SOME IMPORTANT people were nowhere to be seen as Joe Biden touched down in Europe last week on his first trip abroad as president: American ambassadors to all three countries he visited. Mr Biden has not yet nominated envoys to Britain, Belgium or Switzerland, where he ended his whirlwind of summitry by meeting his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.
In fact, Mr Biden hasn’t chosen an ambassador to any of the countries—from Japan to Germany to Canada—that with America make up the G7, the group of prosperous democracies he tried to rally last week for a global contest against the autocracies of Russia and China. Nor has he picked an ambassador to the European Union, whose leaders he also met on his tour. The list of absences goes on. Though the administration has floated various names, Mr Biden has yet to select top diplomats to Beijing, Delhi, Islamabad, Kabul, Kyiv, Manila, Riyadh, Seoul, Warsaw and more. America may be back, as Mr Biden likes to declare, but its ambassadors are still a long way away.
There is an ambassador to Moscow, but only because Mr Biden held over Donald Trump’s choice, John Sullivan. And Mr Biden has got around to nominating a representative to NATO. She is Julianne Smith, one of his deputy national security advisers when he was vice-president. But she has not yet been confirmed by the Senate, and, since the president proposed her only last week, she is unlikely to be in office for quite some time.
It is hard to measure the impact of an absent ambassador. A chargé d’affaires, generally an experienced foreign service officer, acts as placeholder. Heads of state and foreign ministers often speak directly to each other. During the pandemic, virtual diplomacy showed its merit as a workaround for having diplomats on site. And some ambassadors, generally those not drawn from the foreign service, have done more to set back than advance relations with their host country. The Los Angeles Times described Richard Grenell, Mr Trump’s envoy to Berlin, as “an unabashed irritant to Germany”. To be fair, however, Mr Grenell was representing his boss’s views.
As Mr Biden put it last week in Geneva, where he met Mr Putin, he believes foreign policy “is a logical extension of personal relationships”. The sooner ambassadors are in place the sooner they learn who the real players are and begin building trust. And as choices of the president, ambassadors speak with particular authority, both to their host government and their own.
Consider Tom Nides, whom Mr Biden nominated last week to be ambassador to Israel. The vice-chairman of Morgan Stanley, Mr Nides was deputy secretary of state for management and resources under Hillary Clinton and also worked for years on Capitol Hill. Had he been in place as tensions were building last month in Jerusalem, he might have had the authority and relationships to call the administration’s attention to the trouble, and to intervene effectively himself, before Israel and Hamas began trading blows. As it was, the administration scrambled to dispatch an envoy after the fact, and the most senior official it could spare was a deputy assistant secretary of state, Hady Amr.
The dilatory pace of ambassadorial appointments is part of a broader pattern. After getting off to a relatively quick start staffing his administration, at least with appointees who did not require confirmation by the Senate, Mr Biden has lost steam. As with the trip itself, during which the allies were tickled just to be meeting with an American president who did not insult or physically shove them, Mr Biden’s slow pace of appointments does not look so bad compared with Mr Trump’s. But that is a low bar.
Five months into his term, Mr Biden has had 67 political appointees confirmed, compared with just 41 for Mr Trump at the same point. Barack Obama, on the other hand, had 149 officials confirmed by now, according to data kept by the Partnership for Public Service, a non-profit group.
These tallies are particularly striking when you consider that, in all, a president is supposed to fill some 1,100 vacancies that require Senate confirmation, along with another 3,000 that do not. One problem is that, in order to hire people, you need to hire the people who oversee the hiring. It does not help that, in part because of senatorial inertia, Mr Biden has yet to fill three top posts focused on staffing the government and making it run effectively: the leaders of the Office of Personnel Management, the General Services Administration and the Office of Management and Budget. Mr Biden has proposed an activist foreign policy and an audacious domestic agenda, but, across the government, he still lacks many of the leaders he will need to pursue either effectively.
The Senate plays a role of its own in undermining effective governance by taking its time. For example, Mr Biden has nominated most of his candidates for the critical position of assistant secretary of state, some as long ago as mid-April. But the Senate has yet to confirm any of them. It took Mr Obama an average of 510 days, and Mr Trump an average of 525, to get each assistant secretary approved.
Mr Biden and his most senior aides had the government experience to anticipate the obstacles to hiring, from the politics of choosing individuals to the demands of scrutinising each for financial conflicts of interest or other burdensome baggage. They wisely had more than 1,000 appointees who did not require Senate confirmation ready to start on day one. But confirmation hearings were slow to get under way, not least because of the attack on the Capitol, followed by the second impeachment of Mr Trump.
The administration then fell into a pattern familiar to those who have watched transitions come and go. Those officials who were in place became preoccupied with crises or making new policy. Questions of personnel, which have the disadvantage of being both dull and sensitive, became easy to put off. And, of course, the fewer the people in place, the more the duties that get piled on them.
Various reforms have been proposed over the years to speed things up, such as reducing the number of political appointees altogether, requiring fewer of them to be Senate-confirmed and eliminating some positions altogether. But the legislative and executive branches guard their prerogatives carefully, and so the process plods along.
Picking ambassadors is particularly tricky. Presidents have tended to use comfortable, lower-pressure posts to reward big campaign donors or other political allies. Mr Trump particularly liked to do this, and he raised the proportion of politically appointed ambassadors to 43%, with the other 57% drawn from the professional foreign service. Since 1974 the share of professionals has been closer to 67%.
Antony Blinken, the secretary of state (pictured above with the president), wants to promote more foreign service officers into ambassadorships. He is also looking to diversify the ranks. An analysis released in January by the Partnership for Public Service found that of 189 ambassadors, just five were black. All these considerations can make for complex decision-making, even before members of Congress and others call to lobby for their own favourites.
After naming nine foreign service officers to be ambassadors in April, Mr Biden followed up two months later, on June 15th, with nine more nominations, including Ms Smith and Mr Nides. In addition to choosing ambassadors to Costa Rica, the Gambia, Guinea, Paraguay and Sri Lanka, Mr Biden picked Ken Salazar, a former interior secretary and senator from Colorado, as ambassador to Mexico. He also chose C.B. “Sully” Sullenberger III, a former airline captain who successfully landed a disabled passenger jet on the Hudson River in 2009, to be the American representative, with the rank of ambassador, on the council of the International Civil Aviation Organisation.
But the president has yet to fill many of the most important and sensitive posts. After decades of successful Republican demonisation of government, Mr Biden wants to prove it can be a force for good at home and abroad. It would be a shame if incompetent management got in the way.