11 October 2021

Astonishing to report, almost nine months since the inauguration of US President Joe Biden in January, a huge number of ambassadorial positions at US embassies and key bodies such as NATO, the EU, and the OECD, as well as senior positions in the Department of State, remain unfilled. Why has this happened and why is it serious?

It did not help that, to the frustration of many Democrats, the Biden administration was very slow in starting the process of nominating ambassadors to the Senate. But since then the culprit has been Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz, who has objected to the traditional procedure of nodding through Senate confirmation of uncontroversial appointments in order to apply pressure on Biden to impose mandatory sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. The consequence is that discussion of each nominee has had to compete with debate on issues of greater priority on the floor of the chamber – and with one exception (Mexico) has lost. There is also little sign that things are going to change soon.

The absence of an ambassador from the apex of a mission is serious because ambassadors are the US president’s highest ranking diplomatic representative and at key posts will usually have good access to the White House on important questions. This gives the embassy maximum authority in its work and also makes it less likely that non-State agencies – of which there are dozens in large US embassies – will go their own way, even under the custodianship of a highly competent chargé d’affaires. In these dire circumstances it is hardly surprising that there is much grinding of teeth in EU circles, as well as no doubt in others, about America’s headless embassies; and no longer any disposition to make a secret of the fact that it is causing damage to communications with Washington. In particular, it is alleged that this contributed to the appalling handling of the AUKUS pact that so incensed the French president and led to the withdrawal of his own ambassador from Washington, as well as the pulling out of the French ambassador from Australia.

With the ‘advice and consent’ of the Senate, the president can confer the personal rank of ‘career ambassador’ on a member of the senior foreign service, which I assume is the status of the chargé d’affaires currently holding the fort at the US embassy in London. But in this case, at least, the US State Department hardly has any need to worry since such is the determination of the present UK government to self-destruct that it can hardly afford to be offended however long the top job at Nine Elms Lane is kept empty.