Diplomacy, at a minimum, necessitates diplomats – the practitioners of foreign policy. Right now, American diplomacy is being held up due to partisan politics on Capitol Hill. According to a Washington Post investigation, several U.S. nominees for ambassador and other important diplomatic posts are being held hostage by Republicans in the Senate who refuse to confirm these nominees in a timely manner, leaving several important American diplomatic posts without a top diplomat. According to WaPo, around 50 ambassadorial nominees are currently in political limbo – that’s 50 American missions abroad out of a total of 294 without a top diplomatic official.
Secretary of State John Kerry said last week, “It’s unacceptable that so many of our nominees — countless numbers of ambassadors to very important countries — are awaiting confirmation … Our national security is not served by keeping many professionals — people who have waited patiently — in a perpetual limbo.”
The damage to national security should be apparent. The United States’ position as a superpower necessitates a broad and competent diplomatic presence worldwide. The United States does have the odd habit of fielding an ambassadorial corps that is part career foreign service professional and part political appointee (the latter often have the coincidental status of having been a major fundraiser for the incumbent in the White House). However, the current state of affairs inhibits the United States’ ability to pursue its interests coherently.
Ambassadorial nominees in the United States are confirmed by the 100-member Senate before they can begin serving abroad. The Democrats currently field a majority in the Senate with a caucus of 53 (plus 2 independents) while the Republicans have 45 seats. Under the constitutional provision of the Senate’s “advice and consent” of the President’s nominees to important public offices, ambassadorial nominees need two-thirds of the Senate to approve of their capacity to serve. Republican voting discipline in the Senate has made this an impossibility.
True, Max Baucus, a Democratic Senator and next U.S. Ambassador to China, was confirmed without any spectacle in a 96-0 vote. But Baucus, as a Senator himself before being nominated, had the advantage of personal relationships with the men and women who would later vote on his confirmation. It also appears that partisan politics can be set aside when it comes to particularly important diplomatic relationships. Looking at the current backlog compiled by the WaPo, we see most of the political hostage ambassadors have been nominated to African or Caribbean states. Currently 11 of 28 ambassador posts within the Latin American region are vacant, creating a major diplomatic vacuum.
Democrats speculate that the Republican backlash stems from an historic decision late last year to eliminate filibusters for most presidential nominees. Regardless of the complex domestic political reasons for the diplomatic vacuum, countries without American ambassadors are beginning to feel that the lack of attention is a slight against their perceived importance in the United States. “They all feel it’s directed at them,” notes one top State Department official.
The stakes are naturally high when national security becomes a bargaining chip in legislative politics. There is no wisdom in the opposition preventing the proper functioning of the United States’ foreign policy bureaucracy.