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Are Special Envoys All That Special Anymore?

New envoys are cropping up even as ambassador posts sit empty.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken attends a meeting in Iceland.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken holds a meeting with Swedish diplomats on the sidelines of an Arctic Council summit in Reykjavik, Iceland, on May 19. Saul Loeb/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

When life gives you lemons, appoint a special envoy to coordinate a whole-of-government approach to spearhead efforts to enact policies to advance your administration’s agenda of making some lemonade.

This seems to be the go-to plan for U.S. President Joe Biden and his team, who have wasted no time during their first four months in office appointing a slew of special envoys to manage top diplomatic challenges worldwide—even as Biden has yet to name nominees for more than 90 ambassador posts around the world.

There’s a special envoy for the Horn of Africa and another one for just Sudan and South Sudan; there’s a special envoy for Libya, who also doubles as the ambassador to Libya; there’s a special envoy for Yemen and one for Iran and one for Syria; there’s one for the State Department’s global COVID-19 pandemic response and one for Latin America’s Northern Triangle region; a post for antisemitism and one for Holocaust issues; one for Afghanistan; one for hostage affairs and a post for global women’s issues; there’s another one reportedly in the works to address a controversial Russian energy pipeline into Europe; and, as of this month, a new one for North Korea. All told, there are 55 posts for special envoys, representatives, and coordinators (including some posts that are currently vacant or effectively defunct), according to the American Foreign Service Association.

When life gives you lemons, appoint a special envoy to coordinate a whole-of-government approach to spearhead efforts to enact policies to advance your administration’s agenda of making some lemonade.

This seems to be the go-to plan for U.S. President Joe Biden and his team, who have wasted no time during their first four months in office appointing a slew of special envoys to manage top diplomatic challenges worldwide—even as Biden has yet to name nominees for more than 90 ambassador posts around the world.

There’s a special envoy for the Horn of Africa and another one for just Sudan and South Sudan; there’s a special envoy for Libya, who also doubles as the ambassador to Libya; there’s a special envoy for Yemen and one for Iran and one for Syria; there’s one for the State Department’s global COVID-19 pandemic response and one for Latin America’s Northern Triangle region; a post for antisemitism and one for Holocaust issues; one for Afghanistan; one for hostage affairs and a post for global women’s issues; there’s another one reportedly in the works to address a controversial Russian energy pipeline into Europe; and, as of this month, a new one for North Korea. All told, there are 55 posts for special envoys, representatives, and coordinators (including some posts that are currently vacant or effectively defunct), according to the American Foreign Service Association.

Naming special envoys to manage specific foreign-policy crises has been a long-standing practice across administrations—and some of special envoy posts are congressionally mandated, while many others predate Biden.

The question is: Does Washington need them all?

The volume of special envoys has some seasoned current and former U.S. diplomats concerned, fearing the Biden administration is adding too many cooks to the kitchen in an already unwieldy national security bureaucracy. That could have real-world consequences, such as gumming up the works in the policymaking process or opening new internal rifts and fronts for bureaucratic infighting that would ultimately undercut Biden’s foreign-policy agenda.

“We’ve never quite figured out how to navigate the added layer of bureaucracy [special envoy posts] create,” said Elizabeth Shackelford, a former career diplomat now with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, a think tank.

That’s particularly the case for special envoys assigned to specific regions, versus those tasked with tackling functional issues like hostages or antisemitism. “An ambassador is supposed to be the president’s representative in a country,” she said. “And so when you have this D.C.-based higher authority that’s also appointed, it makes it really unclear who is speaking on behalf of the U.S. president and on behalf of U.S. policy.”

When asked about the matter, a State Department spokesperson said special envoys aid and empower the work of career diplomats.

“Career foreign and civil service professionals are the backbone of America’s foreign policy,” the spokesperson said. “The department strives to further amplify their skills and experience with those of issue-specific or regionally focused special envoys who lead high-level, robust diplomatic efforts that are aided by additional senior resources and reach.”

There are other supporters of the practice, who say special envoys can do a lot of good. They can bring high-level focus to an issue that might otherwise get overlooked in Washington. They give a senior administration official sole responsibility to coordinate across federal agencies and carve through the dense thicket of bureaucracy. Still others fill an important gap in the State Department that doesn’t naturally fit into the remit of another undersecretary or assistant secretary’s job—such as in the case of Gayle Smith, Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s envoy for the global COVID-19 response.

“It’s not something that you can make a hard-and-fast rule on. Each case varies a bit,” said Peter Pham, who served as both the U.S. special envoy for the Sahel region and for the Great Lakes region of Africa during the Trump administration.

In some cases, it makes the most sense for Washington to appoint a special envoy to a specific region or issue if other world powers have done the same, Pham said.

For example: The United Nations, the European Union, France, and other powers each have a special envoy for the Sahel region as the international community grapples with growing instability and the rise of terrorist groups there. In that case, it could be easier for the United States to offer up its own counterpart. “If the international community is dealing with this issue through this vehicle and you don’t have one, there’s a big gap,” Pham said. (The Biden administration has yet to indicate whether it will retain the special envoy for the Sahel region post.)

In the eyes of critics, those are the exceptions. Some current and former diplomats told Foreign Policy that there’s a point at which too much of a good thing becomes bad—and the Biden administration is fast approaching that point with special envoys.

They warn that special envoys can create their own new bureaucratic silos and undercut the authority of career diplomats already working on the matter. “It damages the system because you’re imposing on a process that is already working on these issues. It is not as though the United States does not have a way of managing the challenges that cross borders,” said Brett Bruen, the president of the international consulting firm Global Situation Room and a former career diplomat. “We have ambassadors on the ground. We have assistant secretaries and deputy assistant secretaries. Why do we need a special envoy on top of that?” added Bruen, who recently co-wrote an op-ed in Politico criticizing the practice.

Other critics say naming a special envoy is an easy way to circumvent congressional oversight on an administration’s foreign-policy appointments; senior State Department posts and ambassadors require a Senate confirmation, whereas special envoy posts do not.

Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, for example, tapped Marshall Billingslea as the Trump administration’s special envoy for arms control negotiations after Billingslea’s confirmation process in the Senate for another senior State Department post stalled over opposition from Democrats and advocacy groups. The top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Bob Menendez, at the time blasted the move as part of the Trump “administration’s willingness to sidestep the Senate’s constitutionally-mandated role of nominee advice and consent.”

During the Trump administration, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson tried to enact sweeping reforms to the State Department’s system—an effort that was largely seen to have failed. But one thing he did that garnered support among the rank and file was advance plans to eliminate many special envoy posts—including those he viewed as having “accomplished or outlived their original purpose.”

Tillerson’s successor, Pompeo, reversed that trend with his appointment of his own special envoys, spurred in part by congressional gridlock over State Department nominees—and Blinken has followed suit.

Bruen said there are examples where senior diplomats built into the established State Department systems can achieve diplomatic breakthroughs without a special envoy. He cited several examples: As assistant secretary of state for European affairs, Richard Holbrooke, for example, negotiated the landmark Dayton Accords to end the Balkan wars in 1995, and David Welch, as assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, secured a deal in 2008 for Libya to provide $1.5 billion in compensation for American victims of terrorist attacks blamed on Tripoli.

Now, Bruen is concerned the Biden administration hasn’t learned lessons from past administrations on reining in special envoys. “What is concerning is that we seem to be heading back down this path of trying an old way of doing things and hoping to get different results,” he said.

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

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