All eyes may be on Secretary of State John Kerry and his seemingly tireless, though exhausting, travels from continent to continent as multiple crises unfold around the world. Now the State Department has lashed out at the United States Senate for denying him and American diplomacy the backup they need by stalling confirmation of appointments, leaving the US without ambassadors in 40 countries. The position of director general of the foreign service is also empty.
“The United States continues to operate without a complete diplomatic toolbox to exert our leadership and advance our security and economic interests across the globe,” Kerry said in a statement at the top of a pointed list of the missing envoys and what it means to the US. The list was published as a department fact sheet on July 14.
In total, 58 nominations of envoys or State Deaprtment officials are stuck in the Senate. Thirty-five of these nominees have cleared the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which is charged under American law with vetting candidates, but they have not been put to a vote in the full Senate, the department calculates.
“The absence of ambassadors in so many capitals sends the wrong message about America’s engagement,” the department said in its fact sheet. “Defending the security of the United States, promoting American values, and helping U.S. businesses compete to create American jobs at home are critical goals that cannot be ignored.”
Among the missing ambassadors listed are nominees for Algeria, an important post in North Africa, and 11 embassies in the European region, including Turkey, a crucial player in the Syrian crisis.
In Latin America, the absence of an ambassador in Guatemala gets in the way of working out a solution to the current problem of large migrations of children and families overland through Mexico to the US. In many countries, governments find it easy to take offense if the US seems not to care that the top American job goes unfilled. Much attention is paid to the perceived message that seems to signal the unimportance of a nation in the eyes of the US.
It is well known that many members of Congress take little interest in foreign affairs except as a bipartisan political tool to use against an administration. There is often little knowledge — or apparent concern — about the complexity of events beyond American shores.
Africa, with some of the most arcane but deadly issues going unresolved, is a particularly striking case on the State Department’s “missing in action” list. The department said that nearly 25 percent of US envoys to that continent have not been confirmed. It points especially to Cameroon and Niger, which the departments calls “countries that must play a key role in fighting Boko Haram and assisting in the search for the hundreds of girls kidnapped in neighboring Nigeria.”
Lorelei Kelly of the New America Foundation in Washington, who leads a program called Smart Congress at the foundation’s Open Technology Institute, has spoken and written extensively on the need to increase more knowledge-based and evidence-based decision-making in Congress that would be better connected to experts from all areas of government, the military and civil society. Perhaps with more information and a stronger sense of the importance of diplomacy, among other topics, Congress would be able to understand the need to pay attention to other countries.
There is no time to waste. A long summer recess is scheduled to start on Aug. 4 and run into early September.
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.