Situation Report

A weekly digest of national security, defense, and cybersecurity news from reporters Jack Detsch and Robbie Gramer. Look out for special editions of this newsletter Feb. 16-19 as SitRep heads to Germany to give you behind-the-scenes looks and breaking news from The Munich Security Conference, one of the most consequential gatherings of world leaders.

The U.S. Lets Ambassador Posts Sit Empty for Years. China Doesn’t.

Crucial posts remain unfilled due to good old-fashioned Washington dysfunction.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and , a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
A close-up of the U.S. State Department seal, with an eagle.
A close-up of the U.S. State Department seal, with an eagle.
A view of the U.S. State Department seal on a podium at the State Department in Washington on June 9, 2017. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s SitRep! Today, we have a veritable font of news, starting with this: The State Department is phasing out Times New Roman and replacing it with Calibri.

As our friend (and FP alumnus) John Hudson over at the Washington Post reported: “The Times (New Roman) are a-Changing.” Time to start drafting up your dissent cables, folks.

Alright, here’s what’s on tap for the day: U.S. ambassador posts sit empty for years, Western allies gear up to send tanks to Ukraine, and Turkey pushes Biden for F-16 deal.

Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s SitRep! Today, we have a veritable font of news, starting with this: The State Department is phasing out Times New Roman and replacing it with Calibri.

As our friend (and FP alumnus) John Hudson over at the Washington Post reported: “The Times (New Roman) are a-Changing.” Time to start drafting up your dissent cables, folks.

Alright, here’s what’s on tap for the day: U.S. ambassador posts sit empty for years, Western allies gear up to send tanks to Ukraine, and Turkey pushes Biden for F-16 deal.

If you would like to receive Situation Report in your inbox every Thursday, please sign up here.


If Showing Up Is Half the Battle…

In the summer of 2018, James Melville, a senior career diplomat, resigned from his post as U.S. ambassador to Estonia in protest to former President Donald Trump’s tirades against European allies.

This week, career U.S. diplomat George Kent (whom you may remember as a witness from Trump’s first impeachment trial) was sworn in as the next U.S. ambassador to Estonia, officials told SitRep.

But for the time in between—four and a half years—that ambassador post has sat empty, despite Estonia’s outsized role in the West’s response to Russia’s war in Ukraine and its role as an important U.S. NATO ally.

That four-and-a-half-year gap is part of a trend that represents what veteran national security officials and experts call a grave and unjustified own-goal in U.S. foreign policy, as we report with our colleague Christina Lu.

Missing in action. Around the world, dozens of U.S. ambassador posts have sat empty for months or even years on end, the result of an increasingly broken and politicized confirmation process.

Countries that haven’t had a U.S. ambassador in place for a year or longer include: India, one of the United States’ most important partners in its strategy to counter China; Ethiopia, a country wracked by a deadly conflict and one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises; Italy, a major NATO ally; Colombia, one of Washington’s most important Latin American allies and a major player in the Western response to Venezuela’s ongoing humanitarian and political crisis; and Saudi Arabia, the Gulf ally under increasing scrutiny from U.S. lawmakers over its dismal human rights records.

All those posts are filled in acting capacities by lower-ranking diplomats, but they don’t have the same clout within the embassy or host government as an ambassador picked by the president and confirmed by the Senate. They are also often overstretched to make up for the absence of an ambassador.

Washington just can’t quit dysfunction. U.S. President Joe Biden vowed to restore the State Department after the Trump era, but this problem hasn’t gone away.

Biden’s ambassador pick to India, former Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, is still stuck in the Senate, mired in controversy, more than a year and a half after he was nominated. “When you try for nearly two years and you can’t get him through a Senate controlled by your own party, then maybe you say this isn’t happening, and moreover we really need an ambassador to India,” one senior State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told SitRep. And Biden has yet to even name a nominee to be ambassador to Italy, two years into his presidency. “Behind the scenes, the Italians are really pissed,” a second State Department official said.

The White House told us in response to our latest story on this that it is continuing to seek “the swift confirmation of many crucial, highly-qualified nominees.” On Garcetti, a White House spokesperson said that “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.”

But even beyond that, the Senate confirmation process is becoming more drawn out and increasingly politicized, sometimes with career ambassador nominees caught in the crossfire, being held up for months or even years as points of leverage for a senator to extract a concession out of the White House that has nothing to do with the qualifications of the nominee in question—or simply because the Senate schedule is jampacked and processing ambassador nominees gets sidelined for other legislation.

It ain’t like the good ole days. Back in the halcyon days of the post-Cold War era, when the United States was the undisputed global leader, perhaps it could afford to let ambassador posts sit empty for years. That’s all changing with China emerging as a rival global superpower, leaving Washington scrambling to play catch-up in a game of geopolitical influence and clout across the world (just look at the case of the Solomon Islands as one example).

