Biden to Announce Nominees for Key Diplomatic Posts

Experts and former diplomats want to see Biden pick up the pace on nominations to better compete with China on the world stage.

By Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and Jack Detsch, Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
U.S. President Joe Biden leaves after speaking to U.S. State Department staff.
U.S. President Joe Biden leaves after speaking to U.S. State Department staff, some attending virtually, during his first visit in Washington, on Feb. 4. Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

After nearly three months in office, U.S. President Joe Biden is expected to announce a raft of nominees for ambassador posts and other senior State Department positions, Foreign Policy has learned, as part of the administration’s goal of rebuilding the State Department.

The nominees include ambassadors to African and Asian countries as well as top State Department posts based in Washington to oversee the administration’s diplomatic affairs with Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and international organizations. 

Some current and former officials have criticized the Biden administration for waiting so long to announce nominations for senior posts and ambassador positions, noting that about half of all U.S. ambassador posts worldwide are currently unfilled. This is significant as the Biden administration needs to quickly staff up to grapple with the country’s top foreign-policy challenges, from China to Iran to climate change. The Biden administration has only nominated and confirmed one ambassador position: Linda Thomas-Greenfield, ambassador to the United Nations. Biden has yet to name nominees for other critical posts, such as U.S. ambassadors to NATO, the European Union, China, Japan, South Korea, or Germany.

Biden officials say they are still contending with bureaucratic hurdles and bottlenecks left behind by former U.S. President Donald Trump, including his refusal to acknowledge the election results that set back the timeline for when Biden could pick and vet nominees. They also say stringent background checks for potential nominees’ security clearances have delayed the process. 

Most of the new nominees are career foreign service officers, following Biden’s and Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s pledges to restore morale at the State Department and empower career diplomats following the Trump era, in which big donors dominated plum positions. Other nominees are retired diplomats and long-time foreign-policy experts who have close ties to Biden’s foreign-policy circles. Some of the names were first reported by Politico

Biden officials say they have worked to ensure a diverse array of nominees for senior roles at the State Department as the department grapples with systemic failures regarding diversity and inclusion. A National Security Council spokesperson said successive nominations will include “many more” career foreign service officers.

Karen Donfried, currently head of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, will be nominated as Biden’s assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, and Barbara Leaf, a former senior career diplomat serving on Biden’s National Security Council team, will be nominated as the top envoy for the Middle East as the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs. 

Other nominees for top posts in Washington include Marcia Bernicat to be director-general of the Foreign Service, Mary “Molly” Phee to be assistant secretary of state for African affairs, Michele Sison to be assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs, Gentry Smith to be assistant secretary of state for diplomatic security, and Anne Witkowsky to be assistant secretary of state for conflict and stabilization operations.

Historically, most presidents tap campaign donors to be ambassadors to higher-profile posts in places like Western Europe or the Caribbean. Trump appointed more political appointees and campaign donors than his predecessors, adding to the perception that he distrusted the diplomatic corps. Nearly 44 percent of U.S. ambassadors nominated by Trump were political appointees, according to a tally from the American Foreign Service Association, far higher than the historical average of around 30 percent. 

But Biden has faced concerted pressure from within his own party to name more ambassadors without campaign ties. During the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries, Sen. Elizabeth Warren pledged not to nominate wealthy campaign donors as ambassadors—a pledge Biden did not opt to match. Biden insisted at the time all of his appointments would be qualified for the job.

Thursday’s nominations appear to be a step toward filling out envoy posts with experienced foreign service officers, many of whom served in high-level career posts during the Trump years—though all are in embassies historically led by career diplomats.

According to official documents provided to Foreign Policy, Biden will nominate Larry Edward André Jr. to serve as U.S. ambassador to Somalia, Elizabeth Moore Aubin to Algeria, Christopher John Lamora to Cameroon; Tulinabo Mushingi to Angola and Sao Tome and Principe, Michael Raynor to Senegal and Guinea-Bissau; Eugene Young to the Republic of the Congo, and Maria Brewer to Lesotho. 

The White House is also expected to nominate Marc Knapper, currently a deputy assistant secretary of state for Korea and Japan, to be U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, and Steven Bondy to be ambassador to Bahrain. 

The problem the Biden administration faces is two-fold: pressure to reverse the pay-to-play dynamic of the Trump administration and others in the past while quickly getting qualified people in key countries. Brett Bruen, a former foreign service officer, said Biden should buck the trend of tapping diplomatic amateurs who are campaign donors to be ambassadors in places like Western Europe, particularly as the United States looks to compete with China diplomatically on the world stage. “That needs to stop. They need to start treating European and NATO allies as they are serious relationships that require serious, experienced [ambassador] nominees,” he said. 

A senior Republican lawmaker said at the current rate, some key ambassador posts could sit vacant through the end of the year. Two U.S. diplomats concurred, saying they expected some could take even longer to fill given the lengthy nomination vetting and confirmation processes. 

“The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has helped expedite a number of important nominees, but we can’t do our job if the president doesn’t send us names and files,” said Sen. James Risch, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in a statement. “At this rate, it’s hard to imagine we will have ambassadors at key posts until much later this year.” 

“This administration has repeatedly said the cornerstone of its foreign-policy agenda is to rebuild alliances and partnerships across the globe, yet around half of the ambassador roles remain vacant,” he added.

“The message to the White House is you need to speed this thing up,” Bruen said. “And the fastest and best way to move is to go with those [career diplomats] who have already been extensively vetted, who have the knowledge to move quickly through the confirmation process.”

While experienced career diplomats fill in for missing ambassadors, in a lot of places that doesn’t work for long, redoubling the urgency of filling those posts. 

“It’s not great for American interests,” a senior U.S diplomat said on condition of anonymity. “If you don’t have an ambassador in place, sometimes you’re just completely frozen out.” 

Previously, the idiosyncratic U.S. process for choosing ambassadors got a pass from allies and adversaries. “If this were four or eight years ago, what I would have said to you is ‘the rest of the world is used to this about us,’” said Heather Hurlburt, a national security expert at the New America think tank. “But the thing we have to realize is that increasingly, the world looks at this and sees it as another sign of our political dysfunction. Whatever level you buy into great-power competition rhetoric, it is very difficult to argue that the U.S. is so well positioned and so unilaterally powerful that we can afford not to care.”

Another senior lawmaker who oversees the confirmation process said he is committed to getting State Department posts filled as quickly as possible, particularly since many ambassador posts sat vacant for months or even years under the Trump administration. 

“Since the Trump administration refused to recognize the importance of having the United States’ interests represented and articulated around the world, I am more committed than ever to making sure the Senate Foreign Relations Committee does its part in vetting and considering nominees as expeditiously as possible,” said Sen. Bob Menendez, chairperson of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in a statement. “It is hard to overstate the importance of making sure the State Department and our embassies are fully staffed and led by the right people.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch