We came across the following post on Reddit:
The post claims that the United States for the first time appointed a diplomat for plants and animals, referencing an article from the Washington Post.
When we looked up the origins of the post, we found that it linked back to a Washington Post newsletter written by the journalist Dino Grandoni. The newsletter indeed carried the headline that the US had appointed a ‘diplomat for plants and animals’.
The newsletter relates that the State Department, the executive department of the US government responsible for foreign policy, had appointed Monica Medina to the new role of special envoy for biodiversity and water resources.
Going Green, Seeing Red
While we were researching the claims in the post, we found several articles online that were critical of this appointment, the most prominent of these being one on the website of the Daily Mail, a UK tabloid.
The article criticises the Biden administration for appointing the ‘diplomat for plants and animals’ while countries like Italy still do not have an ambassador. It also implies without evidence that the new appointee benefited from nepotism by pointing out that her husband, Ron Klain, is the current White House Chief of Staff.
In addition, it quotes the Republican lawmaker Yvette Herrell, who in a tweet decried the appointment as being unnecessary in the face of other pressing issues facing the country.
Herrell’s accusations appear to reflect a red herring fallacy on the part of the congresswoman. The appointment of the special envoy does not preclude the Biden administration making progress in addressing the cost of living and other issues.
The same is true of the Daily Mail’s lamenting of the lack of an ambassador to Italy. While it is true that the Biden administration has been relatively slow to fill up ambassadorial vacancies, the pace of appointment of US ambassadors is often stymied by legal requirements, the bureaucratic process and politics.
Ambassadorial posts are often given as a reward to supporters of a successful election campaign, and the confirmation of nominated ambassadors can be held up in the Senate in exchange for other political objectives.
A Diplomatic Answer
Despite the catchy headline by the Washington Post, it may not be fair to characterise the new special envoy post as similar to that of a diplomat or ambassador. While diplomats and ambassadors represent countries in their foreign relations with other countries, the special envoy is expected to ‘coordinate an all-of-government effort to address [the biodiversity and water resources] crises’, according to the State Department announcement of the appointment.
The announcement also notes that the coming months are key to addressing the global challenges of biodiversity and water resources, which are now understood as linked to climate change and human disease.
It specifies the upcoming UN Conventions on Climate Change (COP27) and Biological Diversity (COP15) later this year, as well as a UN Conference on Water in 2023, as occasions where the special envoy may play a leading role in coordinating the US government’s policy efforts.
Herrell’s description of the role as a ‘special envoy to asparagus’ would therefore reflect a misunderstanding of the role, as the special envoy would not represent plants and animals in the way a diplomat may represent their country.
While it is unclear if these comparisons are intentional, it is possible that the criticisms are politically motivated to discredit the Biden administration or express frustration over the lack of movement on areas of priority for conservatives. The factcheck organisation Media Bias/Fact Check rates the Daily Mail as a ‘Right Biased and Questionable [source] due to numerous failed fact checks and poor information sourcing’.
As such, while it is true that the US has appointed a ‘diplomat for plants and animals’, this definition requires substantial clarification to avoid misinterpretation.