Ambassadors have always been presented as a relatively neutral diplomatic link with other countries. Think again, Allison Welty explores the US ambassadors in Europe – and why these pose a problem.
In February of this year, the possibility of war between the nuclear powers of India and Pakistan seemed unnervingly likely. After both countries deployed air strikes in response to a terrorist attack in the disputed region of Kashmir, Pakistani forces managed to capture an Indian pilot and bring the two countries closer to war than they have been since 2008. The conflict has been temporarily resolved, however, many in the United States took this moment as an opportunity to learn that the Trump administration never appointed an American Ambassador to Pakistan. The same concern was also raised in the aftermath of Jamal Khashoggi’s brutal murder in Istanbul, when it was revealed neither Turkey nor Saudi Arabia had been appointed an American ambassador.
In fact, nearly 30 ambassador positions remain unfilled in key countries like Ireland, South Africa, Australia, and ironically, Mexico. This failure to fill key diplomatic positions is a symptom of a larger issue – an administration that repeatedly devalues diplomatic efforts in favour of Twitter insults and the conspicuously posed legal pads of National Security Advisor, John Bolton. Shortly after Trump took office, the White House and Republicans in congress supported massive budget cuts to the State Department, while then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson enacting a hiring freeze, which left the agency dangerously understaffed. Perhaps more unsettling than a lack of ambassadors, and diplomatic support staff, however, is the reality of how current ambassadors are choosing to wield their influence in European countries and large allies like Germany.
The American Ambassador to Germany is perhaps one of the most controversial American diplomats in Europe, and it is a difficult title to win.
The American Ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, is perhaps one of the most controversial American diplomats in Europe, and it is a difficult title to win. He faced backlash shortly after his appointment in 2017 after he seemingly endorsed far-right candidates in an interview with Steve Bannon’s former news organization, Breitbart. He also faced widespread criticism for extending a dinner invitation to host the Austrian Chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, for dinner at the ambassador’s residence in Berlin. Kurz has not only been openly critical of Angela Merkel, but also leads a coalition government with the Freedom Party of Austria, a party that has called to “concentrate” refugees and asylum seekers, praised Adolf Hitler, and has Nazi origins. In March of this year, Grenell faced renewed criticism from German politicians for harshly criticising and questioning Germany’s dedication to NATO, a consistent criticism Trump levies against Merkel. Grenell also broke diplomatic precedent this month by sending a number of letters to various German companies warning of “significant sanctions risk” if they continue involvement in building the Nord Stream 2, a contentious gas pipeline that would carry Russian natural gas to Europe, but does not extend opportunities to American oil & gas companies.
The US ambassadorship to France has historically been an important and strategic position for any president to fill. And while the current ambassador, Jamie McCourt has not sought to make waves like Grenell, she has no diplomatic, governmental, or foreign policy experience whatsoever. Rather, McCourt boasts mainly private industry credentials as former chief executive of Aureus Asset Management. And despite holding several degrees from prestigious universities including the Sorbonne, it is more likely that her $450,000 donation to Donald Trump’s campaign secured her the position.
Gordon Sondland, ambassador to the EU, also entered the role with no diplomatic experience after donating $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee. The ambassadorship to the EU is similarly prestigious and strategically important as the EU remains the US’s largest trade partner and ally, despite Trump’s desire to begin a trade war with EU steel and aluminum. Sondland regularly criticises EU regulation, France in general, and the EU’s continued support of the Iran nuclear deal despite the US’s refusal to comply with its own agreement.
And in an incredibly underreported move, the US ambassador to NATO, also based in Brussels, drew attention in October 2018 after she quite literally proposed a preemptive strike to “take out” Russian missiles, the existence of which the US has long taken issue. NATO is arguably the largest deterrence force against Russian aggression and an already significant source of irritation for Vladamir Putin, yet it took Ambassador Kay Bailey Hutchison several hours to walk-back her comments and deescalate the situation.
The US is slowly relinquishing its influence in the world.
The importance of filling these diplomatic positions with experienced and principled actors cannot be overstated, and yet, it is unlikely the Trump administration and its State Department under Mike Pompeo will address these concerns. The hiring freeze on personnel has been officially lifted, although it was later revealed a number of the unfilled positions would remain open indefinitely. It is likely the diplomatic transgressions of American Ambassadors around the world are being championed and encouraged by an increasingly radical and isolationist Washington that seeks to agitate and disrupt without a particular aim. The US is slowly relinquishing its influence in the world. And while there is undeniably a debate to be had about the benevolence or necessity of American hegemony in the world since the end of WWII, the decline of American diplomatic influence in this way is an unprecedented danger at a time when the world feels more unstable than ever.
Cover image: Richard Grenell (flickr), Licence: CC BY-SA 2.0