The U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations held a hearing on April 7 to question President Joseph Biden’s nominee for U.S. Ambassador to South Korea, Ambassador Philip S. Goldberg. Goldberg is one of four ambassadorial nominees who testified before the Foreign Relations Committee on April 7. Two of the four nominees, including Goldberg, are senior career foreign service officers. The other two who participated in the Foreign Relations Committee hearing are political nominees, not career diplomats.
The nomination of a person with the strong background and the extensive experience of Ambassador Goldberg is a clear indication of the high importance the Biden Administration places on the United States relationship with South Korea.
Philip Goldberg has a particularly distinguished career in the U.S. Foreign Service. He holds the personal rank of “Career Ambassador,” the highest rank in the Foreign Service. This status is granted to a very small number of U.S. diplomats. Appointment as Career Ambassador requires nomination by the President and confirmation by the U.S. Senate unrelated to confirmation as ambassador to any particular country. As the State Department historian explains, “The President is empowered with the advice and consent of the Senate to confer the personal rank of Career Ambassador upon a career member of the Senior Foreign Service in recognition of especially distinguished service over a sustained period.” Goldberg was appointed to Career Ambassador rank in 2018. Since the rank was established in 1956, only 62 American diplomats have been honored with appointment as Career Ambassador.
Goldberg has already served with distinction as U.S. Ambassador to Colombia (2019-2022), the Philippines (2013-2016), and Bolivia (2006-2008). He also was Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence and Research (2010-2013), and he served in a senior position dealing with North Korea sanctions as Coordinator for the Implementation of United Nations Resolution 1874 on North Korea Sanctions (2009-2010). Earlier in his diplomatic career he was senior aide to Ambassador Richard Holbrooke and was a participant in the negotiations that led to the Dayton Peace Accords for Bosnia.
The Senate Confirmation Hearing
Career Foreign Service diplomats generally get a Senate hearing much quicker than non-Foreign Service nominees for an ambassadorship. Goldberg’s nomination was announced by the White House on February 11 and his confirmation hearing came less than two months later (April 7). The same was true with the other Foreign Service officer who also participated in the Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing on April 7. Diplomat MaryKay Carlson was nominated for the post of Ambassador to the Philippines on February 3. (Her career at the State Department includes a number of prominent positions, including service as Deputy Director of Korean Affairs.)
The two other ambassadorial nominees who participated in the confirmation hearing on April 7 and who are not career Foreign Service officers required a wait of twice as long for their Senate hearing. Caroline Kennedy, former U.S. Ambassador to Japan (2013-2017) and daughter of former President John F. Kennedy, was nominated by President Biden to be Ambassador to Australia on December 15. She waited four months for her confirmation hearing on April 7. Australian news comments saw the appointment of Ambassador Kennedy as an indication of the high regard and importance the United States accords Australia. Also on the agenda was the nomination of Marc B. Nathanson as Ambassador to Norway. His nomination was announced by the White House on October 29, 2021. He is a communications entrepreneur, and he previously served as Chairman of the United States Agency for Global Media during the Clinton-Gore and Bush-Cheney Administrations (1995-2002).
The next step in the confirmation process for Ambassador Goldberg will be a vote by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to approve the nomination and bring it before the Senate, for a vote by all Senators. That usually takes a minimum of a couple of weeks for nominees to respond in writing to questions from senators, and for any other outstanding issues to be resolved.
The confirmation hearings on April 7 began with the ambassadorial nominees making a brief introductory statement, followed by senators questioning the nominees. Ambassador Goldberg’s initial statement focused on the importance of the United States relationship with Korea: “The Republic of Korea has been the linchpin of peace, security and prosperity in the Into-Pacific region and beyond. Forged during the Korean War and the 1953 Mutual Defense Treaty, the U.S. – ROK Alliance has evolved into a partnership that is comprehensive and global in nature. If confirmed, my top priority will be to strengthen our ironclad alliance even as we expand the relationship’s regional and global reach.”
