by Katrina Jorgensen
Why We Shouldn’t Just #ConfirmOurAmbassadors
The hashtag #ConfirmOurAmbassadors became a rallying cry yesterday, after the State Department’s Twitter account posted an infogram detailing the 40 countries without permanent ambassadors. Some of the ambassador nominations simply need congressional approval to move forward. This recent hashtag diplomacy effort by the State Department showed up shortly after Secretary of State John Kerry wrote an op-ed for Politico. The piece urged US Senators to confirm nominees for sensitive countries like Niger and Cameroon. It focused on the issues caused by vacant posts overseas.
Secretary Kerry has a point; ambassadors are a critical element to international diplomacy. They represent America’s interests to the host country. They deal with everyday relations, trade, treaties, security, protecting US citizens abroad, and cultural exchanges. It’s incredibly important that the U.S. sends a message of engagement to the rest of the world.
But the #ConfirmOurAmbassadors hashtag implies it is Republicans holding up the process, due to partisan bias. I could be true about Republicans crying foul over patronage appointments. There’s a long history of American Presidents (including Republicans) appointing ambassadorships as “rewards” to fundraisers and donors. It’s a little hypocritical to make that the sole reason for opposing an appointment. However, it is not unreasonable to expect a basic level of competency from a nominee; particularly in the Information Age.
Norway’s candidate for ambassador offers the most striking example of an unacceptable choice for U.S. international relations. Norway is an oil-rich, financial powerhouse in Europe. Norway has a long-standing positive relationship with America, and a Norwegian politician currently holds the General Secretary position in NATO. The candidate, George Tsunis, a businessman and Obama-backer, showed an exceptional lack of understanding about Norway during his confirmation hearing. He thought Norway had a President (she has a king and a prime minister), and that the Progress Party was just a fringe element in politics (it’s a member of the ruling right-of-center coalition government). Even the mayor of Oslo, Norway’s capital, expressed disappointment at the Obama’s choice of nominee. Democrat senators have also fought against his nomination including, Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar (both MN), retiring Tim Johnson (SD) and Heidi Heitkamp (ND). The backlash against Tsunis is anything but partisan.
Hungary’s nominee also had difficulties with basic questions about her selected country. Another NATO country, Hungary receives substantial support from the U.S. including security assistance, and previously the development of democratic institutions. In exchange, Hungary has contributed troops to numerous American-led conflicts like Afghanistan. Colleen Bell, a soap opera producer and serious Obama donor, doesn’t have any foreign policy experience at all. She also didn’t study her notes before her confirmation hearing. Bell read a thoughtful introductory statement (certainly prepared by an advisor), but she couldn’t articulate strategic interests for the U.S. in Hungary when asked for specifics.
It might be easy to downplay the importance of a knowledgeable ambassador to a country like Hungary or Norway, with whom we have friendly relations. But what about a strategic and sometimes strained relationship like China? Senator Max Baucus, a Democrat, stepped down from his elected position to become the next Ambassador to China. During his confirmation hearing, Baucus could only answer questions about his defense proposals for China with “I’m no real expert on China.”—a frightening statement from someone the Senate confirmed unanimously.
At least more thought will go into the next Ambassador to Russia, another precarious relationship. Maybe it was the backlash against the current crop of nominees that persuaded Obama to nominate a seasoned diplomat for that empty seat. Or maybe it was to counteract Putin’s machismo. Either way, Obama has nominated John Tefft, former Ambassador to Ukraine, for the post.
For non-controversial career diplomats, like Tefft, the Senate should certainly #ConfirmOurAmbassadors. But, using a blanket hashtag to cover-up real concerns about who is representing our interests overseas is insidious. The State Department should focus on supporting its best and brightest instead of promoting the White House agenda.tweet