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Lack of American ambassadors is hurting foreign goals, says AFSA president

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The Senate is confirming President Biden's diplomatic nominees at a snail's pace. To date, only nine of his nominees have been confirmed, seven of those being ambassador positions. By contrast, President Trump had more than 20 confirmed by this time in his first year. President Obama had nearly 60. That's according to data from the Center for Presidential Transition. With more than 90 positions vacant, we wanted to know how this could be affecting U.S. foreign policy. So to talk about that, we've called Eric Rubin. He is the former U.S. ambassador to Bulgaria and the current president of the American Foreign Service Association.

Welcome, Ambassador Rubin. Thank you so much for talking with us.

ERIC RUBIN: Thank you. Very good to be with you.

MARTIN: So one reason for the holdup is Republican senators. Some are slow-walking nominations for political reasons, threatening to hold up the confirmation process until their demands are met. I think people are familiar with this tactic. But another factor seems to be that the Biden administration has been slow to nominate people for key positions. Do you think that's true?

RUBIN: I do. I think it's true on both fronts and in both respects. This is a really, really difficult time for American diplomacy at a time when the world is really in turmoil in so many ways. And the most important thing I would say about that is we have ambassadors for a reason. Every country has ambassadors for a reason. And we're the only country that doesn't seem to be able to send ambassadors to other countries on a predictable, reliable, regular basis. And that's hurting us a lot right now.

MARTIN: But why do you think that is, though? Before we talk about the importance of this, I just want to focus a little bit more on why this is happening. Do you have any sense of why this is happening? I mean, some of these vacancies don't even have nominees. Do you have any sense of why that is?

RUBIN: I don't. I do understand what's going on with the Senate holds, and we've been very clear in public and in private to insist that that stop. Obviously, senators have a right to hold the nomination if they have specific concerns. We would never question that. But to just say I'm not approving anyone, I don't care if we have ambassadors or not, I don't care if we have assistant secretaries of state or not is a very different thing. But on the nominations front, no, I actually don't really understand why there's no nominee, for example, for London, for U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom, why there's no nominee for key positions in Washington as well.

MARTIN: So for people who may not know this, maybe this is such an obvious question for you, but can you explain a little bit more about the job of an ambassador and why are they so important to a president's agenda?

RUBIN: Certainly. Ambassadors play a lot of roles, but the No. 1 role is as the personal representative of the president of the United States, which means in terms of communication but also authority and standing, they can speak for the president in a way that our career diplomats can't. Our career diplomats obviously represent our country, our government, the administration, but they're not the personal representatives of the president.

The second thing ambassadors do is engage with high-level officials in other countries. And if we don't have an ambassador, our access is dramatically reduced. It does depend on the country. Some countries are so eager to talk to us that they will talk to any American diplomat at any level. But in a lot of countries, they're very conscious of protocol. And if we don't have an ambassador in place, we cannot see the senior officials in the country, even in a crisis. And that's been going on in a couple of crises that have happened in the past few months.

MARTIN: Can you give an example?

RUBIN: Sure. So we did not have an ambassador in France when the dispute over the sale of submarines and the U.S. decision to help Australia acquire - together with the United Kingdom help Australia acquire nuclear submarine technology. It was a serious spat with France. It's the main reason that Vice President Harris is in Paris this week. And we did not have an ambassador in Paris when all this happened. And that means it was absolutely impossible to reach the most senior officials, certainly the president, who's the head of French foreign policy. French presidents don't talk to acting ambassadors, to what we call charge d'affaires, the career people who are the deputies who cover the job.

And that's just not only - that's not only true of France. If you look at the crisis in Ethiopia now without an ambassador, it would be very hard to engage in that way. China - we're still without an ambassador in China at a time of great tension. So this is very real.

MARTIN: One of the reasons I think people like yourself find this puzzling is that President Biden made it clear, was very explicit about the fact that he wanted to reestablish U.S. legitimacy, U.S. presence, U.S. involvement abroad, especially on a more expansive plane than just military action.

