Biden’s political appointments for ambassador posts rile career diplomats

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Joe Biden is sticking to tradition as he slowly fills the vacancies in the ranks of ambassadors across the world, focussing on mixing longtime career diplomatic officials with figures with strong ties to himself and the Democratic party.

Among Biden’s expected picks is Caroline Kennedy, former US ambassador to Japan, daughter of the former president, and longtime Biden friend, ally and donor, to be ambassador to Australia. He has picked the Los Angeles mayor, Eric Garcetti, who was a prominent Biden surrogate on the presidential campaign trail, to be ambassador to India, despite a relative lack of foreign policy experience. And the president is also widely expected to name the former Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel ambassador to Japan.

These choices, which are expected to be put forward for confirmation in the coming weeks, and the many others nominated so far, have gradually answered a persistent question hanging over Biden’s presidency: how he would approach filling out the ambassadorial ranks and follow through on his vow to reengage the world as president.

Biden’s selections appear to thwart the pressure from the progressive wing of his party to depart from tradition, in which new presidents give out plum roles to top donors and high-profile figures with strong ties to the president.

The Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, Biden’s former progressive rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, is among those who have strongly argued that career civil diplomats and foreign affairs experts should get ambassadorial posts, regardless of how close they are to the administration in power or how much money they donate.

Biden’s expected appointments have left some longtime career diplomats frustrated.

“The frustration a lot of them have is not just that we’re getting lots of political ambassadors and political appointees at the state department, but that Biden came over early in his presidency and talked about ‘we’re going to elevate career diplomats, we’re going to empower you’, and so it makes it all the more disingenuous and disappointing,” said Brett Plitt Bruen, a former foreign service officer and director of global engagement during Barack Obama’s presidency.

“America’s influence in the world is at a historic low, so the notion that we’re going to send movie moguls and fashion designers and political donors to repair is antithetical to everything that Biden has talked about.”

Bruen added that the trend among Biden’s political ambassador picks is that “they all have a personal connection,” from the top international postings to the less high-profile. For example, Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the airline captain who tackled the emergency landing of a US Airways plane on the Hudson River in 2009 with no fatalities, served as a surrogate on Biden’s campaign and is expected to be tapped for ambassador to the International Civil Aviation Organization.

“This isn’t how it should work. The qualifications for representing the United States should be based on national security criteria, not on a personal relationship to the president,” Bruen continued.

In the past few days, Biden has nominated the former Republican senator Jeff Flake of Arizona to serve as ambassador to Turkey and the former senator Tom Udall of New Mexico to be ambassador to New Zealand. He has also picked Cindy McCain, the wife of the late senator John McCain of Arizona, to be ambassador to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture. He has picked Denise Bauer, a former ambassador to Belgium, to be ambassador to France.

According to the American Foreign Service Association’s (AFSA) ambassador tracker, as of Friday, out of 45 ambassadorial nominations Biden has made, 48.9% are career appointments and 51.1% are non-career appointments. There are a total of 189 positions to appoint.

“We estimate 80 ambassadorships are still unfilled. Some have been nominated but not confirmed, about half,” former ambassador Eric Rubin, the president of AFSA, said in an email.

Some observers have noted that Biden’s most high-profile diplomatic appointments have long career resumes, such as Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the Biden administration’s pick for ambassador to the United Nations, and Jane Hartley, a former ambassador to France who is Biden’s choice to be ambassador to the UK.

Biden has also picked Ken Salazar, a former attorney general and senator from Colorado who served as interior secretary during Barack Obama’s presidency, as ambassador to Mexico. Tom Nides, a former deputy secretary of state during the Obama administration who more recently has worked at Morgan Stanley, is Biden’s nominee to be ambassador to Israel. Recently, the Biden administration announced that Jill Biden’s chief of staff, Julissa Reynoso Pantaleón, a former ambassador to Uruguay, would be ambassador to Spain.

Career officials interviewed by the Guardian also noted that as important as experience is, closeness to the president is often seen as an important asset.

“You send your best ambassadors to the most important countries,” said Adam Ereli, a former ambassador to Bahrain. He ticked off China, Russia and Japan as a few of those countries in Asia. In Europe he said the critical nations are Germany, England, France and arguably Turkey. Nicholas Burns, a former undersecretary for political affairs at the state department, is widely rumored to be Biden’s pick to be ambassador to China.

