More than a year into President Trump’s tenure, at least 41 countries and areas are still without a U.S. ambassador. That’s proving especially perilous in regions currently struggling with geopolitical and domestic tensions.
Ambassadors play a crucial role in shaping foreign policy, especially at the local level. The United States maintains 188 embassies and related organizations around the world, but many have gone severely understaffed over the past year, sparking concern from lawmakers and experts alike.
Embassy shortages in general aren’t totally unprecedented — one year into President Obama’s tenure, there were still 21 embassy vacancies, approximately 11 percent of his ambassadorial roster, according to USA Today. The Trump administration, by contrast, has left at least 22 percent of its positions unfilled, with little to indicate that might change any time soon.
Some of those vacancies have caused more alarm than others. Amid North Korea’s ramped up nuclear efforts, South Korea, long a close U.S. ally, has become even more important than before. But the United States hasn’t had an ambassador to South Korea in more than a year. Victor Cha, a professor at Georgetown University and former North Korea adviser to President George W. Bush, was set to fill the role in August last year, but plans were abruptly derailed after Cha indicated he opposed a “bloody nose” approach — small-scale strikes — in dealing with North Korea.
In an article for the Washington Post last month, Cha outlined his disagreements with the Trump administration on the issue.
“North Korea, if not stopped, will build an arsenal with multiple nuclear missiles meant to threaten the U.S. homeland and blackmail us into abandoning our allies in Asia,” Cha wrote.
“But the answer is not, as some Trump administration officials have suggested, a preventive military strike. Instead, there is a forceful military option available that can address the threat without escalating into a war that would likely kill tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of Americans.”
The Korean Peninsula isn’t the only area gripped by chaos. The Trump administration has also failed to form a comprehensive plan for U.S. involvement in Syria, currently in the seventh year of a brutal and devastating civil war. Right across the border from Syria is Turkey — which also lacks a U.S. ambassador.
Under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey has moved away from both Europe and the United States, favoring alliances elsewhere. In the context of Syria’s war, that pivot has far-reaching ramifications: Erdoğan has doubled down on targeting U.S.-backed Kurdish forces, causing the group to pull away from the U.S. effort against ISIS. The Turkish leader also maintains that the United States was to blame for a botched 2016 coup effort and the lack of diplomatic attention in the region has only compounded those tensions.
Other regions around the globe have also been hit by the diplomatic shortage. Several countries in the Middle East are missing U.S. ambassadors, including Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. That has outsized implications in an area fraught with conflict: In addition to the Syrian war, tensions between Saudi Arabia and Qatar have sparked a multinational dispute. Saudi Arabia is also involved in a devastating war in Yemen, where more than 10,000 people have died and more than 3 million remain displaced. In Egypt, the regime of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has threatened civil liberties and the media.
The European Union, still dealing with Brexit negotiations and deteriorating ties with Russia, also lacks a U.S. ambassador. U.S. relations with Cuba warmed under the Obama administration, but they’ve since soured under Trump, an issue that’s been further agitated by the absence of a visible leading U.S. diplomatic figure.
Despite the widespread shortages and their burdensome effects across the globe, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has downplayed the problem in recent months.
“The State Department is not missing a beat just because we’ve got some nominees that are still working through the process,” the top U.S. diplomat told embassy staffers and their families in Brussels last December.
The State Department itself is noticeably empty these days: As of early February, seven of nine top top State Department positions related to trade, nuclear issues, and refugees, were also unfilled.