In Ukraine, the supply of special envoys seems to have exceeded the demand, made worse by an inability to follow any rules or procedures.
An ambassador assigned to a foreign country is the president and the secretary of State’s emissary to that country, and as such manages U.S. relations with that country. There are obviously exceptions to that designation.
If there is a U.S. troop commitment, the commander of those troops has a different chain of command that runs from the president to the secretary of Defense, a line of authority that does not include the ambassador. In that case, the purpose is often practical: For example, an ambassador gives permission for any official U.S. government official to be in country. It would not make sense if a military commander, prosecuting a war, needed country clearance from the ambassador for troop reinforcements.
Special envoys, or emissaries, of which it seems Ukraine has had more than its share, are a different matter. Sometimes a special envoy is named just to demonstrate that an administration has a special interest in an issue that cuts across countries and regions of the world — e.g., ridding the world of landmines. Other times, a special envoy is charged with a particular issue in a particular place, albeit an issue that engages more than one country. Thus, Kurt Volker’s role to assist in the peace process between Russia and Ukraine, by definition, went beyond Ukraine’s borders. That role would be less practicable for the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine — even in cooperation with the U.S. ambassador to Russia — to fulfill.
Special envoys, by definition, are departures from the usual norm. They are vetted for preexisting interests in the region — and importantly, Senate committees are informed and consulted. Indeed, sometimes it is Congress, concerned that the administration is not paying enough attention to an issue, that may have asked for a special envoy to be named.
It is sometimes not a happy day for an ambassador on learning the news that a special envoy will be chosen, but at that moment professionalism kicks in. When I was named a special envoy for Kosovo, one of my first actions was to reach out to our chief of mission in Belgrade. When I was named to the Six-Party Talks on North Korea to take place in Beijing, my first task was to contact the U.S. ambassador to China.
We can assume that when Volker was appointed, one of his first duties would have been to reach out to the U.S. ambassadors in Moscow and Kyiv to discuss his role and how coordination would be accomplished. A key part of the special envoy’s job is to coordinate. In Volker’s case, he was appointed as a peace envoy in the context of the U.S. decision to provide lethal equipment to the Ukrainian military.
So far, so good — but in Ukraine things clearly went off the rails, starting with Ambassador Gordon Sondland’s Ukraine role. Sondland has a full-time job as the U.S. ambassador to the European Union. It is a position that is important to U.S. interests in Europe. Since its creation during the Kennedy era, in 1961, the position has been filled by prestigious persons who over their careers, whether as diplomats or as business leaders, have demonstrated the knowledge and capacity to manage U.S. interests in one of the great post-war achievements of Europe, the creation of a common market and ultimately a vision of a united Europe. The European Union regularly passes laws and regulations designed to deepen their structures and which often have implications for U.S. interests, and it’s the job of the U.S. ambassador to the EU to be on top of the issues.
So, the question might be posed, why was Mr. Sondland mainly working on the minutiae of Ukraine relations, a country that is not even a member of the European Union? Was he bored in Brussels? Perhaps overmatched by the complexity of those issues?
Sondland’s answer seems to be that Ukraine is a European country of interest to the EU. That answer, of course, is a non sequitur. After all, Russia is a European country of interest to the European Union. Another non sequitur is his professed interest in Ukraine due to the fact that his family emigrated from Ukraine. If Mr. Sondland’s ambition was to become the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, he should have approached the president and the secretary of State and proposed himself as the eventual successor to Marie Yovanovitch.
Mr. Sondland’s role in Ukraine as a sort of semi-special envoy working alongside Mr. Volker seems to have had no vetting attached. Did he have business interests in Ukraine; perhaps some other factors that could have amounted to a conflict of interests?
But as loose as Sondland’s role in Ukraine was, it seemed entirely buttoned up compared to that of Rudy Giuliani’s, who appeared at times to be President TrumpDonald TrumpOvernight Defense & National Security — The Pentagon's deadly mistake Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by Climate Power — Interior returns BLM HQ to Washington France pulls ambassadors to US, Australia in protest of submarine deal MORE’s “personal lawyer” (in Ukraine?) and, at other times, a special envoy. Here again, there seems to have been zero vetting. Did Giuliani have some business interests there? How about business associates? Indeed, what was he doing there at all, if not representing the president’s interests? Giuliani claims to have coordinated with the State Department, but there is little to substantiate that. And of course, where is the legislative oversight?
Three years since his election, President Trump seems to have mastered little in the job, apart from exercising his claim to hire and fire on his whim. In fact, the U.S. government has rules and procedures for hiring — and for firing — designed to protect U.S. interests. We are, after all, not an elected dictatorship. Those rules and procedures, however inconvenient to a president, also include a role for the Senate.
In Ukraine, we can see that the president seems to have followed little in the way of rules.
During the third year of his four-year rule, Roman emperor Caligula allegedly sought to appoint his horse, Incitatus, to the Roman Senate. Most historians have debunked the story — but some 2,000 years later, in the right circumstances of procedural neglect, one does get a sense how it could have happened.
Christopher R. Hill was a four-time ambassador, including as U.S. ambassador to Iraq in 2009-10. He is now professor of diplomacy and chief adviser for global engagement at the University of Denver. Follow him on Twitter @ambchrishill.