We need real diplomats to help rebuild America's shattered global image


We need real diplomats to help rebuild America's shattered global image

Biden's earliest public events as president was a visit to the State Department. He promised in his remarks before the depleted ranks of American diplomats that he "had their backs" and their experience working abroad would now be elevated in his administration. 

The speech was a needed pep talk for our nation's dispirited diplomatic corps, but the public message Biden espoused that day may not be holding up in private. Instead of relying on the extraordinary experience of our nation's diplomats, I am hearing increasing indications that career officials are being relegated to the back of the line when it comes to consideration for ambassadorships.

I recently spoke with several senior officials about how the Biden Administration was handling the selection of ambassadors — an important deliberation that determines who represents America around the world. It's not an encouraging picture. The White House has not even bothered to consult, let alone coordinate with the State Department, according to current career diplomatic officials with whom I've spoken. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has also said nothing to his leadership about the process, those sources tell me.

Instead of being informed by our foreign policy interests, decisions are largely being guided by domestic considerations. such as campaign donations or personal connections in the White House.

Appointments based on political preference over diplomatic skill is not what Biden promised on the campaign and repeated to current career employees. He told those diplomats at Foggy Bottom, "in our administration, you're going to be trusted and empowered." Apparently though, not when it comes to the most important jobs representing the United States abroad. 

One well-placed source in the State Department told me that they are "being frozen out" of the process and that they cannot even begin to consider career ambassadors until the White House gives them "the number." Essentially that means how many and which plum positions first go to political appointees.

After those are doled out, the career diplomats get the leftovers. Think about that for a second. America's standing in the world is at an abysmal, historic low. The country's adversaries are rapidly gaining ground. Yet, it seems that the primary consideration informing who will lead our embassies remains how much political capital people accrued during the campaign.

The US cannot afford to continue to treat some of our most important national security positions as though they were political party favors. It needlessly inflicts further damage on our international influence and depletes our already weakened diplomatic defenses. 

Political ambassadors spend months trying to learn the institution and in many cases, international affairs 101.  That's the best case scenario for the ones that are open to how this job might be different from running a movie studio or fashion line.  Political ambassadors of both parties are notorious for creating international incidents with their lack of protocol or basic ethical guidelines, as was often on display during the Trump Administration.  Their appointments also serve to sideline those who spent their careers learning the nuances of the regions where they serve and can speak the language fluently.

 The US needs to elevate experience and send a strong message to China, Russia, and others who are presently playing the long game in the realm of international influence. 

Political ambassadors have very short time horizons. In most cases they stay for less than four years. Even if a president is reelected, they typically change up their ambassadors  to pay back more favors. We need officials who can stay and see a longer time horizon, as well as seeing through initiatives that take years, if not decades to develop.

This is a decisive moment for the new president. He has a unique opportunity to reform and recalibrate our national security system. Coming in after the devastation caused by President Trump and his secretaries of state, the State Department has to be rebuilt. Unfortunately, it seems like this White House is squandering the chance to really look at how we "build back better" when it comes to our diplomacy. 

I previously wrote about the fact that all of the top jobs at the State Department and on the National Security Council had already been filled by political appointees. It was my fervent hope that at the very least there would be a greater effort made to rebalance our representation abroad when it came to ambassadorships. But the sources I am speaking with suggest it's not going to happen. Neither the State Department, nor the White House responded to requests for clarification or comment.

This isn't to say some political appointees make excellent diplomats. But,the US should not have 30% or more of these critical jobs going to inexperienced political figures. That sort of appointment should be a limited exception, no more than 10%.

Restoring America's global leadership is not going to be an easy task. It will not take place during one term or even one administration. We need to put in place a far stronger capacity to strategize and execute policies over longer periods of time. That's exactly what has given our adversaries in Beijing and Moscow an advantage in recent years. Without more experience guiding our embassies overseas, those efforts will continue to be severely hampered and handicapped.