One of the most important qualifications, Ereli said, is “closeness to the president – because that’s what the countries want, they want someone who can pick up the phone and talk to the president”.

The Biden administration has been comparatively slower than its predecessors to fill out vital ambassadorships, even as in other areas of the federal government the president’s team has moved swiftly to nominate and install judges and officials.

“It’s hard to understand why it’s the middle of July and a lot of ambassadorships are not nominated yet,” said Rubin. “And honestly if the White House says that’s because of vetting, then the question is why has every other administration managed to do that faster?”

Who Is Qin Gang, China’s New US Ambassador?

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Qin has little U.S. experience, unlike his predecessors. But he may have something even more valuable: direct access to Xi Jinping.


In the early morning of July 29, Beijing time, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying tweeted a video to wish “Ambassador Qin Gang” a “safe and smooth journey across the Pacific Ocean.” The official Twitter account of the Chinese Embassy in the United States had been updated with Qin’s name and profile picture. Later in the afternoon, Washington time, Qin tweeted a photo of himself walking alongside aides and deputies in JFK airport, with the message: “Arrived in USA. Looking forward to the coming time in the country!”

As the next Chinese ambassador to the United States, Qin Gang, 55, will need to contend with fraught ties between the two superpowers.

Unlike his predecessor, Cui Tiankai, a veteran diplomat with deep knowledge of U.S. affairs and personal connections with incumbent and former U.S. government officials and lawmakers, Qin has never specialized in dealing with the United States

To foreign journalists covering China, Qin is known as the pioneer of excoriating one-liners. often delivering punchlines wrapped in Chinese metaphors. His two terms as Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson made him one of the first Chinese foreign ministry celebrities. Qin left his spokesperson post two years prior to the release of the blockbuster “Wolf Warrior 2,” which has since come to symbolize the unapologetically nationalistic mood among Chinese diplomats to stand up for Beijing’s interests and avenge its enemies on the world stage.

A former foreign correspondent who attended Qin’s press conferences described him as someone who “talks with theatrical flair,” “contemptuous and charismatic at once.” Another remembered him to be “tough and plainspoken.”

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Qin quoted liberally from Confucius classics, suggesting the U.S. “should have a careful study of [Confucius’] works” to “first keep the heart upright, refine the soul, and then regulate the family well so as to contribute to good governance of the country and work to build a harmonious world.”

He defended China’s ballooning defense spending, half-jokingly telling reporters that China would not stay “as a boy scout” and that Chinese People’s Liberation Army was not a “children corps equipped with red-tasseled spears.”

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At a press event after then-President Barack Obama reportedly turned down Beijing’s invitation to include China during a trip to visit U.S. allies in Asia, Qin famously remarked, “Cozying up to the U.S. in exchange for the U.S. president’s visit is the last thing Beijing would do,” concluding that “I’d say China is right here, whether he comes or not.”


A few days after Obama gave a speech declaring the U.S. would remain world leader for the next century, Qin commented, “it must be nice to be the boss of the world,” adding, “China was once boss of the world for more than a century.”

In response to a Chinese netizen’s question, “How can a spokesman control his emotions when he encounters provocative questions during a press conference?” Qin replied, “The main character of the briefing room is the spokesperson, and it should be the spokesman to modulate the emotion and rhythm of the press conference.”

James Green, a diplomat with two decades of experience in the U.S. government working on bilateral China-U.S. relations and currently a senior advisor for McLarty Associates, recalls his impression of Qin Gang: “I never worked with Qin directly during my time working for the State Department and at the U.S. Embassy. I would say I first became aware of him when he was the spokesman while I was in Washington at the time following his announcements from the podium of the Foreign Ministry.”

“I guess I would say he’s one of the first foreign ministry spokespersons that I can remember by name. I’m sure the position existed before him, but he was one of the more prominent holders of that position as the spokesman.”

Qin’s most recent post was in protocol, where he was in charge of arranging high-level official visits for Beijing leadership, including Xi Jinping. That post gave him unique access to the top decision-making echelon.

Qin is not considered a Xi Jinping lieutenant from his Fujian or Zhejiang home base. “Qin is a later comer to Xi Jinping’s inner circle. But since Xi has become the secretary general, through mainly luck, Qin has had a lot of face time with Xi Jinping as the person in charge of protocol,” said Victor Shih, a University of California, San Diego, professor of political economy who specializes in elite Chinese politics.

