The beginning of 2020 has been defined by international turmoil, ranging from our escalating conflict with Iran to sustained tensions with North Korea. As the United States grapples with these issues and many others, it is more important than ever that there are experienced and competent leaders in critical diplomatic posts.
During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump promised to “drain the swamp” and rid Washington of career politicians. Consequently, once elected, Trump failed to fill many important diplomatic positions or nominated people who lack critical international relations experience. One of the clearest examples of an underqualified diplomat is Kelly Craft, the current U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. Craft’s husband is a coal baron who donated heavily to GOP candidates, including over $2 million to Trump’s campaign. After his election, Trump nominated Craft to be the U.S. Ambassador to Canada. She served in this role for 20 months, but came under fire for not being present in Canada for nearly half her time as Ambassador.
The role of a U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. is one of great importance as the ambassador represents America on a world stage and helps facilitate the resolution of important global issues through diplomacy. Whether it is imposing sanctions on North Korea, advocating for an arms embargo to prevent weapons being sent to a war-torn region or helping to organize the international response to the Ebola crisis, this is a vitally important position.
Craft is particularly concerning due to her ties to the fossil fuel industry. She has made concerning comments in the past about how she sees “both sides” in the climate change debate — remarks which she was later forced to retract. Although she agreed to recuse herself on any coal-related U.N. discussions due to her husband’s business, there is still concern about how her ties to the fossil fuel industry will impact her work.
The U.N. is on the front lines of the fight against climate change, from hosting Greta Thunberg at the 2019 Climate Action Summit to commissioning reports that emphasize the true magnitude of the issue. Given Craft’s ties to the coal industry, it is concerning that she will be in this position. Despite these issues, Craft was confirmed as U.N. ambassador by the Senate with almost no Democratic support.
We have seen similar stories of inexperienced officials being awarded important roles in government, including Rex Tillerson — former Exxon Mobil CEO — who served as Trump’s first Secretary of State, despite having no formal diplomatic experience or background. Trump has shown a propensity for nominating donors to ambassadorships, despite their inherent lack of relevant experience for the role. Such was the case with the Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, where Trump broke the longstanding precedent of appointing a career diplomat to the role and instead chose John Rakolta Jr., a businessman with no diplomatic background.
One may argue Trump is simply following a precedent set by past U.S. presidents on both sides of the aisle, who also awarded donors with ambassadorships. However, an analysis of Trump’s picks has shown that he has nominated underqualified donors to ambassadorships at a higher rate than any of his predecessors. In an equally dangerous fashion, many important positions related to international relations or national security remain vacant. There are hundreds of open positions in the administration, with at least 88 of them in the Department of Defense. Important roles such as Secretary of the Navy, Director of National Intelligence and Secretary of Homeland Security are all vacant or are filled by acting personnel who have not had to face questioning or a Senate confirmation vote. This is extremely concerning because, without the proper staffing, these departments and agencies may be stretched too thin or may be unable to meet the needs of our rapidly changing geopolitical situation. Given our current international uncertainty, it is more important than ever that these critical positions are filled by competent and experienced officials.
As we have seen with the recent situation with Iran, students are taking notice of the volatile state of our international affairs. From protests to memes, University of Michigan students have expressed concern over the condition of our world and our relationship with other nations. If we want to maintain a safe and secure world, we need to be aware of the incompetent but powerful figures guiding our foreign policy and use our voices to advocate for stronger and more capable leaders to resolve the issues facing our nation and our world in the future.
Isabelle Schindler can be reached at email@example.com.