And so how do you think these vacancies affect that goal? I mean, he has been president - as you said, he sent the vice president to Paris. He's scheduled to have a conversation with the president of China, Xi Jinping, on Monday, as I understand it. But the lack of an ambassadorial presence in these countries - what does that - does that say something to these countries?

RUBIN: It reflects or at least conveys fairly or unfairly a lack of commitment, lack of seriousness, lack of engagement. And I think the most important point to make about that is I think the time has passed when the United States can say - we know we're annoying, we know we do things that no other country does, we know that, sometimes, we can be very difficult, but you need us. We're indispensable. We're the only country that can really provide you with the things you need. And therefore, you need to just put up with our peculiarities.

MARTIN: So let's talk internally now. State Department morale was a big issue during the Trump administration. I think most people who follow this even glancingly will remember that the former president, President Trump, dragged diplomats into political drama, seemed to show contempt for them in some ways. What are you hearing from others in the diplomatic community? Is the slow pace of confirming ambassadors affecting morale within the department?

RUBIN: It does affect our ability, for example, to address the morale problems that our people in the Foreign Service are facing. For one thing, we can't get started on making changes and reforms without having senior officials in place, the person who's in charge of management, the person who's in charge of personnel. And then the second piece is the nominations. It is hard to understand why the administration still has not nominated close to one-third of the senior positions, both overseas as ambassadors or domestically.

So it's both sides. It's the administration and the Senate that are basically creating a logjam that really does hurt morale, along with a lot of other things, from COVID to the challenges of being overseas right now representing our country.

MARTIN: I'm asking - this is anecdotal, but I'm just going to ask if - because of your network of relationships over time. Is it possible that people don't want to do these jobs anymore? I mean, we've heard so much about the toxicity of the political environment. I don't think anybody would deny that. Is it possible that people are rethinking their lives and they don't want - they don't necessarily want to do these things?

RUBIN: Well, sadly, Michel, it's not just possible, it's reality. We have a serious problem, particularly at our senior levels, people who've been serving for 15 or 20 or 25 or even 35 years and who are just saying I've had enough.

And partly, you know, COVID has not made it easier for anybody. But when you're traveling around the world, dragging your family and your possessions and your pets and then you can't travel because of all the health restrictions or you're stuck overseas in a place with no medical care and your kids are potentially at risk, these are things - of course, COVID has affected everyone. But when you're going to every corner of the Earth, every country in the world with a few exceptions, it's hard, and it has been.

The other problem is our role in the world is different. When I joined 36 years ago, we basically ran the world in competition with the Soviet Union, but we were unquestionably the leader. And in some ways, we still do but definitely not the way it was then, unquestionably not. And it's a different world, and it's harder. And in some ways, it's definitely not the same job that people signed up for. But it's still not only as important as ever, I think it's more important right now when we have to fight for our interests and our country's place in the world.

RUBIN: Before we let you go, what would make this better? I mean, if you had the opportunity to advise President Biden, what would you tell him to do?

RUBIN: Well, I would advise President Biden to get nominees announced for every single job that requires Senate confirmation and for some of the jobs that don't require Senate confirmation that still haven't been filled or haven't - you don't have a name for. It's going on one year. There's really no reason not to have nominated people.

And then I would advise that the Senate - and this is, in particular, certain senators, but it's the institution - that we can't continue this way. If we care about our country and want to deal with a very messy world, I think there is an increasing consensus that this can't be the way going forward if our country is going to be able to really tackle the problems that we're facing.

MARTIN: That was Ambassador Eric Rubin. He is the president of the American Foreign Service Association. He formerly served as U.S. ambassador to Bulgaria.

Ambassador Rubin, thank you so much for your time.

RUBIN: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF HARRIS HELLER'S "AMBIENT GOLD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.