Ambassadors work on more mundane jobs, too, like helping American companies land contracts overseas. “Other countries often send cabinet ministers to pitch major contracts,” said Gordon Gray, a former ambassador to Tunisia now at the liberal Center for American Progress. “The next best thing to a cabinet minister is an ambassador. A chargé d’affaires? Not even close.”
In Central Asia, for example, China is building a gargantuan “belt and road” network to connect Europe to Asia, complete with massive investments in construction projects. But the United States has no assistant secretary of state in charge of the region, and no ambassadors in its two most important countries, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
“We’re not on the field,” said Geoff Odlum, who served in the U.S. embassy in Afghanistan. “I don’t know if China is winning hearts and minds out there, but they’re making a lot of alliances of interests—and we’re not.”
And that brings us back to Australia.
The Trump administration says it wants stronger alliances in Asia and the Pacific to help constrain China’s expanding power. “We’re building new and stronger bonds with nations that share our values across the region … [in] a spirit of respect built on partnership, not domination,” Vice President Mike Pence said in a speech last month. But Trump’s on-again, off-again bromance with Xi Jinping, his decision to skip the ASEAN summit in Singapore, and his failure to fill the ambassador’s job have made Australians wonder whether they can count on the United States as a reliable ally.
The core problem isn’t that the U.S. ambassador’s office is empty; it’s that Australians worry that Washington’s promises of a steady partnership may be empty as well. “If Washington had a clear and credible plan to resist China … then a good ambassador to sell that policy would be great,” said White, the dean of Australian strategic thinkers. “But as things stand, all an ambassador would do is advertise the lack of a coherent policy in Washington.”
George P. Shultz, who served six years as Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state, is fond of saying that successful diplomacy is like gardening. “If you plant a garden and go away for six months, what have you got when you come back? Weeds,” Shultz said. “Diplomacy is kind of like that. You go around and talk to people, you develop a relationship of trust and confidence, and then if something comes up, you have that base to work from.”
That doesn’t sound much like the Trump administration’s style. In a new book, The Jungle Grows Back, Robert Kagan, who once worked for Shultz, extended the metaphor. “You don’t plant a garden and then just sit back,” Kagan said. “The forces of nature are always trying to take it over. The vines are growing. The weeds are growing. And that’s true of our international order, too.”
The Trump administration fired dozens of its foreign-policy gardeners—otherwise known as ambassadors—and has been slow to get new ones into the field. It shouldn’t be surprised when the result is not a garden, but a jungle.