement with foreign leaders, potentially negating the effect of diplomatic vacancies.

But the pace of the process faces some criticism given the global challenges the U.S. is facing. The threat of the coronavirus pandemic is waning domestically, but getting the world vaccinated remains a challenge, and coordination with allies will be critical.

The lack of a U.S. ambassador to Israel was noticeable when Biden officials were attempting to conduct behind-the-scenes diplomacy during a days-long conflict between Israel and Hamas as the two sides traded rocket fire.

Russia, meanwhile, has taken an aggressive posture toward Ukraine, cracked down on dissidents such as Alexei Navalny and is at the center of discussions about recent ransomware and cyberattacks on the U.S. government and businesses.

And China presents a growing threat economically, and the Biden administration must decide how to proceed as focus on the origins of the coronavirus intensifies despite Beijing’s lack of cooperation with international investigations into the matter.

“I think the White House has got to move faster and they’ve got to open up the process to a lot more input. Otherwise there are going to be a lot of questions and concerns raised about who is representing us at such a dangerous and difficult time,” Bruen said.

Tags Antony Blinken Biden trip Eric Garcetti G-7 Group of Seven Jake Sullivan Joe Biden Vladimir Putin
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