A Growing List of U.S. Diplomats Acting Undiplomatically
Posted June 6, 2018 7:41 a.m. EDT
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump has made a trademark of upending many of the diplomatic traditions that have defined U.S. foreign policy for decades, angering a host of longtime allies. Now, a growing number of his ambassadors are doing the same.
This week, Richard Grenell, the newly installed U.S. ambassador in Berlin, outraged some in Germany when he told Breitbart London that he wanted to “empower other conservatives throughout Europe,” a direct political threat to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s governing coalition. Germany’s Foreign Ministry asked for a clarification.
Last week, David M. Friedman, the ambassador to Israel, told an Israeli newspaper, “There’s no question Republicans support Israel more than Democrats,” making an explicitly partisan argument that is generally forbidden among ambassadors.
And earlier this year, Peter Hoekstra, the ambassador to the Netherlands, refused to respond to a room full of Dutch journalists who asked him to clarify false statements he had made in 2015 that politicians and cars had been burned by Muslims in the country. He has apologized.
There is nothing new about ambassadors making unfortunate remarks. But the growing list of top envoys who have provoked controversy even in posts of close allies, where diplomatic duties largely include party-giving and anodyne cheerleading, has been unusual — and, for the Trump administration, potentially perilous.
The administration is using its envoys, “even in our closest allies, to advance a nationalist and very aggressive agenda rather than maintain cordial relations,” said Nancy McEldowney, who had helped to train ambassadors for their posts as the former director of the Foreign Service Institute.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is in the midst of identifying candidates for 28 ambassadorships and 30 other top vacant positions in hopes of re-energizing a State Department that was left listless under his predecessor, Rex Tillerson.
Because of the shrinking number of legislative days left in the year, nominations must be sent to the Senate within weeks for Pompeo to have any hope of getting most of them confirmed this year — one reason Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the majority leader, announced Tuesday that he would cancel much of the August recess.
“That’s my mission set: to build that esprit and get that team on the field,” Pompeo said on his first diplomatic trip overseas, a promise he has repeated.
But there is a widely held perception even among Republicans in Congress that the Trump administration does little to vet or coach its diplomatic nominees, and has proposed some candidates with zero relevant experience, unexplored controversies and huge gaps in basic knowledge.
Doug Manchester, nominated as the ambassador to the Bahamas, last year described the British Commonwealth realm as “for all intents and purposes” a protectorate of the United States, a description that was not well received on the islands. His nomination remains in limbo.
And as Senate Democrats’ irritation grows with envoys who are ensconced abroad, an already slow confirmation process for new nominees could become even more sclerotic.
“If Ambassador Grenell is unwilling to refrain from political statements, he should be recalled immediately,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., said Monday. “The United States does not accept foreign meddling in our elections, and we shouldn’t have an ambassador attempting to intrude in another country’s political affairs.”
Friedman’s comments on May 30, to The Times of Israel, led to a similar cascade of denunciations from Democrats. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., said Friedman’s remarks were “wrong, insensitive and demonstrate his ill-preparedness to be a suitable diplomat.”
In a briefing Tuesday, Heather Nauert, the State Department spokeswoman, said that “ambassadors have a right to express their opinion.”
“They’re representatives of the White House,” she said.
To which Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, the senior Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, responded that ambassadors should keep their personal opinions to themselves.
“If a foreign ambassador tried to get involved in American politics, I’d want to see that person on the next flight home,” he said.
“This is the second time in as many weeks that an American ambassador has gotten too involved in politics,” he said. “It’s unacceptable. I hope Secretary Pompeo either convinces these officials to abide by the norms of diplomacy or finds replacements who will do so.”
Generally, about one-third of ambassadors are political appointees, including donors who are rewarded with cushy overseas posts. The State Department puts every envoy through training, but the frosty relationship between Trump and Tillerson led some political appointees to ignore guidance from veteran diplomats.
“As a group, they’ve had far less contact with desk officers in the normal bureaucracy than any in recent memory,” said Ronald Neumann, a former ambassador who now serves as the president of the American Academy of Diplomacy.
He said statements that needlessly alienate foreign allies are discouraged — in part because they make day-to-day diplomacy harder. “It’s the difference between being smart and being stupid,” Neumann said. Trump has cast aside decades of diplomatic conventions himself, calling some Mexican immigrants “rapists,” disparaging Haiti and much of Africa, declining on his first tour of Europe as president to explicitly endorse NATO’s mutual defense pledge, and imposing steel and aluminum tariffs on the United States’ closest allies.
In rare cases, ambassadors stir controversy under instruction.
While serving as ambassador to Moscow during the Obama administration, Michael A. McFaul used his social media accounts to needle the government of President Vladimir Putin of Russia; he said in an interview that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had asked him to do so. The effort is widely seen as having been unsuccessful.
But Moscow is different from U.S.-friendly governments in Berlin, Jerusalem or The Hague, McFaul said.
“Sometimes you have to stand up to the government, but not when it’s an ally,” he said. “I don’t see the strategic interest in doing what these guys are doing.”
Grenell has since tried to partially walk back his comments. “The idea that I’d endorse candidates/parties is ridiculous,” he said in a Twitter post Sunday.
Friedman tweeted his own clarification. “I firmly believe that American support for Israel needs to be bipartisan and I will continue to welcome any Democratic legislators who wish to visit Israel — and I hope they do!” he said last week. He has also benefited from the expressed and repeated support of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
And after his troubled start and an apology, Hoekstra has largely steered clear of controversy.
Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley, another veteran diplomat who retired recently, said the State Department could do only so much to curb ambassadors who have close ties to the president.
“The department can warn, admonish and ‘recall for consultations,’ but if the envoy has the backing of the White House then any real penalty is unlikely,” she said. “If the host nation shuts you out, though, your ineffectiveness harms the nation.”