Explainer: Biden administration to nominate Ambassador for International Freedom

July 20, 2021

Speaking via video at the International Religious Freedom (IRF) Summit this week In Washington, D.C., Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that the Biden administration plans to nominate an ambassador-at-large for IRF in the coming weeks. This vital position has been left vacant since the Biden administration took office and plays a crucial role in the global religious freedom movement.

What does the Ambassador for IRF do?

The ambassador for IRF was created by the landmark International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 that established the Office of IRF at the State Department and the Commission on International Religious Freedom. The ambassadorship is a Senate-confirmed position and is charged with being the “principal adviser to the President and the Secretary of State Regarding matters affecting religious freedom abroad.” The IRF Ambassadorship has always been the focal point for the U.S. government to address violations of religious freedom around the world — particularly through their annual reports.

During the Trump Administration, the IRF Ambassadorship was held by former Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback. Under Ambassador Brownback, the IRF movement took a more prominent place in U.S. foreign policy than ever before. The IRF office held the inaugural 2019 Ministerial to Advance International Religious Freedom — the largest civil society event ever held by the state department — created an IRF alliance with 32 other countries, and played a pivotal role in declaring China’s persecution of the Uyghur Muslims as a genocide in the final days of the Trump administration. 

What does Secretary Blinken’s announcement mean?

Secretary Blinken’s announcement is a welcome development for IRF advocates. The announcement comes within six months of the Biden administration coming to power, roughly the same timeline as the Trump administration. 

Biden’s decision to appoint an IRF ambassador this early in his administration tracks with other positive decisions that the administration has made regarding international religious freedom issues. Only two days after being confirmed as secretary of state, Blinken stated that he supported the Trump administration’s decision to designate China’s actions against the Uyghurs as a genocide. These developments confirm what IRF advocates have been hoping for — that religious freedom would continue to play an important role in U.S. foreign policy.

The announcement also signals that IRF continues to be a bipartisan issue. At the IRF Summit where Blinken announced the plan to nominate an IRF ambassador occurred at a three-day summit helmed by Trump-appointed former Ambassador Brownback. Over the course of the conference, efforts toward bipartisanship were noticeable. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi spoke (via a video statement) in the same plenary session as former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Additionally, the event’s honorary co-chairs were Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware and U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas, both Democrats, and two Republicans, Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma and U.S. Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey.

What will happen next?

As Secretary Blinken stated, the Biden administration will announce its nominee for the ambassadorship in the coming weeks. After that, the nominee will have to go through the Senate confirmation process. Typically, Senate confirmations can last two to three months, although the process for Ambassador Brownback took over six months

The IRF office is one of the most effective government institutions for protecting religious minorities around the world, including persecuted Christians. The ERLC will continue to collaborate with leaders in the United States government and the international community to advocate for international religious freedom to remain a top U.S. foreign policy priority.

Photo Attribution:

KEN CEDENO / Getty Contributor

Ben Harbaugh

Ben Harbaugh serves as Presidential Management Fellow for the U.S. Space Force. He formally served as State Policy Associate for the ERLC Washington, D.C., office. Before joining the ERLC, Ben worked on international religious freedom for the State Department, the White House, and various NGO’s around D.C. Read More by this Author