Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Meaning of the Leadership Vacuum in the Embassies

President Obama has announced Jon Huntsman’s nomination as Ambassador to China. In the United States, it is justifiably regarded as a political coup of the first order. He is a moderate Republican governor of a socially conservative state (Utah), accentuating the inclusiveness of the Obama administration at the expense of the ever-shrinking moderate wing of the GOP. Many people also believe that he is uniquely suited to his new role (pending Senate confirmation) because he is fluent in Mandarin from his Mormon missionary work in Taiwan—no off-color comments about a “new missionary position” please; this is a serious blog—and it certainly doesn’t hurt that China and Taiwan are on excellent terms these days. What has received less, indeed little, attention is the very fact that the United States has been without an ambassador in Beijing for four months since Clark Randt resigned on January 20.

China is not alone. Thomas Schieffer resigned on the same day as Ambassador to Japan, where my formidably negative powers of prediction have produced yet another turnaround and we are waiting once again for Joseph Nye to make up his mind, or so I’ve been told. Now, there’s been a wholesale delay of political appointees in the Obama administration, so ambassadors in principle are the least of its worries. But how can the most important bilateral relationship and the most important bilateral partnership have been without U.S. Ambassadors for four months without anybody noticing?

In fact, it is the strategic importance of the relationship/partnership from national security and economic viewpoints—increasingly convergent in these turbulent times—itself that is the cause of this benign neglect. For the major issues are too important to be left to the discretion of the embassies, yet there are no raging controversies that require micromanagement at the local level. Place this fact against the historical background where progress in telecommunications and air transport have already rendered much of traditional diplomacy obsolete, and you have a situation that can easily tolerate a leadership vacuum in both embassies as long as the various departments are properly staffed.

Not that any warm body will do, though, since there’s the symbolic value. That means, however, that the authorities must come up with someone with sufficient gravitas and the patience to serve out a largely ceremonial role in admittedly pleasant quarters—unless something erupts and there’s a need for high-profile, in situ damage control. That’s not easy.

And no, I didn’t post this just because I wanted to write “new missionary position”. You don’t think I’m that juvenile, do you?


Anonymous said...

He was also the US ambassador to Singapore at a ridiculously young age - early 30s or something.
His acceptance would also indicate he sees no likelihood of a moderate republican such as himself claiming the GOP nomination in 2012.

Jun Okumura said...

Anonymous: You are correct on the first count and I agree with you on the second. More generally, Huntsman appears to be a man of incredible achievements, a human version of Mitt Romney on steroids. My guess: He’ll top out some day at Secretary of State and World Bank President. Perhaps the idea is that he’ll be the China czar in a different way than Hank Paulsen. He certainly seems to have the tools, but that’ll be difficult to do from Beijing.