The Senate is Hollowing Out the United States’ Diplomatic Corps
To protect U.S. national security, the United States needs to rethink the way the government approves diplomats.
For longtime observers of U.S. foreign policy, there’s an obvious trend when it comes to Latin America. Regardless of the administration in power, appointments to diplomatic positions dealing with the region seem to be blocked or delayed by the Senate far more often than those to positions focused on other areas—a reflection of the ideological divisions that still plague U.S. foreign policy in the Western Hemisphere.
Until recently, senatorial obstruction was limited to political appointments—when a president would try to install his friends or donors in choice jobs. In the past two years, though, this constitutionally questionable use of the Senate’s right to advise and consent to appointments at the level of secretary of state, under and assistant secretaries of state, and ambassadorships has extended to career foreign-service officers. That is, individuals who have spent their lives dedicated to carrying out the policy of any administration, regardless of party.
U.S. Senator Marco Rubio may be the worst offender. According to former foreign-service officers and sources in the Senate who preferred not to be named, he has been a witting or unwitting accomplice to the erosion of the United States’ diplomatic weight in the hemisphere by denying qualified foreign officers uncontroversial promotions to ambassadorships. This comes at a time when both Rubio and the White House are depending on regional support for their agenda in Cuba, where they want to roll back the normalization of relations started under U.S. President Barack Obama; Nicaragua, where the White House has put pressure on the violent, venal government of President Daniel Ortega in an attempt to force early elections; and Venezuela, where they have built a broad international coalition to recognize an interim president, Juan Guaidó, in the hopes of forcing an intransigent President Nicolás Maduro step down.
Two recent examples have been White House nominees Francisco “Paco” Palmieri as ambassador to Honduras and Joseph Mcmanus as ambassador to Colombia. Both men had spent decades in the State Department carrying out their duty to serve Republican and Democratic administrations. According to many sources, including those cited above, both of their nominations were held up by Rubio acting quietly through intermediaries. According to one source in the Senate, “It only takes a cloakroom phone call to place a hold on a candidate’s nomination. In [the Palmieri] case, we assume it was Rubio through Senator Mike Lee,” Republican of Utah. After numerous attempts to reach out to Rubio’s office for comment, the office did not respond.
The reason for the holdup? Presumably, it was revenge against the two officers for their tangential involvement in the Obama administration’s Cuba policy. None of the career foreign-service officers caught in Rubio’s crossfire were central to the Cuba policy. Thanks to such maneuvers—and to the Trump administration’s slothlike nomination processes—there are now vacancies in the top posts in U.S. embassies in Belize, Brazil, Chile, Honduras, Mexico, and Panama. (The White House recently announced plans to nominate a candidate for the post in Mexico, almost a year after the last official resigned in protest.) This is dangerous. Brazil and Mexico are the region’s largest economies, and Mexico has some 6,000 U.S. troops massed on its border.
The problem goes beyond Latin American policy and U.S. national interests in the hemisphere. It goes to the core of Foggy Bottom’s capacity to implement U.S. foreign policy. Professional, career diplomats are the bedrock and technocratic core of the country’s international presence. Collectively, they represent a deep understanding of U.S. national interests, international pressures, and the sausage-making of foreign policy. With every administration, they carry out the president’s agenda, regardless of their own policy preferences. Punishing them for doing their job is akin to censuring public defenders for representing the indigent. One may not always believe in the innocence of the people they defend, but their role is essential to U.S. democracy.
The administration and Congress could take some easy steps to halt the corrosion of the United States’ diplomatic corps. And they should want to do so; correcting the sadly broken nomination and confirmation process would restore any administration’s constitutional authority, regardless of who sits in the White House.
The first step is to make the Senate confirmation process more transparent. Currently, once nominees pass out of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, senators and their allies can place a quiet hold on nominees before the candidacy goes up for a vote. Requiring senators who oppose a specific nominee to do so openly—and to provide a real justification for the decision—would open this hoary, opaque process to the public. Until now, senators have been able to block the confirmations of career professionals without having to answer for their actions. But as with any policy position, such decisions should be open for public scrutiny.
The second step is to place a limit on the amount of time that high-level positions, such as ambassadorships, can remain unfilled.Establishing a deadline would require senators to work with the White House and the secretary of state to find an alternative should the Senate block or hold a nominee. Right now, there is no cost to the senators themselves when positions remain vacant. The only harm is to U.S. national interests. And that has to change.
The third step is to establish quotas to ensure a balance between political and professional appointees. Doing so would reduce the politicization of Foggy Bottom and ensure that career nominees get a fair hearing. According to the union that represents foreign-service officers, the proportion of political appointees in the State Department has crept up. Lower-level positions, from deputy assistant secretaries of state on down, have become convenient places to park presidential loyalists. Political appointments are essential not just as a reward for political operatives but also to ensure compliance with the president’s initiatives. However, stuffing low-level jobs with loyalists while leaving more important posts vacant turns loyalty into blatant patronage.
If Congress and the White House do not act, the professionalism of the U.S. diplomatic corps is at risk, and with it the capacity of the United States to defend its interests abroad. A recently retired foreign-service officer recently told Foreign Policy that he doesn’t even know “what his skill set is anymore.” But diplomacy is not just cocktail parties and cables. It is an essential function of statecraft. The senators running roughshod over U.S. diplomats should be called to account for their actions, and the rest of the Senate should seek to close the hole that allows any one member to unaccountably corrode U.S. diplomacy.
Christopher Sabatini is a senior fellow for Latin America at Chatham House, the director of Global Americans, and a lecturer at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. Twitter: @ChrisSabatini