Foreign Policy magazine wrote in June, 2021 that the number of special envoys of the U.S. government has surged considerably since Joe Biden took office. There were 55 posts for special envoys by June, 2021. Secondary sources indicate that Donald Trump cut down the number of special envoys at the beginning of his tenure although the number started to rise as his stay in office picked up time. In comparison, the Bush administration did not use any special envoys while Obama’s use of 24 special envoys was unprecedented.
The major rationale behind the use of special envoys as pointed out by piecebrief website is that it “permits more effort, focus and attention to be placed on a given issue than would have been the case had the position not existed.” The envoys the website interviewed observed that their senior, but sometimes ambiguous positions in the government structure often afforded them greater access to senior foreign officials and news media than were enjoyed by regular officials below the level of cabinet secretary.
On top of the above stated perks, secondary sources indicate, the appointment of special envoys does not require senate confirmation. Considering the amount of time and the political tussle involved in senate confirmation, U.S. administrations pursue the appointment of special envoys as a viable alternative. As a result, states the website, the use of special envoys is viewed by U.S. administrations as a flexible tool.
The proliferation of special envoys under Biden has, however, been met with stern opposition from leadership of the African affairs section of the state department. Foreign Policy magazine reported on December 6, 2021 that Molly Phee, the new assistant secretary of state for African affairs, remarked that special envoys shut out other diplomats from policy making. Phee reportedly stated in an email she sent to state department staff and Jeffrey Feltman on October 15, 2021: “there will inevitably be instances of overlap and lane sharing, so I ask everyone to be as charitable and generous as possible in working through those occasions.”
Despite the lingering use of special envoys since the second half of the twentieth century, there has consistently been complaint by U.S. career diplomats that the envoys tend to have vague mandates and their effectiveness in achieving the goals set is questionable. Such assertions involve the argument that their mandates overlap with U.S. ambassadors in the field and regional bureaus in Washington D.C.
An article by the center for strategic and international studies indicates that such discord between special envoys and staff members of the state department leave the former in a battle for access, authority and resources. As a result, special envoys tend to consider regional embassies as bureaucratic and blame the formal structure for their resource constraints.
The recent complaint by Molly Phee is a reflection of the lingering argument by career diplomats that special envoys stall their contribution to policy making. Bypassing the long time engagements of ambassadors and other career diplomats stationed at a specific country or region, special envoys are said to block the channel for career diplomats.
An article on Wilson center website states that experience of the last 60 years indicates that the use of special envoys should be limited to a few roles of high importance. Otherwise, explains the article, special envoys could add to bureaucratic infighting that has long complicated efforts to “produce and implement a coherent foreign policy, and they can contribute to fragmented international policy.” The article recommends a system that would allow all experts, including special envoys, ambassadors and career diplomats, to participate in policy making.
As indicated above, there are instances where the use of special envoys could deter the implementation of a coherent foreign policy. A U.S. based Horn of Africa analyst working for the UN told The Reporter that the foreign policy implementation mismatch might be intentional in some cases. According to the analyst, through the use of special envoys, a U.S. administration can change some aspects of its relation with a state without formally changing its foreign policy agendas. The exclusion of embassy staff members from their normal policy engagement would then provide the perfect opportunity for the administration to pursue the new short term stance much easier. In that aspect, argues the expert, the concept of flexibility associated with special envoys could also span the implementation of foreign policy.