US Politics Slow Senate Ratification of Asian Envoys
Nearly a year into Biden’s presidency, crucial Asian countries lacked US ambassadors
By: David Brown
Tensions in East Asia have been escalating since before Joe Biden took office, yet not until just before the US Senate adjourned for winter holidays on December 18 did it get around to approving his choices to lead American embassies in China, Japan, and Vietnam, and as well as people nominated to head some 38 other posts worldwide.
The Senate's power to "advise and consent" to a president's nominees for ambassadorships was this year exercised in a particularly capricious manner. It isn‘t uncommon for a senator to place a 'hold' on an appointment until the White House provides more information. A senator may want answers about US policy vis-a-vis the country where a nominee is to serve, or pertinent facts on that person's fitness for the job.
This March, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas announced his intention to block confirmation of all 41 ambassadorial nominations unless Senate Democrats agreed to allow debate on his proposed sanctions on the operation of Nordstream 2, a Russia-to-Germany gas pipeline.
The Texas Republican has a well-deserved reputation as the biggest jerk in the Senate but although a majority of Cruz's colleagues might have overruled him, they chose not to. The nominations languished until the leader of the Senate Democrats, Chuck Schumer, agreed to allow a vote on the proposed sanctions when the Senate reconvenes in January.
The nomination of Rahm Emmanuel to be ambassador to Japan also got tangled up in a non-pertinent matter. Emmanuel is a political insider who served Barack Obama as White House chief of staff and then was for two terms the mayor of Chicago, the third-largest US city. His nomination was opposed by a handful of Democrats who decried Emmanuel's handling of civil rights issues while mayor. Their effort to block him failed, 48-21.
Sending amateurs abroad -- so-called 'political ambassadors' -- is an anachronistic American custom. More often than not, these are people who have contributed large sums to a president's election campaign and are rewarded with prestigious but low-stress posts.
Again this year, no senator objected that Emmanuel or 10 other non-career nominees to lead US embassies are without significant experience in making or executing foreign policy.
In Tokyo, Emmanuel will be the latest in a series of generally competent political ambassadors that began with the 1977-88 tenure there of former Senate majority leader Mike Mansfield. As usual, Japanese political leaders are said to be pleased that the US will be represented by someone known to have Joe Biden's ear.
Nicholas Burns (who will represent the US in Beijing) is, by contrast, a foreign policy establishment superstar. Burns has deep expertise in European and Mideast affairs but scant experience dealing with China. He is said to be particularly close to Biden's Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan.
Burns' confirmation was delayed at the insistence of Senator Marco Rubio. The Florida Republican reportedly lifted his hold when Majority Leader Shumer agreed to allow debate on a bill to ban the import of goods produced in China's Xinjiang region.
Marc Knapper seems a particularly happy choice to tend American interests in Vietnam, where in recent years Washington has focused its attention in inverse proportion to the souring of US relations with China. From Hanoi, Knapper will be reporting to his predecessor there, Dan Kritenbrinck, who is now the State Department's Assistant Secretary for East Asia and Pacific.
In the career Foreign Service, Knapper's a rising star. Hanoi is his first ambassadorial posting, but he has already done time as the acting head of the US Embassy in Seoul for 18 months in 2017-18, followed by a two-year stint in Washington coordinating US policy vis-a-vis Japan and both Koreas.
Nor is Knapper a newcomer to Vietnam. After Vietnamese language training, he served two years in Hanoi in the mid-2000s as a middle-grade political officer. According to VOA, former Vietnamese staff of the US Embassy described Knapper as "a person with profound knowledge, sharp thinking, balanced viewpoint and no preconceptions about Vietnam."
Also on December 18, the US Senate voted to confirm career diplomats to head two other posts in Asia. Julie Chung, who has served previously in Thailand, Cambodia, Japan and China, will be Ambassador to Sri Lanka. Caryn McClelland will represent the US in Brunei.