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US ambassadors: Who might stay and who might go under Biden

NATO country flags wave at the entrance of NATO headquarters in Brussels as Secretary of Defense Ash Carter attends a NATO ministerial Feb. 11, 2016. (Photo by Senior Master Sgt. Adrian Cadiz)(Released)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Come January, many U.S. diplomats overseas may be packing their bags along with President Donald Trump.

All U.S. ambassadors – the envoys to nearly 200 countries and organizations, such as the United Nations, NATO and the European Union — are formally asked to send in their resignation shortly after a new president is elected.

However, resignations submitted by career foreign service professionals are, as a rule, not accepted. They usually continue to serve until they complete their three-year stint.

It is a different story, though, for those known as political appointees — ambassadors chosen directly by the White House.

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U.S. presidential administrations divvy up the list of ambassadorships, handing some to long-serving members of the State Department and others to people who supported the president’s election campaign, such as unpaid policy advisers or donors, some of whom may have no diplomatic or overseas experience.

These political appointees are often assigned to “comfortable countries” in Europe, Asia, and a few in South America, said John Herbst, a retired career foreign service officer who served as ambassador to Ukraine and Uzbekistan. Some could also be assigned as ambassadors to organizations like NATO and the EU.

“Given the way our political system works, candidates for president require thousands of political professionals whom they don’t pay, so they may say ‘debts are incurred,'” Herbst, who is now an analyst at the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington, told RFE/RL.

It is not a practice shared by most nations. And some foreign governments may be disappointed to receive a U.S. ambassador who lacks diplomatic experience, said William Courtney, a career foreign service officer who was the first U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan.

The issue of political appointees received significant scrutiny in 2019, when U.S. Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland was swept up in the impeachment investigation into whether Trump pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to dig up dirt on Joe Biden, now president-elect, and his son Hunter.

Trump was impeached by the Democrat-led House of Representatives but acquitted by the Senate in February 2020.

Sondland, a successful hotel-chain owner, was appointed to the position in 2018 after he donated $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee. He, then-special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker, and Energy Secretary Rick Perry were sometimes called the “Three Amigos” and accused by critics of running a shadow foreign policy in Ukraine aimed to help Trump politically.

Record Number

Historically, administrations have assigned from one-quarter to one-third of the ambassador positions to political appointees, Herbst said, adding that the percentage has risen over the years.

The Trump administration chose 81 political appointees, equivalent to 43 percent of the total.

According to research by the American Foreign Service Association, that is the highest ratio of any administration since at least 1974, when Gerald Ford became president upon Richard Nixon’s resignation. Data prior to Ford’s presidency has not yet been compiled.

Trump has expressed strong distrust of career government bureaucrats, including those serving in the State Department, referring to them regularly as the “deep state.”

The pejorative term implies a kind of shadow government and policy run by bureaucrats from such institutions.

The resignations of political appointees are generally accepted by the incoming administration, meaning that Biden is expected to have plenty of positions to fill at the outset of his term.

Biden may seek to appoint fewer political appointees in order to distance himself from Trump’s practices, Courtney, who is now an analyst for the Washington-based think tank Rand Corp., told RFE/RL.

“The Biden administration will want to draw a distinction in its approach to ambassadors as part of an overall strategy to show that its foreign policy is more credible, more professional than the Trump administration policy,” Courtney said.

How The Process Works

The administration will let the State Department know which ambassador positions it intends to fill with political appointees, said Ronald Neumann, a retired career foreign officer who also served as ambassador to several countries including Afghanistan.

A State Department committee chaired by the deputy secretary of state and composed of undersecretaries of state then goes about filling the rest, Neumann told RFE/RL.

The committee will receive recommendations from the State Department’s regional sections, such as the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, as well as from its personnel system. The committee will inform the secretary of state of its choices and then send the list over the White House for final approval.

The White House will then tell each foreign government whom it intends to nominate as ambassador. Once U.S. officials receive a positive response from the foreign government, the White House sends the nomination to the Senate for a vote.

It is unusual for a country to reject the choice of a U.S. ambassador, said Neumann. In one of those rare instances, Egypt fumed when Barack Obama’s administration picked Robert Ford, who had served as ambassador to Algeria and Syria, because of his pro-democracy stance.

Any candidate for an ambassadorship must next be approved by the Senate following a hearing. Again, rejections are rare, said Neumann, even when the Senate and White House are controlled by different parties, but it has happened.

George Tsunis, a major fundraiser for Obama and other Democrats in 2012, was rejected by the Democratic-controlled Senate as ambassador to Norway after he got basic details about the nation wrong during his hearing.

Countries Impacted

Many nations in RFE/RL’s region of coverage could see new U.S. ambassadors arrive in 2021.

The U.S. ambassadors to Hungary, Romania, Russia, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan are political appointees who are likely to be replaced by the Biden administration.

The U.S. ambassadors to Kosovo, Kyrgyzstan, and Moldova are career foreign service officers whose three-year terms end next year.

Meanwhile, there is no U.S. ambassador currently in place in Afghanistan, Belarus, Pakistan, and Ukraine.

The Trump administration has nominated people to those four vacant positions, and some have testified before the Senate.

Julie Fisher, who was nominated to be the next ambassador to Belarus, is the only career foreign service appointee among the four, and her confirmation process could move ahead despite the political upheaval in the former Soviet republic.

Though the Trump administration’s nominee for Ukraine, Keith Dayton, is a political appointee, Herbst and Courtney said he might remain on track to be ambassador in a Biden administration.

Dayton, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant general who studied Russian, has been serving as a defense adviser to the Ukrainian government since 2018.

Ukraine is battling Russia-backed forces in two of its eastern provinces and the nearly seven-year war is the probably the biggest issue in U.S.-Ukraine relations.

The United States has given Ukraine more than $1.5 billion in military equipment since the war broke out.

Dayton was picked by Trump in early 2020 and testified before Congress in August, but his candidacy is still pending.

“He is well respected across the aisle,” Herbst said, meaning respected by both Democratic and Republican lawmakers. “He is seen as a professional, not a political appointee. If Biden wins, I don’t rule out the possibility the Dayton nomination will proceed.”

In addition to the 189 ambassadors, the United States has many special envoys for particular regions or issues, such as an envoy for the Western Balkans, for Serbia-Kosovo talks, and for Afghan peace talks.

Richard Grenell, the presidential envoy for Serbia-Kosovo talks, is expected to lose his position due to his very close ties to Trump.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the envoy to the Afghan peace talks, has a long career in public diplomacy, but will also likely lose his position due to his ties to the Republican Party, Courtney and Neumann said.