On July 8th, Secretary Kerry published an op-ed in Politico Magazine entitled, “Why Is the Senate Hobbling American Diplomacy?” 53 State Department nominations, 37 of which have already been confirmed by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, await confirmation by the full Senate. With these vacancies, the United States is without a direct line of communication in 40 countries- more than 25% of the world.
Ambassadors are a key component of what Kerry rightfully terms the “diplomatic toolbox.” For an embassy to operate at full-capacity and strength there must be a permanent ambassador in place. Without one, the United States is unable to respond to crisis, like the kidnapping of more than 200 young women in Nigeria by Boko Haram, or be fully engaged in the global community.
As Kerry points out, it sends a dangerous message to allies and adversaries about America’s commitment to global affairs and compromises national interests- especially security. Diplomacy enables efforts to prevent violent conflict, contributes to capacity-building development programs, and fosters long-term relationships between the US and its allies.
Secretaries Gates and Hagel, and Secretaries Clinton, Kerry, Powell, and Rice have argued a well-supported combination of civilian and military resources, smart power, is vital to America’s success in the 21st century. Diplomacy is at the core of civilian power and the absence of American leaders in more than 25% of the world undermines smart power strategy. The Senate’s failure to confirm more than 50 State Department nominations destabilizes the US across foreign affairs.
Senate confirmation controversy is not uncommon, but the treatment of State Department nominations is particularly extreme especially when compared to the confirmation process of 3- and 4- star generals, the military counterparts of Senior Foreign Service officers. Despite strikingly similar training (All military officers must attend a branch’s War College or the National War College at the National Defense University. Most SFS were also students in these same programs) and internal vetting before nomination processes, the confirmations of DOD and DOS officials are markedly different.
DOD nominations are rarely contested and often assumed automatic confirmations, with the official confirmation occurring within days of the nomination. Conversely, the current average wait time for FSO is now more than 266 days. DOD and DOS nominees are both selected by a precept board after rigorous vetting processes, though only officer nominations and promotions regularly enjoy speedy confirmations by the full Senate.
The disparity between the two underlines greater support for military over civilian power. However, as Kerry points out in his recent op-ed, diplomacy is one of the US’s greatest resources in foreign affairs. It is time for both Houses of Congress to more fully support 21st century state craft, starting with the Senate confirmation of the 37 State Department nominations already confirmed by the SFRC.
Secretary Kerry’s op-ed can be read in full here.
Maggie Feldman-Piltch is a diplomacy and strategic communications intern at the American Security Project. She is a recent graduate of Wesleyan University with Honors in General Scholarship, where she completed an independently designed major in Theories of Ethics in Capitalism. You can follow her on twitter here.