World leaders are seen on a screen during a climate change virtual summit from the East Room of the White House campus April 22, 2021, in Washington, DC.

World leaders are seen on a screen during a climate change virtual summit from the East Room of the White House campus April 22, 2021, in Washington, DC. AFP via Getty Images / Brendan Smialowski

Biden Seeks State Department Budget Boost, But Ambassador Nominations Lag

Slow pace of nominations is the “missing piece" of the president's drive to emphasize diplomacy’s importance in foreign policy, one analyst said.

President Joe Biden, who vowed to “repair our alliances and engage with the world once again,” is proposing to put dollars behind that promise. But analysts say he’s lacking the lower-level diplomacy that’s critical to building strong relationships.  

The federal budget released Friday proposes an increase of more than $6 billion from fiscal 2021 funding for international affairs. But, while top-level Biden officials have prioritized engagement with foreign leaders, and the president himself said in February that “diplomacy is back at the center of our foreign policy,” the lack of ambassador nominations means the administration has missed out on front-line diplomacy for its first four months.

The White House has nominated only a handful of ambassadors, according to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. While news outlets have reported several people that Biden intends to nominate, including former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to be ambassador to Japan and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti as ambassador to India, nothing has been submitted to Congress, meaning the confirmation process has not started, said Heather Conley, a former State Department official and international consultant. 

“It’s frustrating that no U.S. ambassadors have been announced yet. It’s very late in the process,” said Conley, who is now a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “We understand it takes a while, but that’s been a real surprise. In diplomacy, you need ambassadors. You need people who are given the authority to go do that hard work. That’s been a missing piece in the beginning of the administration.” 

The delay is due to both lengthy background checks and the administration’s desire to unveil a diverse group of nominees versus announcing each one individually, the New York Times reported

Biden has prioritized meeting with foreign officials, including state visits in Washington with South Korean President Moon Jae-In and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, and he’s deputized Secretary of State Antony Blinken for high-profile overseas trips, including a visit to Israel after a flare up of violence between Israel and Palestine. And Biden is preparing for a diplomacy-heavy trip next month, including engagements at the G7 Summit and NATO, plus a bilateral meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva. 

But even presidential visits like this would benefit from having lower-level people working on the agenda with partners ahead of time, Conley said. And while experienced diplomats are in charge on an interim basis in many embassies, that’s different from having leaders selected by Biden who allies know speak for him, Conley said. 

“You want your key personnel there, particularly when there’s a big summit. It’s a huge way of conferring, ‘This is my person.’ Unfortunately, it’s a lot of missed opportunities,” she said. “When you send a strong message of diplomacy first, you’ve got to have your A-team out there as quickly as you can.” 

Despite that, the Biden administration is backing up its commitment to diplomacy with funding, requesting $63.7 billion for international affairs in fiscal 2022. The bulk of that, at $58.5 billion, is for the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development, while the remainder covers international activities at other agencies, such as the Agriculture Department, Treasury Department and Peace Corps. 

The requested $6.1 billion boost from the 2021 enacted level represents a real change of at least 6 percent — and more if inflation drops below the current 4 percent. And it’s a dramatic increase from the $40.8 billion budget proposed by President Donald Trump in 2021 and Congress rejected. 

By comparison, the Biden administration’s defense spending request for 2022 is $715 billion, a 3 percent decrease from 2021 when accounting for inflation. 

But “diplomacy does not equal dollar signs,” said Brett Schaefer, a senior research fellow in international regulatory affairs at the Heritage Foundation. 

“Too often, those lamenting the problems in the Department of State attribute it primarily to a lack of resources,” he said. “At some point, continuing to blame lack of resources for perceived deficiencies sounds more like blame-shifting than a clear-eyed prescription for what State needs.”

However, Democrats say the State Department actually needs more than what Biden proposed. Four lawmakers argued in March that the 2022 budget should grow to $68.7 billion, with increased focus on competing with China, preparing for the next pandemic, and fighting climate change. 

Trump proposed significant cuts to the State Department’s budget during the last four years, including a 2021 request that was 24 percent less than what Congress enacted in 2020, according to a Congressional Research Service report

Some areas he targeted specifically included slashing educational and cultural exchange programs by more than 50 percent, cutting funding for international organizations by almost a third, and reducing the diplomatic programs account—which pays for the State Department’s daily operations—by more than 10 percent. 

However, because Congress rejected those cuts and passed higher budgets than the president’s plan each year, the State Department’s budget remained roughly flat during the Trump administration. 

Some areas where Biden proposes boosting investment include an $800 billion increase in global health security to stop the spread of Covid-19, and $700 million to support other nations in battling climate change. The budget proposal would also increase funding for United Nations peacekeeping missions by $500 million compared to last year to reverse “the chronic underfunding of these critical programs by the previous administration.” 

Biden also proposed spending more than double what Trump did on educational and cultural exchange programs, which include efforts such as paying for American musicians or athletes to go overseas to work with youth. 

One area where Biden is getting it right is consistently messaging that his top diplomats have his full trust and speak for him, said Bradley Bowman, senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. 

“The trust that [the president]...demonstrates in his secretary of state is important. When Secretary Blinken shows up in this or that country, the first question that his interlocutors are going to ask is does this person have the trust and authority of the U.S. president,” Bowman said. “That matters, because that helps people decide whether they should take what Blinken says as serious and substantive.” 

Still, Bowman, who spent nine years on Capitol Hill, worried about the proposed cuts to the defense budget, saying that diplomacy is at its best when it’s backed up by a strong military deterrent, especially against aggressive threats such as China, North Korea, Russia, and Iran. 

“You can have the most eloquent communiques and press releases from Foggy Bottom, but if we’re learned anything over the years, it’s that Putin’s not impressed with diplomatic communiques. It takes hard power,” he said.