Ever since America declared its independence from the British Crown, diplomacy has represented a central tenet of the republic's foreign policy. Then an infant of a nation, a mere confederation of 13 largely self-concerned states rather than the superpower republic recognizable today, the U.S. sought the assistance of the French in the American Revolution and so it sent Benjamin Franklin to Paris to pose the idea to the French government. Franklin's (and America's) request was granted and throughout every major crisis and controversy Washington faced over the next century, American foreign ministers and the Department of State worked tirelessly to prevent war and negotiate settlements. The establishment of the post of U.S. Ambassador (to be appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate) in 1893 streamlined the process of establishing and maintaining good relations between the U.S. and foreign nations through emissaries. Today, countless new challenges await and engage the U.S., from a nuclear North Korea to Turkey and Venezuela's disregard for democratic values, all of them requiring careful diplomacy. However, the Trump Administration has failed to fill 48 ambassadorships, let alone a number of similar roles, in some of the areas of most concern in the world. In a current state of affairs in which the "Doomsday Clock" is set to two and a half minutes to midnight, the absence of key diplomats could spell trouble for the President and his foreign policy agenda.
Article II, Section 2, Clause 2 of the Constitution gives the President the authority to appoint ambassadors, judges, Cabinet posts, and other positions. The process is relatively simple, but can take time. The chief executive nominates a presumptive ambassador who must be confirmed by a majority vote of the Senate in order to take office. Once confirmed, they report directly to the President on matters pertaining to their specific country or entity. Trump’s attempts to install the next corps of diplomats have stalled mainly because they have not yet been nominated. A majority of the unfilled ambassadorships do not even have a nominee, including Yemen (home to a tumultuous civil war in which the U.S. has supported the former government), Saudi Arabia (recipient of an American arms deal and partner in the Yemeni Civil War), Venezuela (with whom the U.S. has had fractured relations for decades and in which the elected government and the opposition accuse each other of staging a coup), NATO ally Turkey, Cuba, Australia, Egypt, South Korea and South Africa. If any one of the several crises in those aforementioned countries escalates, the U.S. being without a representative of its interests, especially with such an unpredictable head of state, could be sending its B team to advance U.S. interests. That is blood in the water to anti-American shark heads of state like Kim Jong-un and Vladimir Putin.
The rhetoric on both sides of the American-North Korean game of nuclear chicken has been frank if nothing else. The Trump Administration has responded to North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile tests in a fashion that is, well, ballistic and irrational, with the president calling for a North Korean act of aggression to be met with "fire and fury like the world has never seen," (a phrase that bears a striking resemblance to President Truman's threat that if Japan were not to accept America's terms, they should expect a "rain of ruin...the like of which has never been seen") and Kim responding with the anti-American gospel that has come to define his family's reign. Proceeding with confronting an irrational leader standing up to "American imperialism" to legitimize his power without the traditional intermediary of a U.S. Ambassador to South Korea spells trouble in any number of ways.
First, there is nobody to tell a critical ally that, as the Administration has said in the past, President Trump's tweets and threats are to be taken "seriously but not literally." Without a filter between the Internet speech of the President and the interpretations of foreign powers, actual U.S. policy, which is far too nuanced to be explained in 140 characters, can be confused with the personal feelings and mere suggestions of the President at any given moment. Things could get to a point where the chief U.S. representative of the nation's interests and goals in South Korea appears to have different interests and goals than those stated by President Trump.
Treaties are signed and alliances are forged based on trust and understanding. Without diplomatic voices on the ground, how is the U.S. supposed to demonstrate its commitment to crucial allies in war and peace?
Another issue of not having an ambassador to nations in precarious, ever-changing positions like that of South Korea is that it handcuffs the American State Department and White House to responding to changing developments without a representative of their interests on the ground. In such covert nations as North Korea, intelligence will naturally be more difficult to obtain, especially if the government does not want it to be obtained. Thus, the U.S. could proceed with a military or intelligence operation without full knowledge of the situation. This would certainly not be without precedent, as just that occurred in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba and the invasion of Iraq under the (false) assumption that the Iraqi government possessed weapons of mass destruction. Even a successful operation under faulty intelligence risks widespread public disapproval of the action in question and distrust of those who authorized and oversaw it, not to mention the ramifications in the international community, which has the capability of condemning the action and refusing to cooperate in the future. As one can observe, when even the best possible outcome risks being shamed by an international community that can agree on few major issues and losing the support of the electorate at home, going forward without diplomatic representation in so many nations of concern is risky and haphazard.
As much of a diplomatic problem as a lack of representation at the various U.S. embassies is, it is every bit as much of a symbolic problem. Unfilled ambassadorships may be interpreted as a lack of concern for the plights of the various nations without an American ambassador on site or a lack of commitment to the alliances and treaties that bind the U.S. and its partners, whether they be NATO or the U.S.-Japan alliance. At a juncture in the history of foreign affairs in which U.S. allies risk having their capitals demolished in a potential nuclear war (South Korea), attempt to earn the moniker of "leader of the free world" (France and Germany), and face Chinese aggression in the South China Sea (Vietnam), standing idly by while those same allies strive to seek prosperity even in the face of challenges and incredible danger could have disastrous consequences.
Insufficient support for our allies inevitably makes us less well-equipped to logically and soundly confront the most dangerous challenges we face. It erodes the degree of trust between the U.S. and its allies that permits them to endure without fear of being told how to govern or who to put in power. Eroding trust inevitably leads to a greater degree of insecurity, which leads to new security and military measures on one side, which leads to more new military and security measures on the other side, guaranteeing only at best a permanently unstable world constantly at the brink of calamity and at worst an arms race. Treaties are signed and alliances are forged based on trust and understanding. Multilateral actions as a global community at the UN can only be taken with a great degree of trust in each other and value for each other's point of view. Without diplomatic voices on the ground, how is the U.S. supposed to demonstrate its commitment to crucial allies in war and peace? Without ambassadors, how is the U.S. supposed to build its credibility on the international stage and on the multilateral front? Without ambassadors, how is the U.S. supposed to build coalitions to stop rogue states and non-state actors? These are just some of the questions that would arise if the Trump Administration were to continue to fail to fill crucial positions.
In short, the U.S.'s vows and attempts to spread democracy and human rights and seek a more peaceful and prosperous world cannot be met by mere words nor can they be upheld by mere treaties. A demonstrated commitment to ensuring U.S. representation in its embassies and intermediaries and sources on the ground in nuanced bilateral and multilateral discussions is the only way forward for the United States to show its support for the values it champions and the allies it swears to protect.
Photo credit US Department of State