005. – Sleepy diplomacy

I have been wanting to publish this post for weeks, but the controversial pullout of the United States from Afghanistan provided me with an opportunity to publish two very important posts from a friend on my blog. As tension has eased with America’s full withdrawal, my blog is back on track. This time, I analyze the Biden administration’s foreign policy.

Many foreign policy experts, academics and observers welcomed the Biden presidency. Joe Biden did not only succeed a controversial one-term presidency, but he is the first White House resident in 30 years with foreign policy experience. The defeat of George H.W. Bush in the 1992 presidential election marked the beginning of an era of presidents without prior experience in international politics. Both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were governors, and Donald Trump had no political experience whatsoever. Although Barack Obama served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, his short tenure in this legislative panel does not match the experience that his deputy possessed when he took the presidential oath of office. Joe Biden served as both ranking member and chairman of the foreign relations committee, and as vice president he sat on the National Security Council and engaged with world leaders for 8 years. 

Many expected Biden to become a foreign policy president. During his campaign he promised to build America’s reputation back and re-engage the USA with the world. Yet, seven months into his presidency, Biden has only had one foreign trip. His Secretary of State is absent from the world stage, and most key ambassadorial posts are vacant. In this post I discuss the most important flaws of US foreign policy in the Biden era:

1. The President does not engage with the world. Some argue that Joe Biden’s predecessor was the least active US president vis-a-vis foreign policy in decades. He mostly let his subordinates deal with America’s business with foreign nations. Donald Trump’s unconventional approach to international relations and his “America First” policy left many foreign nations uncertain about the role of the United States in the world. Many governments welcomed Trump’s downfall last year as they believed Biden would re-establish a type of diplomacy similar to the one the United States had pursued for decades. In spite of these expectations both home and abroad, Biden has largely ignored foreign policy and has focused on domestic issues. First, his party has fragile majorities in both houses of Congress, so it makes sense to rush through his domestic agenda before the midterms. Second, the COVID-19 pandemic created a delicate situation. However, the federal government has limited powers to tackle the pandemic, the White House has been tied up dealing with the economic and social repercussions of this unique crisis.

Even considering these two factors, Biden is still lagging behind his promises. Personally, I prefer when countries’ heads of states don’t pursue diplomacy on a daily basis and instead let the Foreign Ministry/State Department conduct foreign policy. But Biden argued that Trump had personally done near-irreparable damage to America’s reputation, and therefore it seemed logical that he would make serious efforts to repair it. Although Biden has hosted many foreign leaders in the White House, he has only made one foreign trip thus far: in June he attended the G7 and NATO summits in the UK and Belgium, and he held bilateral talks with his Russian counterpart in Switzerland. 

In diplomacy, the first international visit by a leader is symbolic. No US president had travelled abroad before Theodore Roosevelt’s trip to Panama in 1904. Since then, most presidents made their first foreign trip either to Canada or Mexico. The last President who made Europe his first international destination was Jimmy Carter, while Donald Trump went to Saudi Arabia. Biden’s decision to attend global summits on Europe can be understood as an effort to kill two birds with one stone: bring the US back to multilateral diplomacy and boost transatlantic relations. Yet as of September, it is clear that no progress has been made. Solid bilateral relations are a precondition for successful multilateralism. Now it is high time Biden booked long haul trips on Air Force One. A new German government is expected to be formed by the end of the year, and Biden’s path to rebuilding the transatlantic alliance starts in Berlin. With regards to America’s foreign policy goals in the Pacific, a multi-country presidential visit to Japan, South Korea and India would definitely boost America’s chances in strengthening an alliance against China.

2. The Secretary of State is absent from the world stage. The presidential system gives a lot of leeway for US Presidents when it comes to cabinet nominations. In parliamentary democracies, the head of government has many constraints when selecting their ministers or secretaries. They either have to give key cabinet positions to other senior party members or relinquish them to coalition partners. But in the US, the President can pick whoever he sees fit. Biden made a safe pick by nominating Antony Blinken to run the State Department. Blinken was a member of the National Security Council in the Clinton administration and worked with the Foreign Relations Committee during the Bush presidency. He then served as National Security Advisor to then-Vice President Biden, US Deputy National Security Advisor, and for the final two years of the Obama administration, he was Deputy Secretary of State. Blinken definitely has the experience and international network to do a steady job as America’s top diplomat, but he lacks charisma and global name recognition. This wouldn’t be a problem if the President were actively running foreign policy, but as Biden restricts most of his energy to domestic affairs, his Secretary of State should be someone who has better abilities to represent the US around the world. America and the world may need somebody like Madeline Albright or Condoleezza Rice at the helm at Foggy Bottom, not necessarily replicating their politics but definitely representing America’s interests in the same manner.

3. Many ambassadorial posts are still vacant. Washington maintains diplomatic relations with all but three UN recognized countries – Bhutan, North Korea, Iran. Since 1979, diplomatic relations with Taiwan have been carried out through the American Institute in Taiwan. Not counting this de facto embassy in Taipei, the US has 170 embassies throughout the world. As of September 3rd, 84 of these ambassadorial posts were vacant. These posts include important countries like China, Germany, and Pakistan. Why is the most powerful country in the world not placing ambassadors in key countries? 

First, it is important to clarify how someone becomes an ambassador. According to the Constitution, the President has the power to nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers, and Consuls. An ambassador can either be a political appointee or a career diplomat, like a Foreign Service Officer (FSO). Before the 20th century, most ambassadors were political appointees. These appointees have been prominent American citizens from different walks of life, such as politics, military, business, academia, law, and the arts. 

As the US emerged as a world power in the early 20th century, there were calls to reform US diplomacy. The Rogers Act of 1924 merged diplomatic and consular services and created the US Foreign Service. The Foreign Service Acts of 1946 and 1980 modernized and reorganized the Foreign Service and the 1980 Act stipulated that ambassadors should typically be career members of the Foreign Service. Yet the percentage of chiefs of missions who are political appointees rose to 45 percent during the Trump administration. Ambassadors who are FSOs normally serve 3-year terms, regardless of who is the President. By contrast, political appointees normally resign when a new president (from a different party) is sworn in. Because of the high number of political appointees in the Pompeo State Department, Biden inherited a lot of vacancies, but he didn’t rush to fill them — he only began making nominations in late spring and many positions are still open. It also takes a while for the Senate to confirm a nominee, so it is likely that some key positions will be vacant one year into the Biden presidency. 

Even though interim chiefs of missions (charge d’affaires) are experienced career diplomats, it is not a good sign for either allies or adversaries that the United States is unable to carry out its foreign policy goals through appointed ambassadors. Symbolism in diplomacy is very important, and an ambassador is the most important representative of a nation abroad. The fact that many US embassies have been run by charges d’affaires for several months hurts American diplomacy. President Biden should have nominated ambassadors to the most important missions in his first 90 days in office. 

If the United States wants to restore its reputation, pursuing good diplomacy is essential. The President and the Secretary of State should represent America more actively, supported by ambassadors around the globe. The Biden administration is off to a bad start in diplomacy. Hopefully, as the President’s domestic woes subside he will dedicate more time to foreign policy.

Photo by:  Alexandros Michailidis/Shutterstock.com

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