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Foreign policy

US special envoys have 'the luxury' to focus on a single diplomacy issue, former envoy says

Kurt Volker, the former special envoy for Ukraine negotiations, joins The World's host Marco Werman to explain the unique role that special envoys play in foreign policy.

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Ambassador Kurt Volker, former special envoy to Ukraine, testifies before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Nov. 19, 2019.


Susan Walsh/AP

Special envoys. The US government has these unique roles to address the climate, the Horn of Africa, and COVID-19, to name just a few.

They're not necessarily ambassadors, but they are diplomats — who don't need congressional approval. This makes envoys popular with presidents who appoint them.

Related: Biden vows 'whole of government' approach to climate change

But their roles can be confusing or appear murky.

Kurt Volker, the former special envoy for Ukraine negotiations, knows how this all works.

Volker is now with the Center for European Policy Analysis and joined The World's host Marco Werman to talk about the unique role that special envoys play in diplomacy. 

Related: Fighting in Afghanistan claims lives and displaces families 

Marco Werman: First of all, what is a special envoy or special representative and how do they differ from an ambassador? 

Kurt Volker: The difference is the function. An ambassador to a country — take Ukraine, where I was the special representative for Ukraine negotiations — the ambassador to the country is responsible for all aspects of the bilateral relationship, manages the mission, is resident in that country, oversees the operations of the embassy staff, political, economic, commercial, military attache and so forth. That's a very important function and it does require Senate confirmation. For a special envoy, it is to be tasked with a particular role that is not necessarily limited to presence in that country.

And in the case of Ukraine, my responsibility was to coordinate policy toward Ukraine with France and Germany, which ran the Normandy process, to negotiate with Russia about their ongoing aggression in Ukraine, to seek support from the European Union, from NATO, and also to coordinate policy within the administration. So, I would meet regularly at a very senior level with the secretary of state, secretary of defense, national security adviser, in order to make sure that we were well-grounded in policy so that in representing that to others, we had a single point of view.

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So, right now, there are a lot of many special envoys. Why is that? Why not just have ambassadors or other State Department officials fill those roles?

Yeah, it depends on the issue. Sometimes a special envoy will have higher-level credentials and access in the administration. They'll be meeting at a cabinet level or even with the president, as compared with an ambassador on the ground, resident in another country. Sometimes, the officials in the State Department, such as an assistant secretary of state, could perform the same duties performed by a special envoy. But the challenge in doing it that way is that those people at a senior level in the administration have many, many other responsibilities, as well. A special envoy has the luxury of focusing on one thing and trying to elevate that issue. 

At the same time, President Joe Biden has yet to name nominees for more than 90 ambassadorships. Does that concern you as these envoys keep growing?

It does concern me, not as a juxtaposition against their being special envoys for particular issues or particular functions. But we need ambassadors on the ground. We go through this at the beginning of every administration, and it is taking longer and longer. The Trump administration is heavily criticized for being slow, and we're now seeing that the Biden administration is also rather slow here. We really do need to get names out there and get those people on the ground.

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Of course, while you were special envoy Kurt Volker, Ukraine became one of the top stories in the US and ultimately led to President Donald Trump's first impeachment. Were there moments when your role as special envoy became unclear or difficult to navigate?

Well, difficult to navigate at times simply because of the nature of it. But that being said, I felt that I had a lot of top cover from the secretary of state, secretary of defense, national security adviser, and I was able to be quite vocal in support of Ukraine and pushing back on Russian aggression. And during that time, we were able to lift the ban on sales of lethal arms to Ukraine so they could defend themselves better. We increased the amount of security assistance there. So, I think we were able to make quite a bit of progress despite the complexities.

Ultimately, of course, you resigned during the Ukraine impeachment scandal. That was a day after the whistleblower report came out. Some saw you operating outside of the formal contours of the US State Department. So, when it came to who you were answering to as a special envoy, the secretary of state, the president, I mean, that must get murky for envoys. And isn't that always going to be a tension when envoys are appointed? 

Yeah, I don't agree that it was murky and I don't agree that it was outside of any channels because it was an appointment made by the secretary of state. That's who I reported to. Plus, I did directly stay in contact with the secretary of defense, national security adviser, in order to really be representing the administration. And this is not unusual. We have, as you said, special envoys in a lot of other areas. And we have other cabinet officials who have interests that are intersecting with various countries, as well. So, I think that there is a role for the ambassador on the ground and there's a channel of reporting for that. But I have the opportunity to range across diplomatic relationships in ways that probably would have been more difficult to do had I not been focused only on that issue.

It sounds like there was some flexibility, but it was never unclear to you who you had to answer to as envoy?

No, not at all. You're working inside the US government. You have a president. You have a secretary of state. These are the elected leaders who set our policy. And that's who you work for.

As you look ahead at some of Biden's appointments for special envoy positions, which special envoy do you believe has the most crucial role to play in the coming years? Who are we going to be hearing about? 

I think John Kerry, former secretary of state, and on a priority issue for the administration, climate change. I think his role is important. I've seen Jeff Feltman playing a role in Middle East and Africa, which I think is also important. This is a source of serious potential conflicts there. Thinking back to the Trump administration, I think Elliott Abrams played a very important role on Venezuela, getting our policy together. It didn't produce change in Venezuela, but I think that's something that the Biden administration is going to want to come back to at some point, as well.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

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