China now has more embassies and consulates around the world than the United States, and unlike Washington, Beijing doesn’t let its ambassador posts sit empty for years on end. “There’s a perception within the foreign-policy establishment that we still run the world and the rest of the world just has to tolerate our peculiarities and annoying characteristics,” the first senior State Department official said. “But that’s a big mistake, and it’s certainly one that China is not making.”


Let’s Get Personnel

Brazilian diplomat Maria Luiza Viotti is expected to be tapped as Brazil’s next ambassador to the United States. Viotti, a former chief of staff to U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and Brazilian ambassador to the United Nations, would be the first woman to hold the envoy job in Washington if confirmed.

After first blocking a job offer, Harvard University is now reversing course and offering a fellowship to human rights advocate Kenneth Roth following public outcry, as the New York Times reports.

On Capitol Hill, Mark McKinnon has joined Republican Sen. Katie Britt’s office as the senator’s national security advisor, as Politico first reported.

Naoko Aoki, a scholar on East Asia security matters, is joining the Rand Corp. as an associate political scientist.

Catherine Sendak is joining the Center for European Policy Analysis as its director for trans-Atlantic defense and security.

Megan Bates-Apper is moving from her role as a senior advisor at the State Department to the Treasury Department as senior spokesperson for international affairs.


On the Button 

What should be high on your radar, if it isn’t already.

No tanks. Western officials are in a heated standoff about whether to send tanks and long-range weapons to Ukraine ahead of the meeting on Friday of the U.S.-led Ukraine Defense Contact Group at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, Jack and FP’s Amy Mackinnon report.

Germany has indicated to U.S. officials that it will not send Leopard tanks to Ukraine unless the U.S. Defense Department ships its own Abrams main battle tanks, something that appears to be off the table for the foreseeable future. And ahead of the conference, British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace is also making a last-minute push to get Germany to at least approve the export of Leopards in Polish and Finnish stockpiles. The U.S. military has also recently asked its forces stationed in South Korea to provide Ukraine with more equipment.

Talking Turkey. America’s erstwhile NATO ally is trying to push the U.S. Congress to drop its opposition to a $20 billion deal for U.S.-made F-16 fighter jets, which Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu addressed in his visit to Washington on Wednesday.

Cavusoglu urged the Biden administration to be “decisive” in forcing the deal through Congress, while Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez and other congressional leaders have pushed back over Ankara’s human rights record, saber-rattling in Syria, and purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense system, which already got Turkey kicked out of the F-35 fighter jet program nearly four years ago.

Lima letdown. Protests raged in Peru’s capital of Lima on Thursday, as supporters of former President Pedro Castillo—who was ousted in December after a failed effort to dissolve the country’s Congress—flooded in from rural communities to demand President Dina Boluarte’s resignation and immediate elections. The violence stemming from the political turmoil, the worst in more than two decades, has already left 53 people dead since December, most of them in clashes with the security forces.


Snapshot 

A close-up of Jacinda Ardern's face, while she is frowning.
A close-up of Jacinda Ardern's face, while she is frowning.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announces her resignation at the Napier War Memorial Centre in Napier, New Zealand, on Jan. 19.Kerry Marshall/Getty Images


Put on Your Radar

Thursday, Jan. 19: U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is set to meet his new German counterpart, Boris Pistorius, in Berlin.

Friday, Jan. 20: The United States is set to lead the 50-nation Ukraine Defense Contact Group meeting at Ramstein Air Base in Germany on the two-year anniversary of Biden’s inauguration.


Quote of the Week

“I often talk with President [Volodymyr] Zelensky. I am speaking Polish; he is speaking Ukrainian. And we understand each other, especially when it comes to the question of where the Russian warship should go.”

Polish President Andrzej Duda at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, this week. 


FP’s Most Read This Week

The Hidden History of the World’s Top Offshore Cryptocurrency Tax Haven by Adam Tooze

Turkey Is Sending Cold War-Era Cluster Bombs to Ukraine by Jack Detsch and Robbie Gramer

Decoupling Wastes U.S. Leverage on China by Paul Scharre


Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

Santos saga. The story of freshman Rep. George Santos, who fabricated large parts of his resume and is facing calls for his resignation from his home county Republican Party, continues to get weirder. The New York Times has also learned that Santos’s mother was not in the World Trade Center on 9/11, another consistent claim that the Republican congressman has made. A U.S. Navy veteran also accused Santos of pocketing money from a fundraiser he set up for his dying dog—charges that Santos denies.

Still, despite the nonstop train of controversies rolling in, Republicans have given the embattled freshman representative spots on the House Small Business Committee and the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.

Correction, Jan. 19, 2023: A previous version of this newsletter incorrectly stated the timing of George Kent’s swearing-in as U.S. ambassador to Estonia. It has been fixed.

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

Jack Detsch is a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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