Trump distinguished himself by nominating officials abroad who were either incompetent or hostile to their host countries. If he wants to get American diplomacy back on track, Biden must break with this approach.
On Feb. 4, President Joe Biden reserved his first visit to a U.S. government agency for the State Department. It sends a strong signal: His predecessor, Donald Trump, had preferred to first greet the people at the Pentagon and the CIA. “America is back,” the new Democratic president declared, clearly expressing his desire to see a return to the world stage through diplomacy rather than force. He illustrated this policy by announcing that he would halt American aid to Saudi Arabia in its war in Yemen as one of his first measures.
Biden also seeks to revive a diplomatic apparatus that was particularly abused by Trump and his man at the State Department, Mike Pompeo. The American diplomatic corps, having been held in contempt, depleted and weaponized, has just experienced four difficult years and very much needed this infusion of presidential trust. “We need you, badly,” Biden told a group of civil servants. “You are the face of America.”
Much To Do
There is much to do. Trump exploited the long American tradition of nominating political friends to ambassadorships more broadly than any other commander in chief; involving notorious “political appointees” with no foreign relations experience, whose only merit has been to help finance a president’s election. For four years, Trump has been the “face of America,” but in the capital cities of America’s allies, it was also the face of emissaries that Trump personally chose from among his cronies.
At best, as in the case of U.S. Ambassador to France Jamie McCourt, former co-owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team who donated $400,000 to the Trump campaign, they were insipid. Initially confirmed by the Senate as Ambassador to Belgium, McCourt was suddenly redirected to Paris when Trump discovered that the United States didn’t have an ambassador in France during his visit on July 14, 2017. At worst, as in the case of Richard Grenell, U.S. Ambassador to Germany, and Gordon Sondland, U.S. Ambassador to the EU, they actively pursued hostile policy. Grenell, for example, called on extreme right movements in Europe to unite under the leadership of American national populist instigator Steve Bannon, fortunately in vain.
In London, American Ambassador to the U.K. Woody Johnson, who made his fortune in the National Football League, was accused of working to schedule the U.S. Open tournament at one of Trump’s golf courses in Great Britain, again in vain. What they all have in common is that they all had particularly difficult relationships with the career diplomats who served under their command. Jeffrey Gunter, a dermatologist who served as U.S. ambassador to Iceland, went through seven deputies in two years.
If he wants to change the face of America, Biden and his secretary of state, Antony Blinken, who is a connoisseur of Europe, can start by nominating normal, serious and competent ambassadors. France is traditionally a prestigious position offered to the faithful, but some important figures such as Pamela Harriman and Felix Rohatyn have proved to be excellent ambassadors. At a moment when trans-Atlantic relations are turning a delicate corner, making judicious choices of officials to represent the United States would be a first sign of respect for its European partners.