Eight months into the Biden administration, the United States still lacks high-level representation in strategic missions worldwide, and it shows. The calamitous withdrawal from Afghanistan — the thorniest NATO military operation of recent decades — verifies what happens when no permanent representative to NATO is available to integrate U.S. decisions hour-to-hour with our allies. Global crises do not wait for the vicissitudes of Congress or the lethargy of White House bureaucracy. America’s international reputation is taking a beating, and U.S. diplomacy is on mute.
“We will lead with our diplomacy, our international influence, and our humanitarian aid,” President BidenJoe BidenJill Biden campaigns for McAuliffe in Virginia Fill the Eastern District of Virginia Biden: Those who defy Jan. 6 subpoenas should be prosecuted MORE said of Afghanistan in August. It’s hard to see how we will project influence globally without senior envoys to do it. An ambassador symbolizes national legitimacy — diplomacy’s field commander. Minus epaulets and shiny gold stars, each new emissary presents congressionally-confirmed credentials and a direct line to the president. Chargés lack that muscle. As the world reassesses America’s role and reliability, our diplomacy must embody U.S. power.
Yet from Europe to Asia, whole regions of U.S. diplomacy lack frontline leaders. Beyond the vacancy at NATO headquarters, there are no U.S. ambassadors to the United Kingdom, France, Germany or the European Union. No U.S. ambassador to Israel parlays with the new government. Our Indo-Pacific strategy lacks ambassadors to Australia, India, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam and ASEAN. Even in China, our main rival, there is no U.S. ambassador to challenge Beijing’s diplomatic revisionism. The Bush and Obama administrations had more than twice as many appointees confirmed by this point.
The Chinese do not suffer from our diplomatic dysfunction. In July, China switched out veteran American handler Cui Tiankai with Qin Gang, former foreign ministry information chief who built his reputation defending China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Tibet. After arriving as the new Chinese ambassador to Washington, Qin attacked those who “think America can win the new ‘Cold War’ against China, just as it defeated the Soviet Union.” While Biden talks about leading with our diplomacy, China is well ahead of us.
It is tempting to downplay the role of ambassadors in the 21st century, when social media travels faster than official correspondence and leaders rely on smartphones and encrypted apps. Official State Department communications are indisputably antiquated, a deep-rooted problem with no overnight fix. But if the pandemic has taught us anything about diplomacy, it is that virtual platforms and digital means cannot substitute for high-level personal interaction by officials who shape public narratives and deliver on American objectives.
Why is American diplomacy in such a state? The White House is dilatory in some cases, having failed to name nominees or send their dossiers to Congress. No one has been nominated to be U.S. ambassador to South Korea, Australia, the Philippines or Thailand, at least seven European allied states, or to crucial posts such as U.S. Coordinator for Counterterrorism. As for ambassadors to Beijing and Tokyo, Biden announced seasoned diplomat Nicholas Burns and former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, but no paperwork has yet headed to the Senate. As close ally Japan prepares for new leadership, no American ambassador will have been present for a single day of Yoshihide Suga’s tenure as prime minister.
Some excellent nominees await hearings. Top choices for Europe have been with the Senate for about two months. Amy Gutmann and Julianne (“Julie”) Smith, nominated as ambassadors to Germany and NATO, are accomplished transatlanticists. Gutmann, whose father escaped Nazi Germany in 1934, is president of the University of Pennsylvania. Julie Smith, former deputy national security adviser to then-Vice President Biden, is well-qualified to shore up relations with NATO allies. Even nominees whose campaign fundraising gained them prominence have deep policy experience in Europe. Jane Hartley, Biden’s choice for the U.K., was envoy to France during the 2015 Paris terrorist attacks. And Denise Campbell Bauer, nominated as ambassador to France, served as U.S. representative to Belgium from 2013-2017.
Having pulled out of Afghanistan, the U.S. must ramp up its capacity to engage in major-power diplomacy, but thus far it is not doing so. It’s hard to argue that we prioritize relations with our allies when we cannot even place ambassadors in crucial capitals. For example, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, comprising Japan, India, Australia and the United States, will happen in a few weeks and Biden’s Indo-Pacific White House czar, Kurt Campbell, has no Senate-confirmed ambassador in any of these countries.
Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping often hews to ancient maxims, such as strategist Sun-Zi’s advice to sever your enemies’ alliances. If our rivals are seeking to drive a wedge between the United States and its allies, we seem to be willing accomplices.
Audrey Kurth Cronin, Ph.D., is Distinguished Professor of International Security and founding director of the Center for Security, Innovation and New Technology at American University. Follow her on Twitter @akcronin.