As a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, then-Sen. Joe Biden remarked in 2006: “We know from experience that leaving an embassy without an ambassador for an extended period of time is very bad for our interests — because it reduces the amount of access to high levels of government for the U.S. embassy.”
Fifteen years later, near the end of Biden’s first year as president, about half of the 186 U.S. ambassadorial posts around the world are vacant. Biden has sent nominations to the Senate for only half of the currently vacant ambassadorships. White House delays and Senate Republican obstruction have led to this unprecedented vacancy rate in the country’s diplomatic corps.
Regardless of who is to blame for the vacancies, leaving ambassadorships empty undermines the capacity of the Biden administration to pursue its policies abroad.
Why so many vacancies?
Today’s vacancy rate is significantly higher than usual. My research found that the average vacancy rate across U.S. embassies over the past few decades was about 13 percent, with vacancies spiking during presidential transition years.
Several forces seem to be driving the record vacancies. First, recent presidents have abandoned the “grace period” beyond Inauguration Day — and now require politically appointed ambassadors from the previous administration to step down immediately.
Because Donald Trump had an unusually high portion of political appointees, Biden’s near-blanket dismissals in January generated a large number of vacancies. Add in the practice of career ambassadors rotating out of their assignments on normal schedules, and the vacancies have piled up.
Second, the White House has been slow to nominate new ambassadors for Senate confirmation. Over time, the appointment process has become increasingly demanding, involving stages of political vetting, security clearance, financial and medical disclosures, ethics investigations and formal approval from the foreign government (this approval, or agremént, can involve its own set of bureaucratic hurdles). And all this has to happen before a nominee even reaches the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for a hearing.
Third, a few Republicans on this Senate committee have blocked almost all of Biden’s ambassadorial nominees over unrelated policy objections. Democrats and Republicans are evenly divided on the Foreign Relations Committee, and committee rules enable individual senators to obstruct swift confirmation. Circumventing their blockade would consume valuable Senate floor time, which Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) has been reluctant to do.
Are U.S. embassies caught short?
Unfilled posts hamstring U.S. embassies abroad. True, during an ambassadorial vacancy, the embassy remains otherwise fully staffed. When an ambassador returns to the United States, typically the deputy chief of mission — an experienced career Foreign Service officer who serves as the second-ranking official in the embassy — takes on the role of acting chief of mission, formally referred to as chargé d’affaires ad interim. The State Department rotates other embassy personnel on schedules independent of the ambassador appointments, and these assignments do not require Senate confirmation.
But without a confirmed ambassador in place, the deputy-turned-chargé must do the work of two people. The rest of the embassy personnel can adjust to pick up the slack, but there will naturally be some inefficiencies.
The more significant challenge is that an acting official cannot do the job as effectively as a confirmed ambassador. A core part of the ambassador’s job is what we traditionally think of as “diplomacy,” namely communicating messages between Washington and the host government. Chargés may not be granted the same access to meet with top-level decision-makers within either government, weakening channels of intergovernmental communication.
What’s more, by statute, a U.S. ambassador to a foreign country is granted “full responsibility for the direction, coordination, and supervision of all Government executive branch employees in that country.” In practice, this means that ambassadors work with the various U.S. government agencies — USAID, the Drug Enforcement Administration, as well as the Defense, Treasury and Commerce departments, among others — to coordinate agency-specific policies and resource allocations for their host countries.
Of course, the ambassador isn’t part of the chain of command within any of these other agencies. But ultimately, everyone answers to the president. If other officials across the bureaucracy think the ambassador speaks on the president’s behalf, and has presidential backing in managing bilateral issues, this gives her a great deal of (informal) authority in shaping U.S. policy toward her host country.
In contrast, chargés lack the implicit backing that comes with a presidential appointment and Senate confirmation. This means they are likely to be less effective in coordinating across U.S. agencies operating in the host country. Other U.S. officials may be less willing to defer to them as they would an ambassador. That in turn can make chargés less willing to take initiative or seek out a leadership role in the first place.
Is U.S. diplomacy at risk?
First, my analysis of archival data on the internal workings of the foreign policy bureaucracy reveals that chargés send a lower volume of diplomatic cables than do ambassadors. And chargés are far less likely to be granted a direct meeting or phone call with the U.S. president.
This implies that countries without an ambassador receive less high-level attention from the U.S. government. These countries are less likely to be mentioned in a written presidential order or to receive a diplomatic visit with the U.S. president, for instance.
Second, I used the State Department’s routinized ambassadorial rotation schedule to test for the effects of vacancies on U.S. foreign policy interests. This analysis found that without an ambassador in place to promote trade and manage commercial disputes, countries receive a lower volume of U.S. exports during the vacancy period.
And another finding: Because of chargés’ diminished ability to negotiate and resolve policy disagreements, countries without an ambassador are more likely to engage in small-scale militarized disputes against the United States and its allies.
For all these reasons, Biden was right all those years ago: Vacant ambassadorships harm U.S. national interests.
Matt Malis (@MattMalis) is a PhD candidate at the Department of Politics at New York University.
Note: Updated Oct. 6, 2023.