Wanted: U.S. Ambassadors for Countries That Need TLC

From India to Saudi Arabia, vacant ambassador posts have been undermining Washington’s ties with some two dozen countries.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and , a reporter at Foreign Policy.
U.S. presidential candidate Joe Biden pauses as he speaks during a forum at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, on July 15, 2019.
U.S. presidential candidate Joe Biden pauses as he speaks during a forum at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, on July 15, 2019.
U.S. presidential candidate Joe Biden pauses as he speaks during a forum at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, on July 15, 2019. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Since taking office, U.S. President Joe Biden has been carefully courting India as part of a strategy to curb China’s geopolitical influence in the Indo-Pacific. “I am committed to making the U.S.-India partnership among the closest we have,” Biden declared during a meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in May 2022.

There’s just one hitch in his plan: Biden doesn’t have an ambassador in place in New Delhi to help do that. The position has been vacant for more than two years, leaving Washington without a president’s envoy on the ground. That vacancy is emblematic of a broader problem in U.S. foreign policy driven by increasing dysfunction and hyperpartisan politics back in Washington. As Biden enters his third year in office, India is one of around two dozen countries that are still waiting for a U.S. ambassador—a sweeping issue that experts warn is detrimental to Washington’s bilateral relationships and the efficacy of U.S. foreign policy.

The problem of absent ambassador posts has grown worse over time, particularly during the Trump administration, when dozens of ambassador posts sat empty for months or even years without nominees or with nominees stuck in a backlogged and contentious Senate confirmation process. The average time it took the Senate to confirm a political appointee, including ambassador posts, under former President George W. Bush was 48 days. Under Biden, that average time has doubled (and then some) to 103 days.

Since taking office, U.S. President Joe Biden has been carefully courting India as part of a strategy to curb China’s geopolitical influence in the Indo-Pacific. “I am committed to making the U.S.-India partnership among the closest we have,” Biden declared during a meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in May 2022.

There’s just one hitch in his plan: Biden doesn’t have an ambassador in place in New Delhi to help do that. The position has been vacant for more than two years, leaving Washington without a president’s envoy on the ground. That vacancy is emblematic of a broader problem in U.S. foreign policy driven by increasing dysfunction and hyperpartisan politics back in Washington. As Biden enters his third year in office, India is one of around two dozen countries that are still waiting for a U.S. ambassador—a sweeping issue that experts warn is detrimental to Washington’s bilateral relationships and the efficacy of U.S. foreign policy.

The problem of absent ambassador posts has grown worse over time, particularly during the Trump administration, when dozens of ambassador posts sat empty for months or even years without nominees or with nominees stuck in a backlogged and contentious Senate confirmation process. The average time it took the Senate to confirm a political appointee, including ambassador posts, under former President George W. Bush was 48 days. Under Biden, that average time has doubled (and then some) to 103 days.

“The process is broken,” said one former senior U.S. diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity to speak candidly about the matter. “It’s become politicized in a very ugly way in the time we’re in now.”

Still, it’s not all the Senate’s fault. Biden was slow to name nominees for ambassador posts during his first year and still has yet to even offer nominees for some posts to the Senate, two years into his term. In other cases, such as India, the president decided to renominate his ambassador picks that were stuck in limbo in the last Congress due to lawmakers’ opposition, despite no discernible change in the Senate that would indicate they could get confirmed. 

The Biden administration says it is committed to filling the vacant positions. “We continue to seek the swift confirmation of many crucial, highly-qualified nominees to serve across the administration, and we will be re-nominating a number of officials in the coming weeks,” a White House official said in an email.

Still, some senators are pushing to improve the process and more swiftly confirm nominees, attuned to how the missing ambassadors can undermine U.S. interests abroad. “It’s critical to U.S. national security and our relationships with allies and partners that we have in place senior diplomats in key posts around the world,” said Democratic Sen. Chris Coons, a senior lawmaker on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. 

Empty ambassador posts are filled by lower-ranking diplomats in an acting capacity, a chargé d’affaires in diplomatic parlance, but even the most capable chargé won’t have the same clout or access that an ambassador does. 

“If you’re going to have an embassy at all, you’ve got to have an ambassador,” said John Sullivan, a former U.S. deputy secretary of state and ambassador to Russia. He cited his tenure as ambassador to Moscow from 2020 to 2022 as an example. “If it’s not an ambassador, the Russians won’t engage. The chargés have a really hard time. The Russians are very protocol-conscious,” he said.

Foreign Policy spoke to U.S. lawmakers, diplomats, and other experts about five of the most glaring examples of absent ambassadors. 

1. India

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has billed the U.S. relationship with India—which recently assumed the presidency of the G-20 and is on track to become the world’s most populous country—as “one of the most consequential in the world.” 

But for more than two years, Washington has failed to confirm an ambassador to steer relations forward. Biden’s ambassador pick to India, former Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, has been stuck in the Senate confirmation process for around a year, spurred by opposition from Republican lawmakers and scandals from his tenure as mayor.

That may have hampered collaboration between the two nations, said Nisha Biswal, a senior vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and former assistant secretary for South and Central Asian affairs at the U.S. State Department. “I think we have not been able to advance some of those initiatives as quickly and as effectively as if we had had an ambassador on the ground,” she said, while pointing to areas such as climate cooperation. 

Outside of disrupting government-level relations, the failure to fill the position has also damaged public perception of Washington. It shows the U.S. at dysfunction,” Biswal said. “We’re not politically able to get our house in order.”

