Not a Single Nominee: The Biden Administration’s Absence of Ambassadors


Sterling Gilliam III, Contributor

Over two months into his administration, President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. has yet to name an ambassadorial nominee for any of the United States’ embassies around the globe, according to the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service’s presidential nominations tracking project. 

Biden’s most prominent diplomatic nominations include Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Greenfield, both alums of the Obama administration whom the Senate confirmed with relative ease.  For key ambassadorships, such as those in Beijing and Moscow, Biden has elected to keep on officials appointed by President Trump.  

Rosters of ambassadorship nominations, which require Senate confirmation, are typically replete with well-connected donors, known as bundlers, whose fundraising efforts bring in large sums of money to presidential campaigns and national party committees.  A vestige of the days in which patronage staffed nearly the entire federal government, rewarding political allies remains the practice by which the United States selects ambassadors to countries with which it shares strong relations, mainly plum postings in the capitals of Europe.  Modern precedent has seen approximately 70% of ambassadorships filled by career Foreign Service officers, with the remaining 30% allotted for political appointees.    

With the response to the COVID-19 pandemic and vaccine distribution efforts commanding much of its focus, the Biden administration has signaled the low priority given to naming nominees to ambassadorships.  The administration “doesn’t want to stir up any controversy they don’t need to,” says W. Robert Pearson, retired career Foreign Service officer and former ambassador to Turkey.  Lambasting the lack of credentials of nominees to diplomatic posts perennially presents political opportunities for the party not occupying the White House.  

Ambassadorships can serve as stepping stones of public service for donors and party figures with political ambitions of their own. Senator Bill Hagerty, R-Tenn., served as ambassador to Japan under President Donald J. Trump before resigning in 2019 to focus on his Senate campaign.  Across the Capitol Rotunda, Representative Ann Wagner, R-Mo., served as ambassador to Luxembourg and Representative Donald Beyer, Jr., D-Va., served as ambassador to Switzerland and Liechtenstein before running for Congress.  

Such diplomatic posts also often serve as final chapters in the public life of former or current elected officials.  Terry Branstad, former six-term governor of Iowa, served as Ambassador to China for the majority of the Trump administration, resigning as governor to take the position.  Max Baucus, former six-term senator from Montana, and Gary Locke, former governor of Washington state, preceded Branstad in Beijing during the Obama administration.

President Biden’s nearly half a century in Washington gives rise to a vast network of former colleagues who may be seeking a career-capping post abroad.  In particular, “people who just left office may get their chance,” says Pearson.  

Although donors, particularly those who stood by then-candidate Biden after his campaign’s poor showings in Iowa and New Hampshire, may be irked at the dearth of ambassadorship nominations, the effect on America’s diplomatic enterprise is likely minimal.  At America’s embassies, staffs of career Foreign Service officers form an institutional knowledge base and carry out much of the crucial relationship building with their diplomatic counterparts.

Countries “are used to having donor-types” serve atop American embassies, and thus the day-to-day work of diplomacy changes little in the absence of a presidentially appointed and Senate-confirmed ambassador, says James Goldgeier, professor of international relations at American University in Washington, D.C.   “Actually formulating the policies” to be implemented by whomever eventually receives the nominations for these now-vacant ambassadorships is “the bigger thing,” he adds.

What remains unknown is the extent to which Biden will follow the “70/30” rule of career and political appointees, a norm from which his predecessor deviated by naming political appointees to approximately 40% of ambassadorships.  Biden has made no indication of assuming a stance similar to that of his Democratic primary rival Senator Elizabeth Warren, who characterized political ambassadorship nominations as a “corrupt practice” and vowed to only appoint career Foreign Service officers as ambassadors.  With Democrats holding the slimmest of majorities, her vote could prove decisive if politically connected individuals with thin resumes do receive nominations and face confirmation votes in the Senate.  

At the State Department’s Foggy Bottom headquarters on Feb. 4, Biden addressed the department’s rank-and-file, declaring that “I value your expertise…and I will have your back,” remarks seen by some to suggest that he would move to appoint more career Foreign Service officers to top diplomatic posts.   “I certainly expect the pendulum to swing at least back to 70% career, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s even higher than that,” says Goldgeier.