What’s behind vacant ambassadorial posts under the Biden admin, and why it’s a problem

Nearly one year into office, the Biden administration is still missing ambassadors in key parts of the world — including India and Pakistan. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee considered candidates for those two posts Tuesday — marking a step forward in what has been a painstakingly slow process to fill embassies. Amna Nawaz explores what this means for U.S. diplomacy.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Nearly one year into office, the Biden administration is still lacking ambassadors in key parts of the world, including India and Pakistan.

    The Senate Foreign Relations Committee considered candidates for those two posts today, marking a step forward in what has been a painstakingly slow process to fill U.S. embassies.

    Amna Nawaz has more on what this means for U.S. diplomacy.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Of the 80 ambassadorial nominees President Biden has put forward, the Senate has so far confirmed just 12. Secretary of State Antony Blinken this week blamed a slow Senate confirmation process.

    Antony Blinken, U.S. Secretary of State: As of last week, only 16 percent of our ambassadors have been confirmed.

    At this point in the last three administrations, the number was between 70 percent and 90 percent.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    For more on all this, I'm joined by Eric Rubin. He is the former U.S. ambassador to Bulgaria and is now president of the American Foreign Service Association.

    Ambassador Rubin, welcome to the "NewsHour." Thanks for being here.

    So, to fill these ambassador posts, two things have to happen. The president has to nominate people, the Senate has to confirm them. Where in the process is most of the backup right now?

    Eric Rubin, Former U.S. Ambassador to Bulgaria: Well, both of those problems are very real right now.

    The biggest backup is the fact we have blanket holds in the Senate. That means almost all of the nominees have been blocked from being considered on the floor of the Senate. This has never happened before, to anyone's knowledge.

    In addition, the administration has been slow to nominate candidates, so we still have about one-third of the jobs without nominees. Put that together, and we have an astonishing number of vacant ambassadorial posts around the world.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Let's take it piece by piece, though.

    Let's start with the administration. Why have they been so slow? Is that unusual? And what could be causing that?

  • Eric Rubin:

    Well, it's a good question. And we have been asking that question.

    I think part of it may be holding back nominees because they already have such a backlog in the Senate that they don't want to add to it. I can't speak for the administration. But we think they should nominate every candidate they have to get them on the table, so that also the world knows that we're serious about getting ambassadors out to our embassies across the world.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Ambassador, is a more sort of extreme or intense vetting process any part of the holdup here? And I'm asking because I'm thinking of the hearing today of former Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who is nominated to be the U.S. ambassador to India, facing a number of tough questions because of previous reports about concerns over conflicts of interest in a relationship with Hunter Biden, and one of his former top aides facing allegations of sexual harassment by a Los Angeles Police Department officer.

    Is it harder today to find good nominees to put forward?

  • Eric Rubin:

    Well, I think the vetting process has gotten more complicated over the years.

    I can't comment on individual nominees, but I can say definitely that, for people who've been confirmed before, the hope is that they can be confirmed more quickly the second, third, fourth time. In reality, it's like starting from scratch every time.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, can I ask you, more broadly, what worries you about a lot of these posts not being filled right now?

  • Eric Rubin:

    Well, we need ambassadors in the field. We need to have ambassadors representing our country, representing the president.

    When an ambassador is confirmed by the Senate, that person goes out with the endorsement of both the president of the United States and the United States Senate. That's powerful. That has a lot of strength for everybody who's involved in the process.

    If you're a foreign government, you know that this person represents our country, two branches of government. But, also, we have got a lot of diplomacy to do in this very messy world right now. And without an ambassador, we don't have access to the senior leaders. We don't have the coordinating function that an ambassador has to play. So we're really tying both our hands behind our back.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Let me ask you about some of those blocks and hold on the nominations from the Senate.

    There's a notable one from Senator Marco Rubio, who's holding up the confirmation of Ambassador Nick Burns to go to China. He has concerns over his business relationships there. But at the forefront of a lot of the Republican pushback are two senators, Josh Hawley of Missouri and Ted Cruz of Texas.

    Hawley's concerns are that he wants to see Secretary Blinken resign after the Afghanistan withdrawal. And Cruz's concerns are that he wants to see sanctions against a natural gas pipeline between Russia and Germany. They're not objecting to the qualifications of the nominees, though. And I wonder how usual that is in the process.

  • Eric Rubin:

    Well, that's actually the strongest argument, I think, for moving forward, is, obviously, senators have policy concerns. That's the whole reason the Senate has the right of advice and consent on nominees.

    So individual concerns, individual holds have always been part of the process. It's this concept of just saying nobody is going to be confirmed, that we're not going to send anyone out — or, in a few cases, we have — for former senators, for former senatorial spouses, there are a few people who have been confirmed.

    But, as Secretary Blinken said in his statement, the numbers are unprecedentedly low. And our argument is not with any specific concerns, and we don't get into policy issues. We just think that America needs strong diplomacy, needs strong representation overseas.

    And to do that, we can't — can't not fill our ambassadorships. And no other country — it's important to say, no other country does this. And the days when America could simply assume that whatever peculiarities that we have in our process would just be understood and accepted by the rest of the world, I think those days are past.

    We need to get our game up and get the ambassadors out to the field as soon as we can.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That is Eric Rubin, former ambassador of the U.S. to Bulgaria and president of the American Foreign Service Association.

    Ambassador Rubin, thanks for making the time to be with us.

  • Eric Rubin:

    It's a pleasure to be here.

Listen to this Segment