Seven months in, the Biden administration is struggling to fill hundreds of leadership positions.
To be fair, it’s been busy with a pandemic, economic crisis and assault on our democracy.
So, too, has the Senate, which is responsible for confirming about 1,200 of these appointments.
While President Joe Biden is lagging behind most administrations in recent history, this time-consuming task challenges every presidency.
The lag in confirmations impedes many government agencies, but its impact on foreign policy is particularly detrimental. Of 256 State Department positions requiring confirmation, 98 today are staffed by career officials who stayed on from the last administration, leaving 158 for Biden to fill.
As of last Wednesday, only 10 have been confirmed, with 65 not even nominated yet.
Most of those empty seats are ambassadors, the president’s highest-ranking representative to a country or international organization.
In each case, the United States is funding an entire embassy or mission, with employees numbering from a handful to several thousand, whose leadership, direction and influence are severely diminished, for several months to years.
We’re not just talking about Fiji, either.
China, Russia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and South Korea are just a few of those empty seats.
These aren’t places where our relationship should be on autopilot.
The number of State Department positions requiring Senate confirmation dwarfs any other.
Even the Defense Department, which employs 10 times as many civilians in addition to 2 million military personnel, only has 62 positions requiring Senate confirmation.
Only 22 of those are still awaiting nomination.
Of course, it doesn’t make sense to fill our military with political actors.
Appointing political generals was abandoned after the Civil War for good reason.
But why is the State Department treated differently?
America hands out dozens of top diplomatic positions to donors and supporters with no diplomatic experience, while political appointments in the Defense Department are reserved for experienced national security professionals.
It’s no wonder diplomacy so often takes a backseat to the military in America’s international engagements.
Much has been written about how embarrassing this can be. While this reached a peak under President Donald Trump, it is nothing new. President Barack Obama, too, was criticized for appointing some uniquely unqualified ambassadors.
The gaffes get news coverage, but the bigger problem is the volume of top diplomatic positions that get caught up in the political game.
It undermines our credibility and impedes diplomatic efforts across the globe.
The acting ambassador, known as the chargé d’affaires, might be an experienced former ambassador, or a deputy in over his or her head.
Either way, that official doesn’t have the same authority as an ambassador.
Diplomacy is an old and distinguished sport in which titles and protocols matter.
Officials and other diplomats know the difference between a placeholder and the president’s official representative.
I saw this as a diplomat in Somalia. When we were led by an ambassador, America was clearly the lead voice in the room, the first to be called for advice, whether by the Somali government or United Nations leadership.
After our ambassador left, the position remained unfilled for over a year, and our influence plummeted.
That matters for promoting U.S. national security priorities, and that was only one country. Multiply that vacancy’s impact by dozens.
Several factors feed into these empty seats. The volume of turnover with each new presidency makes a backlog almost inevitable, and Senate confirmation takes time.
In today’s hyperpartisan atmosphere, nothing is easy, and the new Senate must triage not only confirmations but also the slog of priority legislation.
Occasionally appointments are controversial for policy reasons, but most obstacles involve senators using control over appointments as leverage, or simply a failure to prioritize confirmations over other Senate business.
Getting a new administration up to speed will always be a challenge, but this doesn’t have to be one of them.
The answer is relying more on nonpartisan career diplomats who can continue serving from one administration to the next.
Giving fewer diplomatic posts to political supporters and big donors would stagger more of the Senate confirmation process throughout each administration, leaving less of a gap with each new president.
Having continuity and stability in place in most of our diplomatic relationships would create more space for America’s new political leadership to focus on the biggest challenges.
This would have the added benefit of more professional leadership in our foreign policy too, which would undoubtedly make it more effective and reduce our default tendency to put the military in the lead.
Or here’s a radical idea.
We could treat diplomacy like the challenging and essential profession that it is and stop handing out ambassadorships to big donors altogether.
After all, no other developed nation does. Perhaps this is an area in which America shouldn’t aim to be so exceptional.
Elizabeth Shackelford is a senior fellow on U.S. foreign policy with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.