The first question and most of the tough questions from the six senators who participated in the hearing were addressed to Philipp Goldberg. This is not because the relationship between the United States and South Korea is seen as problematic, but because North Korea has been and continues to be a serious matter of concern for the Congress. The questions focused on United Nations sanctions against North Korea and whether they are working, recent North Korea missile tests, Chinese pressure against South Korea (and Australia and the Philippines), and the frustrations of dealing with North Korea. Most of those issues are not the primary responsibility of the U.S. ambassador to Seoul, though he will play a role in dealing with them.
Next Steps from the Hearing to the Senate Confirmation Vote
The confirmation hearing is an important hurdle to clear on the path to being sworn into office as an ambassador, but this past year the Senate has been notoriously slow in confirming ambassadorial and other senior foreign policy appointments. The nasty partisan wrangling in the Senate has been difficult because the Senate is evenly divided with fifty Democrats and fifty Republicans, requiring the Vice President, as President of the Senate, to break a tie on occasion. But even worse, the Senate also has arcane rules (and some critics have used much more derogatory terms than “arcane”) which can be manipulated by a single Senator to prevent or delay important issues from being resolved by a vote of the Senate.
On December 16, 2021, the Senate voted 75-18 to confirm Nicholas Burns, a widely respected former career diplomat, as United States ambassador to China. Burns was nominated by President Biden in August with bipartisan praise and support. Florida Senator Marco Rubio, however, single-handedly held up a confirmation vote on Burns. The United States was without an ambassador in Beijing for more than a year. The log-jamb was finally broken after four months of unnecessary and potentially costly delay.
In August 2021 Texas senator Ted Cruz protested Biden decisions on issues not related to U.S. diplomatic representation and prevented or delayed the full Senate from voting on nominations the Foreign Relations committee had already approved. These delaying obstruction tactics have nothing to do with the qualifications or competence of the nominees; rather, they were an effort to change policy on other totally unrelated issues. Just before the Senate adjourned in mid-August, Cruz prevented the confirmation of dozens of senior State Department officials. That continued until finally a week before Christmas in December 2021 with the Senate leadership threatening to hold Senate in session through the holidays, the Texan finally gave up his games and thirty ambassadors were confirmed at a Saturday morning Senate session before Senators could head home for Christmas.
The bottom line is that the confirmation process in the Senate can be precarious, and there are potential unrelated problems which could delay a final vote to confirm Ambassador Goldberg, which likely would have nothing to do with the competence and qualifications of the nominee or the importance of the United States relationship with the country to which the ambassador is designated.
Unfortunately, there is another backup in confirmations that may be developing. From November 2021 to April 2022, over fifty nominations from the White House were delivered to the Senate requesting the Senate’s “advice and consent” for appointment of ambassadors or other senior officials at the Department of State. Of that number, nine have been confirmed by the Senate, four have been approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee but not yet by the full Senate. A good number of those have had confirmation hearings, but a good number of nominees are still awaiting action by the Senate.
Positive Response in Seoul and Washington
When the nomination of Ambassador Goldberg was announced, the response in Seoul was positive. South Korean foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong welcomed Goldberg as “a highly respected diplomat,” and called him “a well-experienced diplomat.” In Washington, former United States Ambassador to South Korea (2008-2011) and current president of the Korea Economic Institute of America, was equally positive, praising Goldberg as “one of America’s most seasoned and skilled career diplomats. He is an inspired choice for Seoul. His nomination was worth the wait.”
The timing is right for the new United States Ambassador to assume his post in South Korea. President Moon Jae-in will step down and President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol will be sworn-in at a ceremony at the National Assembly in Seoul on May 10. It would be appropriate to have the new United States ambassador in place on that occasion, although recent experience with Senate votes suggests that a Senate vote in time for Ambassador Goldberg to be in Seoul on May 10 may well be a difficult schedule to meet. But the new administration in Seoul should be dealing with the new U.S. ambassador soon after the presidential inauguration.
Robert R. King is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America (KEI). He is former U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights (2009-2017). The views expressed here are his own.
Photo from the U.S. Secretary of Defense’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.