Joe Biden is coming under pressure from former state department career staff to match the diversity of his cabinet and senior administration positions in foreign postings – and to reform the longstanding practice in the US of rewarding political supporters with plum ambassadorial jobs.
More than three months into his first term, Biden’s foreign diplomatic slate remains open, with only one top ambassador – Linda Thomas-Greenfield, to the United Nations, nominated and confirmed.
Appointments, typically made soon after a new president is inaugurated, have taken longer to fill under Biden in part because of a balancing act between three competing, interconnected pools of potential appointees: diplomatic staff who endured the chaos of Trump who feel they should be rewarded; returning Obama staff; and Biden political supporters and donors.
But in recent days, the White House has signaled it is ready to act after vacating the posts of all but one of Donald Trump’s political appointees – US ambassador to Moscow John Sullivan – and restocking the state department at the level of under secretary, deputy and assistant secretaries. At state, those staff typically run policy and administration in a department of 13,000 foreign service, 11,000 civil service and 45,000 local employees on a $52bn budget.
With Biden’s soft power leanings illustrated by his commitment to pull troops from Afghanistan by 11 September, the burden of US foreign policy will fall on a foreign service corps that was undermined by Trump’s unpredictable approach to diplomacy.
First order, says one seasoned ambassador, has been to restore the function and morale to the department; second, to reform the balance between political and career staff appointments.
“It’s clear they’re going to appoint some political ambassadors but it won’t be as many and they’re going to be more interested in quality,” said Ronald E Neumann, president of the American Academy of Diplomacy, who notes that Trump appointed only two career officers out of 50 appointments at assistant secretary level or above.
“The administration is trying to rebuild American diplomacy – but not from the ground up because they already have good career officers,” Neumann said. “The job is to bring them in and use them.”
In so doing, the administration has to choose between officials who served during Obama and Clinton administration and existing state department staff that endured serving under the turmoil of Trump’s four years in office.
“There’s a certain amount on nail-biting among career officials who stuck it out through the Trump administration who feel they need to recognized and not just bringing back career people,” Neumann added.
But the administration’s willingness to follow US political custom to reward non-foreign service allies with foreign appointments has become clearer in recent days.
On Monday, Politico reported that Cindy McCain, widow of the Republican senator John McCain, is undergoing vetting to be nominated for US ambassador to the UN World Food Programme, a mission based in Rome.
McCain, who had been rumored to be headed to London, gave Biden an electoral boost in the critical state of Arizona with her endorsement of the Democrat over Trump – helping Biden to become the first Democratic presidential nominee to carry the state since Bill Clinton 25 years ago. Others rumored to be in line for a foreign posting include the former Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, who is considered too controversial for a domestic administration post.
Pressure to conform to a pattern of diversity hiring followed by the administration in Washington, once subtle, is now overt. As it stands, 60% of US diplomatic posts are filled by men and 40% by women. In an 9 April letter, a group of 30 female former ambassadors and national security leaders urged Biden to prioritize gender parity.
“Our vision of gender parity means that a man or a woman has an equal chance, at all times, of ascending to each ambassadorship. This should be true across all geographic regions, in posts both large and small,” the Leadership Council for Women in National Security (LCWINS) said in the letter.
The letter concluded: “We hope you will pay attention to growing allies within the US government who will also focus upon the diversity America’s representatives to the world should demonstrate.”
Piper Campbell, former ambassador to Mongolia and the US mission to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), later told PBS that the timing of the letter was to influence the ongoing selection process. “That’s something that we hope can still be impacted,” she said.
But pressure, too, to dismantle longstanding pay-for-play operations is also upon the administration. “Handing out ambassadorships to favored campaign donors is a sordid bipartisan tradition in Washington,” wrote Matt Ford in the New Republic in February, adding: “President Joe Biden has a chance to make a sharp break from this unseemly past.”
While political appointments typically number one-third, Trump took the practice to the next level. The American Foreign Service Association found that 43.5% of Trump’s choices were political appointees, compared with 30% for Barack Obama, 31% for George W Bush, and 28% for Bill Clinton.
Trump spared some of his nominees even cursory knowledge of the distant lands they would be serving their country in. Fourteen of Trump’s ambassadorships to Canada and the European Union went to people who donated at least $1m to his inaugural committee.
Some were tasked with unusual diplomatic errands to run. After his appointment to Britain, Woody Johnson, owner of the New York Jets and a Republican fundraiser, was reportedly asked to campaign for the British Open to be held at Trump’s Scottish golf resort, Turnberry.
Following complaints, Johnson was in August last year found by a state department watchdog to have “sometimes made inappropriate or insensitive comments” and directed to watch a video on workplace harassment.
One simply never made it to their post. Mark Burkhalter, a Georgia real estate developer, had his nomination for ambassador to Norway returned after he failed to disclose his participation in circulating a racist flyer during a Georgia political contest.
While the practice of rewarding supporters with ambassadorships was super-sized by Trump, the Biden administration’s desire to create daylight between it and its predecessor could help to usher in reforms of practice. Echoing Neuman, Axios recently reported that the White House is “tempering the ambassadorial expectations of his big-dollar donors”.
According to Sarah Bryner, research director at Center for Responsive Politics, “Trump was a deviation from the norm with patronage appointments” and the Biden administration is likely to reduce but not eliminate the practice.
“While the whole concept of patronage is problematic, the thing about ambassadorships is that they’re a pretty low-cost way to reward supporters and allies by placing them in foreign positions that are unlikely to have serious negative consequences,” Bryner told the Guardian.
But, Bryner said, “there has been a lot of pressure put on Biden to restore morale in the state department and restore America’s image abroad, so that might result in him being a little bit more cautious. Does that mean we’re not going to see Rahm Emanuel, or other Democratic donors and supporters appointed? No, but there’s still a lot of pressure in this space.”