Editorial: Let real diplomats, not party loyalists, do the work

President-elect Joe Biden will soon assume responsibility for filling some of the most coveted jobs in government: foreign ambassadorships. President Donald Trump put political loyalists rather than trained diplomats into a record number of these positions. To restore professionalism to American foreign policy, the new administration should reverse that trend.

Since the administration of George H.W. Bush, the share of ambassadorships held by political appointees has hovered around 30% — far higher than in any other developed country. Of Trump’s ambassadorial nominees who have been confirmed by the Senate or are awaiting confirmation, nearly 43% are political appointees with tenures set to expire when his presidency ends. In addition, more than two dozen posts remain open, either due to White House negligence or snags in the confirmation process. As a result, roughly half of the U.S.’s ambassadorial positions could be vacant when Biden takes office.

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After nearly a half-century in Democratic politics, Biden has plenty of allies eager to snap up assignments in foreign capitals. The new president should resist the temptation to replace Trump’s loyalists with his own. This isn’t just a matter of choosing the most competent people, important though that is. It’s also about moving quickly to fill posts that will otherwise remain vacant.

Political appointees take longer to confirm because of the government’s lengthy vetting and security-clearance process. Senators are also more likely to place holds on the nominations of ambassadorial candidates who are seen as partisans. Even if Democrats win control of the Senate next month, the logjam of appointments requiring confirmation means that dozens of embassies will remain leaderless well into 2021.

The U.S. can’t afford to wait. Though ambassadors often spend more time performing ceremonial duties than shaping policy, their presence on the ground is needed to sustain relationships with local leaders, promote the interests of U.S. businesses and project American soft power. Leaving ambassadorial positions empty undermines U.S. credibility and puts the Foreign Service under strain — forcing mid-level diplomats to curtail scheduled rotations and delay decisions until the new ambassador arrives.

Biden can take steps to fix the system. His transition team should identify 50 vacant ambassadorships in places vital to U.S. interests and nominate career diplomats who’ve previously served as ambassadors to fill them. That would speed up the confirmation process and put a cohort of seasoned professionals into the field. To convince Senate Republicans to approve the nominations in bulk, Biden could allow some of Trump’s ambassadors to remain on the job until their replacements are confirmed. He should also nominate some Republicans to serve in countries they know well — as President Barack Obama did in 2009 by choosing former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, a Mandarin speaker, to be ambassador to China.

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In due course, Biden should cut the share of political appointees to the traditional 30% and preferably less. In theory, it helps when ambassadors have strong personal relationships with the president; in practice, these positions have become sinecures for the wealthy and well-connected. Biden should prioritize specialized expertise, professional connections in the region and relevant language skills — all of which have deteriorated among the country’s current corps of non-career ambassadors.

Restoring diplomacy as an instrument of American power begins with choosing who represents the country overseas. Biden can make his mark by putting skills and experience first.