The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Where are all the U.S. ambassadors?

President Biden delivers remarks at an Interior Department summit on Nov. 30. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

This is a treacherous moment for the United States to be shorthanded on the global stage. Crises abound with the war in Ukraine, mass migration, a possible global recession and the ongoing challenges of covid-19, climate change, supply chain crunches, the erosion of democracy, and energy and food shortages in parts of the world.

Individually, and in total, these crises present a demand for diplomacy of the highest order. Yet as the Biden presidency nears the beginning of its third year, the United States lacks almost 40 ambassadors, with vacancies in countries such as Brazil, India, Italy, Russia, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. This is a situation that the Senate and Mr. Biden need to rectify quickly.

Consider India — a critical partner in pressuring Russia and China. It has not had a confirmed ambassador since January (and that one was a holdover from the prior administration). While there are hard-working career diplomats in place in these nations, an ambassador picked by President Biden and confirmed by the Senate carries more authority and gravitas — and provides assurance to other countries that they are a priority to this one.

Some of the blame for these vacancies should fall on Mr. Biden. At least 10 of the vacant posts, including Italy, have no nominee yet for the position, and dozens of other posts that aren’t technically open still have former president Donald Trump’s picks serving. But the bulk of the problem is the fact that Senate Republicans are slow-walking confirmations. It’s becoming increasingly common for senators to hold them up solely to score political points against the White House — often over issues that aren’t remotely related to the nominee in question.

The Post's View: America is shorthanded in foreign affairs. Thanks, Ted Cruz.

The average time to confirm one of Mr. Biden’s nominees (103 days) is more than double what it was for George W. Bush’s nominees (48 days), according to the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service. As a result, barely over half of Mr. Biden’s nominees across the government were confirmed in his first year compared with 75 percent for George W. Bush.

“No other democracy has anything close to the dysfunctionality we have in identifying and confirming the top leadership of our government. It doesn’t have to be this way,” said Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service.

Historically, the Senate approved ambassadors efficiently by using unanimous consent, a procedure by which their consideration is expedited and a vote is scheduled for a time certain. But if a senator places a “hold” on a nominee, it can take days of floor debate and dilatory votes to get an approval. Given the time required, Senate leaders from both parties have tended to prioritize moving judicial nominees and high-priority legislation instead. As the number of holds has escalated, the confirmation of top executive branch posts has slowed significantly.

Mr. Biden nominated diplomat Michael Ratney to be ambassador to Saudi Arabia in April and diplomat Elizabeth Frawley Bagley as ambassador to Brazil in January. Neither has been confirmed. They are among more than 40 ambassador nominees languishing in the Senate. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, whom Mr. Biden nominated to be ambassador to India in July 2021, has a more problematic path to confirmation as questions remain about how much he knew about sexual harassment allegations against one of his top aides.

Republican Sens. Ted Cruz (Tex.), Josh Hawley (Mo.) and Rick Scott (Fla.) played major roles in holding up dozens of State Department nominees last year and early this year as a way to gain leverage on foreign policy issues with which they have a disagreement with the administration. This is a reckless misuse of the nomination process at a time when U.S. leadership in the world is critical. Ambassadorial vacancies send a message that the United States and its dysfunctional politics are not up to meeting the seriousness of these perilous times.

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Editorials represent the views of The Post as an institution, as determined through debate among members of the Editorial Board, based in the Opinions section and separate from the newsroom.

Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Opinion Editor David Shipley; Deputy Opinion Editor Karen Tumulty; Associate Opinion Editor Stephen Stromberg (national politics and policy, legal affairs, energy, the environment, health care); Lee Hockstader (European affairs, based in Paris); David E. Hoffman (global public health); James Hohmann (domestic policy and electoral politics, including the White House, Congress and governors); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (economics); Associate Editor Ruth Marcus; and Molly Roberts (technology and society).

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