Shih notes that Qin has had to arrange Xi’s overseas trips, of which there were many, especially during his first term. Qin also was responsible for arrangements when leaders of other countries visited Beijing. “Through these arrangements and through attending these trips and meetings with Xi Jinping, Qin has had a lot of close interactions with Xi Jinping and must have made a good impression,” said Shih. “He must have gotten Xi’s trust and is now enjoying the fruits of that trust.”

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According to Pin Ho, the founder and CEO of the New-York based Mirror Media Group and a veteran political analyst, the importance of the fact that Qin has trust from Xi Jinping is not to be overlooked.

“In today’s political landscape, proximity to Xi Jinping means proximity to decision-making. At the end of the day, that’s all that matters,” said Ho. “U.S. politicians have been scratching their hands trying to understand Xi Jinping’s intentions. Qin Gang’s role as a trusted interlocular is indispensable. This alone trumps all country-specific experience, knowledge and contact network.”

The leading candidate to succeed Cui as China’s ambassador to the U.S. was once believed to be Zheng Zeguang, who had held a post in the United States for years. “Deciphering the back-room calculations is impossible, but the fact that Zheng was skipped over and assigned to a much less important role as head of the Chinese embassy in the U.K. indicates a significant downweighting of experience in diplomatic personnel shifts,” said Ho. “It’s premature to tell if the departure from tradition will serve Beijing’s interests. It’s much more important for President Biden’s team to accurately gauge Xi Jinping’s intentions to avoid strategic missteps.”


The point was echoed by White House’s top official for Asia, Kurt Campbell, who remarked during a conference in June that there is a “smaller and smaller group” of people who help shepherd Xi’s decision-making, and that China’s top diplomats Yang Jiechi and Wang Yi were “nowhere near, within a hundred miles” of Xi’s inner circle.

Campbell said he believes the Chinese foreign policy establishment understands that the country’s policies have helped to cause a global backlash but admitted his doubts on whether that message is getting through to the inner circle in the Chinese leadership.

Green noted that over the last decade, there’s been a move away from rewarding expertise with the United States in the Foreign Ministry so that the experts in the United States end up not getting promoted anymore. “And I think that’s a change from [former foreign ministers and ambassadors to the U.S.] Yang Jiechi and Li Zhaoxing. I think now in the Chinese system, it’s a bit of a detriment to say, you know the United States too well. The more expertise you have in the United States, the more likely that your career is going to stall or be sidetracked somewhere else, whereas before it was almost a ticket to advancement. ”

Experts agree that Qin has in front of him the herculean task of shepherding the frayed China-U.S. relationship. Since 2018, China has been confronted with a torrent of tariffs, sanctions, export controls, and visa restrictions and has resorted to tit-for-tat measures, while enlisting its diplomats and jingoistic state mouthpieces for vitriol.

Six months into the tenure of President Joe Biden, there’s no sign that either side wants to dial down the temperature in the conflict. If anything, Biden’s approach of rallying allies to join his campaign in countering China has alarmed Beijing leadership even more.

“The challenge for Qin Gang or for any Chinese diplomat is to open up the aperture of their interactions beyond the State Department and beyond the U.S. government to other parts of U.S. society, including business associations, universities and students, inside and outside Washington,” Green remarked.

“It’s quite a different job,” he added. “It’s not a mechanical challenge. It’s a product challenge, what the Chinese ambassador in the United States is selling. It’s not a great product to sell. It doesn’t matter how good a salesman you are, how many meetings you do, you are trying to push a product that, in the eyes of many Americans, is quite damaged. So it’s going to be a challenge.”

“I don’t care how gifted Qin is, it’s really going to be hard to explain what China is doing in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, the South China Sea, the East China Sea and in the Himalayas with India. It’s going to be hard to explain that away, even if he’s a very gifted communicator, which he clearly is,” Green concluded.

“Xi Jinping has made it known that China is now a major power. It is going to stand firm on a number of issues. But on the other hand, I think most reasonable people will agree that the U.S.-China relationship has gone off track and the ambassador, as well as the entire foreign policy establishment in China, should have some interest in at least getting the relationship a little bit more back on track.” Shih observed.