Biden renominated Garcetti to be ambassador this month, after his Senate confirmation process was held up over allegations that he disregarded sexual harassment accusations that were made against his deputy of chief of staff. “We immediately renominated Mayor Garcetti on the first day of the new Congress because we continue to believe he is an experienced candidate with bipartisan support who deserves swift confirmation to a post of crucial importance to our national security,” the White House official said.

In the meantime, Garcetti has expressed optimism that he would be confirmed to the position. “I’ve stopped doing the guessing game of the when, but I feel quite optimistic,” he told CNN in December. “I have good support from Republicans and Democrats who recognize this is a critical position. … I can’t wait to get to work.”


2. Ethiopia

Ethiopia has been mired in a devastating and brutal conflict for over two years, pitting the Ethiopian federal government and forces from neighboring Eritrea against forces in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The conflict was marked by widespread atrocities and allegations of crimes against humanity. Geeta Pasi, the last U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia, stepped down from her post in February 2022, and Washington has yet to dispatch Biden’s replacement almost a year later.

That gap without a U.S. ambassador in place proved to be pivotal for Ethiopia, as the United States and other regional powers worked to broker a fragile peace deal between the Ethiopian government and TPLF. Biden nominated a career diplomat, Ervin Massinga, to replace Pasi at the beginning of the year, but it’s unclear when and how quickly his nomination will pass through the Senate. 

Coons said he wanted Massinga confirmed and fast. “I look forward to swift hearings on the nomination of [Massinga]” to Ethiopia, he said, “where he will help monitor the current ceasefire, the delivery of humanitarian relief, and ongoing political dialogue.”

Top Ethiopian officials are also extremely attuned to diplomatic protocol and rank, said one former senior State Department official, who declined to speak on the record to speak candidly about the matter. Administration officials say U.S. policy hasn’t been hindered by the absence of an ambassador, due to the administration’s decision to appoint a special envoy for the Horn of Africa region, currently Mike Hammer.

Ethiopia is one of Africa’s largest countries and has outsized clout in exporting security through U.N. peacekeepers, economic growth across East Africa, or, in the worst case, regional instability. “That we’ve had a gap there for just under a year is a major source of concern,” the official said. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed “knows who is in this country and this region. … In a country like Ethiopia, there are people that Abiy just won’t give that kind of time and attention to,” the former official said—namely, lower-ranking diplomats. 


3. Italy

When hard-right politician Giorgia Meloni became Italy’s prime minister in October 2022, there were mounting concerns in Washington and other NATO countries over the future of Italy’s democracy under its furthest-right government since World War II and whether Rome would backtrack on support for Ukraine in its war against Russia. But the Biden administration had no ambassador in place to deliver these messages. In fact, unlike many of the other empty ambassador posts, Biden has yet to even nominate an ambassador to Italy, a conspicuous gap that has left European Union officials bristling and scratching their heads behind closed doors. 

“You need the ambassador here now because the leadership of the country is changing,” as one source told Politico last August. So far, Meloni has kept up Italy’s support for Ukraine despite some of her coalition allies’ past ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin. But if that changes, the Biden administration may regret not sending an envoy to Rome sooner to head off any crises in bilateral relations.


4. Saudi Arabia

Few countries have received more political scrutiny from Washington than Saudi Arabia, but there hasn’t been a U.S. ambassador to Riyadh to help navigate that stormy relationship since Biden took office over two years ago. 

In 2018, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the brazen murder of a government critic and U.S.-based journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, sparking international outcry and fury in Washington. Saudi Arabia’s campaign in Yemen against Iran-backed forces bogged down into a military quagmire marked by accusations of indiscriminate bombing. 

Biden pledged to drastically reassess U.S.-Saudi relations, calling Riyadh a “pariah” during the 2020 presidential campaign, and to make human rights a centerpiece of his foreign policy, but he hasn’t exactly followed through, as an infamous fist bump with Mohammed bin Salman and massive U.S. arms sales to the Gulf kingdom seem to show. 

Biden’s diplomatic overtures with Saudi Arabia have left members of his own Democratic Party fuming and his nominee to be the U.S. ambassador, seasoned career diplomat Michael Ratney, a hostage in the political fallout. Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden announced in September 2022 that he would put a hold on Ratney’s confirmation until the Biden administration convinced him that it has a plan to stop the Saudi government’s human rights abuses. He cited a case in his home state of Oregon, where the Saudi government reportedly helped a Saudi national flee the United States after he was charged with killing a teenage girl in a hit-and-run. It’s unclear how much longer Ratney’s nomination could be held up, but the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh hasn’t had an ambassador since Jan. 20, 2021, when former President Donald Trump left office. 


5. Colombia 

In a bid to fortify ties with Colombia, a key U.S. partner in Latin America, Biden designated the nation as a major non-NATO ally in May 2022. He also hailed Bogotá as “the lynchpin, in my view, to the whole hemisphere”—making the current absence of a U.S. ambassador to the country particularly perplexing to foreign-policy observers.

This month, Biden nominated Jean Elizabeth Manes, the current civilian deputy to the commander and senior foreign-policy advisor at U.S. Southern Command, to be the country’s ambassador. She was previously the U.S. ambassador to El Salvador.

If the position remains unfilled, experts warn that it could convey a message of disinterest. “When there isn’t an ambassador in place, that is a signal for many that the U.S. is not committed,” said Jason Marczak, the senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center.

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

Christina Lu is a reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @christinafei

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