Nearly a year and a half into Donald Trump’s presidency, dozens of ambassador roles remain empty, creating an important diplomatic vacuum.
The EU, one of the US’ closest allies and the country’s largest trade partner, is one of them.
But that could soon come to an end as Trump on Thursday officially nominated Gordon D. Sondland for the critical position.
Who is Gordon D. Sondland?
Born in Seattle in 1957, Sondland is the founder and CEO of Provenance Hotels, which owns and manages 10 hotels across the US — most of them are in Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington.
He has also been involved in politics for nearly two decades having served as adviser and White House liaison for Ted Kulongski, a former Democratic governor of Oregon.
In 2007, he was appointed member of the Commission on White House Fellows by President George W. Bush. The programme provides “gifted and highly motivated young Americans with some first-hand experience in the process of governing the nation.”
Although he publicly denounced Donald Trump’s proposed policies during the presidential campaign by pulling out of a fundraising event — citing how their personal beliefs and values diverged “on so many levels” — but the Intercept reported that he had donated $1 million to the Republican candidate. Sondland had not made the donations using his name but through four limited liability companies he owns, according to the report.
What does the US ambassador to the EU actually do?
“Above all, the US ambassador to the EU is the primary point of contact for trade policy issue,” said Ian Bond, director of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform think tank to Euronews, as that is an exclusive competence of the bloc and not individual member states.
“There is also some coordination on foreign policy issues,” Bond added. Such was the case for the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) deal with Iran, with was negotiated by the EU’s top diplomat, first Catherine Ashton and then Federica Mogherini.
“The role of the US mission to the EU would have been to stay in touch on a day-to-day basis with the EU external action service,” Bond explained.
Finally, the ambassador is the first point of contact for issues pertaining to some security and counter-terrorism coordination and cooperation.
Why has the role been vacant for one and a half years?
Like many of his peers appointed under former President Barack Obama, Anthony Gardner left his position as US ambassador to the EU on January 20, 2017 after being ordered to do so by the Trump administration.
In February 2017, the name of Ted Malloch was floated about as a potential candidate although White House officials denied he was ever in the running after it emerged that he had made some false claims in his autobiography. Sondland’s name was only first reported two months ago.
“Although Trump has pointed the finger at Democrats and the Senate for that, the reality is that his administration is simply not nominating people. There are many many job for which there is at yet no nomination and that’s unusual for an administration,” Bond said.
How has the long wait been perceived in the EU?
According to Bond, the wait for a new US ambassador has not be perceived well in Brussels, especially given Trump’s vitriolic opinion of the bloc.
“Trump has repeatedly suggested that the EU was designed against US interest which is contrary to history. He’s been critical of its trade policies and suggested in an interview that he wouldn’t mind if the EU broke up which creates quite a negative impression,” Bond said.
Trump’s nominee is also a departure from what Brussels was used to. Gardner had spent 20 years working on multiple EU-US projects, spoke several languages (French, Italian, Spanish, German) and had degrees in government, international relations and law from Harvard, Oxford University and Columbia respectively.
“Mr Sondland will have a good staff working for him, but he himself is not going to be able to do this job to the same level at least for some time until he has learnt how to do it,” Bond concluded.