The restrictions on international travels and face-to-face interactions didn’t help. “During the first years of Xi Jinping rule as the secretary general of the Chinese Communist Party, he met with multiple senior U.S. leaders, not just then President Obama and then Vice President Biden, but also the national security adviser and even the mayor of L.A. And now there’s scarcely any direct meetings between high level U.S. and high level Chinese officials,” Shih noted. “The vice ministerial level meeting in Tianjin that we just saw is very low-level compared to what happened back in 2013.”

Part of what Qin Gang can bring to the table is more high-level conversations. “Because of this deep familiarity with protocols, he might be able to use normal diplomatic protocols as a channel to put the U.S.- China relationship a little bit more back on track and increase the density of meetings between the U.S. and China. There are just a lot of issues that the two countries need to discuss. Without dialogue and conversation, no progress will be made.” Shih said.

“Ambassador Qin has spent considerable time around President Xi and his top advisors. I expect that his familiarity with them and their thinking will be an asset in his current role as the Chinese ambassador to the United States. He will be able to speak authoritatively about the top leadership’s views on the relationship,” said Ryan Hass, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who was director for China at the National Security Council during Xi Jinping’s state visit to the United States.


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“Qin is expected to adopt his own style for the role. His predecessor, Ambassador Cui, was selective and purposeful in his public appearances and public statements,” said Hass. “Given Qin’s background and his greater embrace of public diplomacy, he is expected to be more vocal and visible in his articulation of Chinese views on issues affecting the US-China relationship,”

In 2013, Cui Tiankai, then incoming Chinese ambassador, was given a reception by U.S. diplomats upon arrival. This time no State Department officials were present to greet the new ambassador on his arrival in Washington, yet another sign of how frayed the bilateral relationship has become.

On the evening of July 28, 2021, Qin Gang delivered his first remark to Chinese and American media upon arrival. He started by recounting Henry Kissinger’s secret visit to China, which opened the door to the normalization of China-U.S. relations.

“Dr. Kissinger had to travel covertly to China via a third country. Fifty years later today, as the 11th Chinese Ambassador to the United States, I can travel most openly and fly directly to this country. How the world has changed with the passage of time! I believe that the door of China-U.S. relations, which is already open, cannot be closed.”

“Where this important relationship will be headed is vital for the well-being of the Chinese and American peoples and for the future of the world,” Qin added, and promised to “safeguard the foundation of China-U.S. relations, uphold the shared interests of the two peoples, and endeavor to bring China-U.S. relations back on track.”

Top Counterterrorism Envoy Could Be First U.S. Ambassador to Sudan in Decades

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John Godfrey, currently the U.S. State Department’s acting counterterrorism envoy and a seasoned Middle East diplomat, is a leading contender to be the first U.S. ambassador to Sudan since 1996, when the United States broke diplomatic ties with Sudan over its support for al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.

The Biden administration is narrowing the list of potential candidates to be the first U.S. ambassador sent to Sudan in decades, and a top counterterrorism official is at the top of the list, according to three current and former U.S. officials familiar with the matter.

The Biden administration is narrowing the list of potential candidates to be the first U.S. ambassador sent to Sudan in decades, and a top counterterrorism official is at the top of the list, according to three current and former U.S. officials familiar with the matter.

John Godfrey, currently the U.S. State Department’s acting counterterrorism envoy and a seasoned Middle East diplomat, is a leading contender to be the first U.S. ambassador to Sudan since 1996, when the United States broke diplomatic ties with Sudan over its support for al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.

The United States announced it would normalize relations with Sudan and exchange ambassadors in late 2019, following a revolution in the country that ousted one of the world’s most brutal dictators, then-Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. At the time, then-U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hailed the decision to elevate diplomatic ties with Sudan as a “meaningful step forward in strengthening the U.S.-Sudan bilateral relationship.”

But although the new transitional government in Sudan dispatched an ambassador to Washington, the Trump administration never reciprocated.

Six months into his administration, U.S. President Joe Biden also has yet to announce his choice to be ambassador to Sudan, but the State Department is expected to recommend Godfrey’s name to the White House, the current and former officials who spoke to Foreign Policy said.

The State Department and National Security Council declined to comment on the matter. “No personnel decisions are final until they are announced,” an NSC spokesperson said in an email.

Experts said the long absence of a U.S. ambassador is having a negative impact on U.S.-Sudan ties. It also poses a lost opportunity for Washington to help shape Sudan’s tenuous transition to democracy and re-introduction it to the international financial system after 30 years of isolated authoritarian rule under Bashir.

