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You can't have real diplomacy without diplomats

Senator Ted Cruz's hold-up of ambassadors and the continuing logjam of State Department nominees shows how brittle the system is.

Analysis | Global Crises

After stonewalling President Biden’s ambassadorial and other key nominees all year, Senator Ted Cruz finally allowed 41 nominations to proceed after Democratic leadership finally gave in to his demand for a vote on reimposing sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.

While this may look like progress, it represents only a temporary fix for a much bigger problem, in which the U.S. capacity to conduct diplomacy and implement foreign policy can be held hostage to the political agendas of individual senators.

In the second month of his presidency, Joe Biden promised a new, diplomacy-driven foreign policy: “America is back. America is back. Diplomacy is back at the center of our foreign policy.” Yet, Republican senators managed to stall the Biden administration's goal of re-asserting the United States as a diplomatic leader on the world stage. Up until he got his way in December, Sen. Cruz successfully obstructed the appointment process. His main goal was thwarting the pipeline and blocking ambassadorial nominations.

Meanwhile, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) refused to allow top State Department nominations to proceed until the Biden administration answered for its purported failures during the pullout from Afghanistan. In the wake of the Afghanistan withdrawal,  Hawley threatened to block all State Department and Pentagon nominations unless Secretary Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin resigned from their posts. In December, Hawley stated, “If I’m still on the floor doing this in 2023, so be it, 2024, so be it, until somebody is held accountable.” With the most recent deal struck by Cruz and Democrats, it is unclear whether all of Hawley’s objections were met and whether he will continue to block Biden’s nominations. 

The Nord Stream 2 pipeline delivers Russian gas straight to Germany, avoiding Ukraine and providing the European Union with its main supply of gas. The Biden administration faces increasing pressure not only from Cruz, but from Ukraine to use sanctions as leverage against Russia amidst the buildup of troops on the Ukrainian border. The United States previously sanctioned the project under the Trump administration but lifted the sanctions in May in an effort to rebuild relations with Europe. Prior to the construction of Nord Stream 2, Kyiv benefitted from billions in transit fees from pipelines crossing its territory from Russia to Europe. 

Cruz isn’t of course the first one to block presidential nominations. In 2015, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) held up eight Obama ambassadorial nominations and a slew of other key nominations as leverage to investigate the Secret Service for leaking information about a GOP congressman. In 2017, Democrats in Congress played the same game and held up over 150 Trump nominees during his first year in office, setting historical precedent.

In a statement released by The American Academy of Diplomacy in mid-December, the organization of former senior foreign service officers called on the administration and Congress to resolve the backlog of nominations in Senate, stating that “partisan politics and the administration’s bureaucratic lags have left the conduct of American diplomacy seriously hampered by the current failure to fill senior positions important to U.S. national security.”

“The number one role is as the personal representative of the president of the United States, which means in terms of communication but also authority and standing, they can speak for the president in a way that our career diplomats can't,” explained Amb. Eric Rubin, president of the American Foreign Service Association and former ambassador to Bulgaria. “The second thing ambassadors do is engage with high-level officials in other countries. And if we don't have an ambassador, our access is dramatically reduced.”

The attempts by top Republicans to hold hostage America’s diplomacy to their specific agendas directly impact U.S. missions overseas. In the Middle East, Congress has failed its responsibility to give the United States adequate diplomatic representation with key U.S. Gulf partners, with Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates still missing ambassadors. Not having ambassadors could signal to these governments that U.S. engagement is less of a priority, an impression the Biden administration wishes to avoid, following the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Having ambassadors would also allow the United States to engage with high-level officials more consistently on issues such as regional relations, ending the Yemen war, and economic cooperation more frequently. 

Now, with U.S. diplomats from Afghanistan working out of Doha, the United States has two simultaneous diplomatic missions in the country. It's imperative that Biden nominates and the Senate confirms an ambassador for Qatar. 

U.S. diplomacy in Africa has also been damaged by the lack of appointments. Before the pipeline deal, no nominations for the continent had been confirmed. A year into his presidency, Trump had over 14 ambassadors appointed to African countries. Across the continent, there have been major escalations, such as the continuing crisis in Ethiopia. Coups in Africa have also been on the rise, with Guinea and Sudan being the latest examples. Most recently, the U.S. Special Envoy to the Horn of Africa, Jeffrey Feltman, will be stepping down, raising questions about the U.S. diplomatic commitment to addressing ongoing conflicts in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan, and other nearby countries. 

In spite of the confirmations that took place before the new year, 167 nominations still remain, with 27 ambassador nominations yet to be confirmed. The nominations will have to go through the confirmation process again as Congress reconvenes this month. Nominations, such as Sarah Margon to become assistant secretary for democracy, human rights and labor — a key post tied to the broader human rights community — have sat in the Senate for over 258 days and will have to go through the entire process again. 

Striking deals, such as the deal between Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Sen. Cruz, are temporary fixes for a larger problem. While individual senators cannot block the confirmation, Cruz can object to “unanimous consent,” another procedural obstacle that means Biden’s nominations may have to compete with other aspects of his domestic agenda for time in the senate. 

Talks of filibuster reform from Democrats may be the answer needed to indirectly address this issue. While the reforms to the filibuster come as a last- ditch attempt by the Democrats to pass an election reform bill, it could affect how the Senate debates nominations.  

The Biden administration has a long way to go before it can claim that diplomacy is the center of U.S. foreign policy. The maneuvers by Cruz and Hawley, while within their rights as Senators, represent a broken system in the Senate. The latest stint shows how U.S. senators are becoming increasingly willing to compromise broader national interests for their own political goals, while American foreign policy and diplomacy pay the price. 

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