Australia is one of the United States’ closest allies anywhere. Its soldiers fought alongside Americans in World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. It’s a member of the world’s most exclusive intelligence club, the “Five Eyes” (the other four are the United States, Canada, Britain, and New Zealand). Its conservative prime minister says he wants to help the United States curb China’s growing domination of East Asia.
So why can’t Australia get more respect from the Trump administration?
For more than two years, the United States has failed to send an ambassador to Canberra, and Australians who pay attention to foreign policy see the omission as a slight. “It’s starting to really grate, particularly for true believers in the alliance,” James Curran, a foreign-policy scholar at the University of Sydney, told me. “They fear it is a signal from Washington that Australia might not be so valued a partner after all.”
“Australia, from President Trump’s perspective, is a second-class ally,” former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said.
To anyone but a diplomacy wonk, this might seem little more than bungled protocol and hurt feelings. Except for this: Australia is debating its strategic future in a rapidly changing Asia. Should it stick to its traditional role as a military ally of the United States, or cast itself instead as a mostly economic partner for China?
For decades, Australians have tried to play both roles at the same time, but that’s an increasingly difficult balancing act. As conflicts sharpen between Donald Trump and Xi Jinping, Australians are beginning to worry that they will be forced to choose one side or the other—and they’re not sure which way to jump.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison asked for a meeting with Trump at this month’s Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Singapore, but the president decided to skip the event. Meanwhile, Xi invited Morrison to Beijing, part of a charm offensive that includes offering Australia a stake in economic projects around the Pacific.
“We are having a fundamental debate here about foreign and defense policy because we are now starting to see that America will not play the role in Asia that we would like it to play,” Hugh White, the dean of Australian strategic thinkers, told me. Without a reliable U.S. presence, he warned, Australia will have no choice but to accommodate the rise of China. “We have to accept the challenge of negotiating our place in the new Asia without U.S. support,” White said.
Not an ideal moment to leave the U.S. embassy in Canberra without an ambassador. Australia isn’t the only U.S. ally that feels underappreciated. Trump has made a specialty of abusing friends while he butters up adversaries. He’s accused Germany and other NATO members of cheating on their dues, denounced the European Union as a plot against the United States, and called Canada’s prime minister “dishonest.”
He’s left dozens of U.S. embassies understaffed, too. Two years after his election, the president still hasn’t nominated ambassadors to two of the most important U.S. allies in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and Turkey—as became apparent after the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul.
There’s no U.S. ambassador in Mexico, our troubled neighbor to the south. No ambassador in nuclear-armed Pakistan, arguably the most dangerous country on Earth. No ambassador in Egypt, the most populous country in the Arab world. No ambassador in Jordan, a vulnerable ally sandwiched between Syria and Israel. No ambassador in South Africa or Singapore.
In 18 countries including those, the White House hasn’t even designated anyone for the job. In 41 more, Trump has nominated a candidate who is stuck waiting for Senate confirmation. And those numbers don’t count special envoys or representatives at international organizations who carry the rank of ambassador.
The overall result: Almost half of the top-level jobs in the State Department are still empty almost two years into the administration.
There’s a long list of reasons why all those posts are still unfilled. The Trump administration had a notably chaotic start. The president-elect arrived in Washington without a long list of friends he wanted to reward with embassies.
His transition team under former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie drafted lists, but the president discarded them. White House aides vetoed candidates from the State Department, rejecting Foreign Service officers who had worked on Obama administration projects and Republican foreign-policy experts who had been critical of Trump.
Trump’s first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, seemed bent on eliminating positions instead of filling them; he shoved dozens of senior diplomats out the door and sent morale in the Foreign Service plummeting. Tillerson’s successor, Mike Pompeo, stopped the personnel cuts and has sped up the lagging pace of nominations, but he still hasn’t cleared away the backlog.