Nicole Widdersheim, a senior policy advisor for the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, said the lack of an ambassador sends a signal that the United States isn’t prioritizing Sudan’s democratic transition to the level it should. “If Cuba all of a sudden had a democratic revolution … don’t you think we would send an ambassador in the months to follow?” said Widdersheim, who previously worked on African affairs for the U.S. Agency for International Development and the National Security Council.

“The U.S. is a leader in humanitarian and development support to the transition and was critical to Sudan’s reentry into the international financial system,” said Joseph Tucker, an expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace and former U.S. diplomat and aid official specializing in Sudan. “Not having an ambassador gives the impression that U.S. political investment in the transition is lacking.”

Sudan’s shaky transitional government is tasked with preparing the country for elections in 2024, but experts warn that behind-the-scenes power jockeying threatens to fuel political crises that could roll back the country’s progress. Abdalla Hamdok, Sudan’s prime minister, warned of “cracks and divisions” within the country’s broad civilian coalition in a recent interview with the Economist.

Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, a former general under Bashir who heads the country’s ruling council that oversees Hamdok’s civilian cabinet, has emerged as the country’s major power broker, but he is also grappling with fissures within the military. Another power center is Mohamed Hamdan “Hemeti” Dagalo, the deputy head of the ruling council and a former warlord who heads a paramilitary force that emerged from the militias responsible for widespread atrocities in Darfur, in western Sudan.

Experts and officials said having an ambassador on the ground is critical for Washington to navigate the complicated corridors of power in Khartoum.

If Godfrey is nominated by the president, a matter that officials cautioned is still in the works, it will likely still take many months before Sudan finally receives its first U.S. ambassador in decades because of cascading delays in the Senate confirmation process. Biden was slow to name ambassador nominees during his first months in office, and now Republican Sen. Ted Cruz has vowed a blanket hold on all State Department nominees, including career diplomats nominated to ambassador posts in Africa, over a dispute with the Biden administration on a controversial Russian gas pipeline. If that dispute isn’t resolved, it could push back the confirmation of many ambassador posts well into 2022, several State Department officials and congressional aides said.

Godfrey, a career senior foreign service officer, is currently the acting State Department coordinator for counterterrorism and special envoy for the global coalition to defeat the Islamic State. Godfrey held multiple posts across the Middle East and North Africa during his time in the foreign service, and from 2013 to 2014, he served as chief of staff to then-deputy secretary of state William Burns, who is now Biden’s CIA director.

One U.S. official familiar with the matter described Godfrey as a smart choice for the ambassador post, saying his experience in the Middle East will be an advantage given the outsized influence Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other Middle Eastern powers have in Sudan.

For a quarter of a century, the United States and Sudan had only exchanged chargés d’affaires, lower-ranking diplomats than an ambassador, to head their embassies, reflecting the frosty relations between the two countries.

Before Bashir was ousted in the 2019 popular revolution, the United States under both the Obama and Trump administrations quietly worked to ease strains with Bashir’s government and lift some U.S. sanctions on Khartoum. That process accelerated after Bashir’s removal from power and a transitional, civilian-led government was installed under Hamdok.

A year later, the United States rescinded its designation of Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism, a label dating back to 1993, due to Bashir’s support of prominent terrorist groups and leaders, including al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden. The designation turned the country into an international pariah and cut it off from most of the international financial system.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump agreed to lift the terrorism designation after pressuring Sudan to normalize relations with Israel. Sudan also agreed to pay $335 million to settle legal claims with victims of terrorist attacks in the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania and the 2000 attack on the USS Cole off the coast of Yemen. The agreement followed years of painstaking legal negotiations with the victims, State Department, and Congress.

The diplomatic breakthroughs brought relief to Sudan’s transitional government and opened the country’s anemic economy to support from the International Monetary Fund and other international economic assistance organizations. The Sudanese government is still struggling to revive its economy, particularly amid the indirect effects of the coronavirus pandemic that could further imperil the transitional government.

“Important progress is being made, but as Prime Minister Hamdok noted recently, there are tensions within civilian and security elements and between them that add up to a political crisis,” Tucker said. “If not managed, tensions could erode the foundation laid by citizens during the revolution and create space for spoilers.”