The problem for US diplomacy: More than 30 nations without US ambassadors

The World
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Secretary of State John Kerry takes part in a ceremony in October to open the new US embassy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, together with US ambassador, Sheila Gwaltney (L). Gwaltney was confirmed by the Senate in August but dozens of her peers are still pending

Secretary of State John Kerry takes part in a ceremony in October to open the new US embassy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, together with US ambassador, Sheila Gwaltney (L). Gwaltney was confirmed by the Senate in August but dozens of her peers are still pending.

Brendan Smialowski/Pool/Reuters

US diplomacy has a problem. About one-fifth of the nation’s ambassador-level posts are currently unfilled. Most of that is because nominations have been held up when they come for review before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“This is rather unprecedented, and I think it’s also rather unfortunate,” says Tomicah Tillemann, senior fellow at the New America Foundation. Tillemann used to work for the State Department and is also a former staffer with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where he used to help vet ambassadorial candidates.

“There have historically been many occasions,” says Tillemann, “when political appointees — for a variety of reasons — have run into roadblocks in the course of the confirmation process. But it’s extremely unusual for career ambassadors, career diplomats to run into challenges over the course of confirmation. And it’s even less common to have a whole raft of nominees to run into these challenges. So this is very, very uncommon.”

“To get to the bottom of this, you’d ultimately have to ask the Senators involved,” Tillemann adds. “There are accusations that some of the nominees that have been put before the committee are in some ways linked to policies that various members of the Senate find unpalatable. So that’s part of the hold up.”

On Tuesday, after a long wait, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 12-7 to advance the nomination of Roberta Jacobson, a career diplomat, to become ambassador to Mexico. Some Republicans have objected to her association with the decision to open up relations with Cuba.

“But in many instances,” says Tillemann, “there doesn’t even seem to be much of an explanation based on substance. Rather, the delay is being used as a tactic to attempt to inflict damage on an administration that some in the Senate don’t like.”

A possible example of that delay is John L. Estrada, former Sergeant-Major of the US Marine Corps. He was nominated to be ambassador to his native Trinidad and Tobago back in July 2013, and despite his impeccable 34 years of service in the military is still pending confirmation.

“This is unfortunate for a variety of reasons,” says Tillemann.

“First at a practical level, it really impedes the work of embassies on the ground,” he explains. “There have been many occasions, both when I was in the Senate, and also when I was at the State Department, when I would arrive in a country and hear the representative in charge, the charge d’affaires, say that in the absence of an ambassador, he or she just couldn’t do the work that the United States needed to have performed on the ground in order to advance our interests.”

“The second issue,” he says, “really goes to our credibility in the world. And this is a challenge that we face that to the extent that we delay in appointing these ambassadors, in many countries that’s seen as a message that we don’t take the relationship seriously. And over time that can do real damage in terms of our ability to cooperate with another government.”  

There are 188 US ambassador posts, of which 37 are vacant or pending. Source: The Ambassador Tracker, of the American Foreign Service Association

Ambassadorships to 12 nations are vacant, awaiting a nomination:

Belarus

Bolivia

Cuba

Ertirea

Lebanon

Liberia

Slovakia

Somalia

Sudan

Syria

Uruguay

Venezuela

25 ambassador posts are pending confirmation

Bahamas

Barbados

Bulgaria

Burma

Ecuador

El Salvador

Libya

Luxembourg

Malta

Marshall Islands

Mexico

Micronesia

Mozambique

Norway

Oman

Panama

Papua New Guinea (also covers Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands)

Serbia

Swaziland

Sweden

Tajikistan

Trinidad and Tobago

Uganda

Plus: The Organization of American States, and the United Nations in Vienna. 

UPDATE: A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled Tomicah Tillemann's name. We regret the error.