The process of nominating and confirming federal officials has been slowing down for years; the Obama administration had trouble naming ambassadors, too, especially after Republicans won control of the Senate in 2014. But the Trump administration appears to hold a modern record for the slows. At the end of 2017, Trump’s first year in office, only 64 new ambassadors had been confirmed, filling about one-third of 188 posts. At the end of Barack Obama’s first year, 93 had been confirmed, according to the American Foreign Service Association.
Pompeo has blamed Senate Democrats for the problem, but that isn’t the whole picture. It began with the new administration’s tardiness in sending candidates to Capitol Hill. “We can’t confirm people who haven’t been nominated,” a Republican Senate aide noted wryly.
An unknown number of nominees have been blocked by Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, some for what appears to be good cause. Trump’s nominee for Malta once delivered a bullet-riddled target sheet to her ex-husband’s doctor as part of a contentious divorce. The candidate for Chile, a former business partner of Jared Kushner, withdrew after learning how many holdings he’d be required to divest.
But others have been stalled by Republicans. And seven who made it through the committee are now marooned on the Senate floor, mostly because Majority Leader Mitch McConnell decided that in an election year, he wanted to confirm federal judges first.
In Australia, which shouldn’t be a difficult post to fill, the Trump administration has tried to find an ambassador, but it’s been snake bit. Trump initially nominated retired Admiral Harry Harris, the former U.S. commander in the Pacific, but switched him to South Korea even before he was confirmed. Then the president offered the job to Senator Bob Corker—an intriguing choice, since Corker once called the White House “an adult-day-care center”—but the Tennessean turned him down. So the job remains empty more than two years after Obama’s last envoy departed.
Does it matter if the United States doesn’t have ambassadors in Ankara and Riyadh, Islamabad and Cairo, Mexico City and Canberra? Pompeo thinks so. “We need these people,” he said last month. “Getting America’s diplomatic corps into every corner of the world—it will impact our operations, our ability.” Diplomacy doesn’t grind to a halt when there’s no ambassador; there’s still a U.S. embassy with lower-ranking diplomats doing day-to-day business. But as Pompeo suggested, without an ambassador the U.S. mission can’t operate at full strength.
Ambassadors don’t just represent the State Department; formally, at least, they are personal representatives of the president. That aura of clout often wins them access to high-level foreign officials—an asset when it comes to collecting information and solving problems. “You want to have someone representing you overseas who can knock on the foreign minister’s door or even the president’s door,” said John Feeley, a former ambassador to Panama. “You don’t have that now.”
When there’s no ambassador, the chief U.S. diplomat in another capital is usually a chargé d’affaires ad interim, a French/Latin title that’s less impressive in translation: “interim person in charge.”
“The chargé is often very good at what he does, but he doesn’t have the access,” said Barbara Leaf, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Arab Emirates. “Places like Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt are very status-conscious societies. Say you have a problem in Turkey: Who can pick up the phone and call [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan? A good ambassador can do that; a chargé can’t.”
Access means an ambassador can often collect better information than lesser diplomats. “Had we had an ambassador in Riyadh, it’s not clear we could have avoided all this [crisis over the Khashoggi murder], but we might have had more advance warning,” Leaf said. “An embassy is your canary in the mine shaft. You want to be informed so you aren’t always caught by surprise.”
In Saudi Arabia, some diplomats suspect the White House has been slow to name an ambassador because Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, wanted to run the account through his personal relationship with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. In the wake of Khashoggi’s death, that strategy doesn’t look so good.
“Personal relationships are a good thing; that’s how decisions get made in Saudi Arabia,” said Dana Shell Smith, a former ambassador to Qatar. “But you need information and implementation, too, and that’s where an ambassador is most useful. Getting updates every week? Jared isn’t doing that.”
One more thing an ambassador is useful for: handling problems that might otherwise land on higher officials’ desks. When the crisis between Saudi Arabia and Turkey erupted, Pompeo had to get on a plane and fly to Ankara and Riyadh. “If Pompeo wanted to launch a full-bore diplomatic campaign somewhere, who does he send? There isn’t anybody,” Leaf said. “It’s not just whether you have an ambassador in Riyadh; you have a threadbare structure at home. It’s a huge bandwidth problem.”
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.
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