The Role of Ambassadors in our National Security Strategy

July 18, 2014 By John Glenn

Kip WardSecretary of State John Kerry recently called attention to the consequences for U.S. global leadership from the high number of vacant U.S. Ambassadorships around the world. As over 50 African heads of state prepare to come to Washington for the US-African Leaders Summit on August 4-6, 25 percent of ambassadorships on the continent remain unconfirmed by the Senate—with the majority reported out of committee.

Lt. General Kip Ward, USA (Ret.) served as the first head of U.S. Africa Command from 2007 to 2011, and is a 30 year veteran of the United States Army. During his years of service, he worked with U.S. ambassadors in Europe, Africa and around the world in keeping America safe and protecting U.S. interests in the world. We asked him about his perspective on this issue.

Q: As Commander at U.S. Africa Command, you worked closely with ambassadors. Why was it crucial to have them in place and on the ground?

There’s very little that I did in a country where I didn’t involve the ambassador. Ambassadors are in touch with a nation’s head of state, its foreign departments, and its military. You want to take advantage of what they know from their intimacy with the host country. Within the country teams of these ambassadors are representatives from many of our domestic agencies, and all that information helps them put together a mosaic that gives a clear picture of what’s going on so we can make decisions. The interdependence of our government departments and agencies in countries was a big factor in how we ran U.S. Africa Command.

As a combatant commander, I always wanted to have their thoughts on whether our military activities and desired outcome made sense from their perspective in achieving national interests. I came to fully realize that some years earlier when I served as chief of the office of security cooperation in Egypt in 1998. We were able to effectively work with our ambassador and coordinate our defense efforts with USAID. When our embassies in Tanzania and Nairobi were bombed, Dan Kurtzer, our ambassador to Egypt at the time who later also served as our ambassador to Israel, had an understanding of the dynamics of the environment that was critical to informing decisions. It was perspectives such as these from across the region that helped us ultimately get to the bottom of who perpetrated those bombings.

I had the opportunity to work with this same ambassador during my tenure as U.S. Security Coordinator to Israel and the Palestinian Authority in 2005, again reinforcing my understanding of the critical role these women and men have in matters of national security. I took this appreciation to my work in Africa and applied it to the relationships forged with our U.S. ambassadors in Africa in pursuing U.S. national security objectives.

Q: Are there things that may not be getting done because there’s not an ambassador in place? 

When the ambassador isn’t there, a certain level of engagement does not occur, and especially at the most senior levels. Our ambassadors are the direct emissary of the President, and countries want to deal with the person in charge. Even if you have the deputy chief of mission/charge’ de affairs on station, not having our highest level of representation present limits our interaction. As opposed to dealing with the president or the prime minister, you might have to deal with someone below the most senior levels.

Q: Right now the U.S. Ambassadors to Cameroon and Niger are vacant, while we are trying to assist in the response to the school girls kidnapped by Boko Haram next door in Nigeria. What impact might that be having?

Our ability to monitor and understand what’s going on in conflicts is likely impacted when our ambassadors aren’t present. And especially in the case of career foreign service officers, their experience is missed. Our ability to communicate our interests up close and personal in a way that gets the desired level of attention is reduced.

In Niger and Cameroon where the regional dynamic is so important, we may not be able to convey intent and expectations to countries in ways that reinforce our national interest without the Chief of Mission on station. The people we send to represent our interests may be interpreted as a signal of the value we place on the relationship, “do they care about us, and are we important?” Having our senior diplomats in place is a sign of our commitment, thus contributing to more frank and open discussions. This is important in helping to realize our goals for increased stability.

Q: Economically, what’s at stake in Africa when ambassadors remain vacant?

Africa’s GDP is growing and its demographics are changing. The relationships developed through engagement by our ambassadors with their host nations impact our ability promote our economic interests. When you don’t have those relationships in place, our equitable access to trade and markets for our products and resources are negatively impacted. And with seven of the ten fastest growing economies in the world in Africa, our senior diplomats are on point in helping the U.S. realize economic and trade objectives with valued partners.

Q: You’ve gone through the Senate confirmation process yourself. What’s your experience and take on this backlog? 

From my perspective, it was not a difficult experience because I was prepared for it, knew the issues, and I always appreciate a vigorous discussion about what’s in the best interests of our nation. For me, it was always in support of our foreign policy and our national security objectives and the members approached it the same.

I think that’s the case for these nominees for Africa ambassadorships. These are career foreign service officers who have served in varying capacities in Africa and other places around the world, where they have the skillset and understand the requirement to build relationships, advocate for our national interests with the host country, and represent American interests and the people of America.

Q: Is there anything else you’d add?

When we create a void, or a void is allowed to exist, someone is going to fill it. When it’s filled by something that’s not in our national interest, reversing it requires extraordinary amounts of resources. The more voids that exist, the more difficult that path becomes.

When I was a combatant commander, my intent was to always include our ambassador on my visits with a head of state. They saw the ambassador, who represented the suite of our diplomatic and economic interests, and me as an integrated team. Together we represented the 3 Ds of development, diplomacy, and defense, all integral to increased stability on the continent.