Scott Mlyn | CNBC
WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden announced on Friday his intention to appoint a career diplomat and former US ambassador to NATO, Nicholas Burns, as his ambassador to China.
The president also announced that Rahm Emanuel, the former two-term mayor of Chicago, will be nominated as his ambassador to Japan.
Both announcements have been eagerly awaited, and once officially nominated, both Burns and Emanuel are expected to be ratified by the Senate.
Burns is one of America’s most skilled and respected diplomats, serving both Republicans and Democrats for more than 25 years. He was ambassador to Greece in the Clinton administration; Ambassador to NATO in the George W. Bush Administration and Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs from 2005 to 2008.
With the Biden administration making economic and geopolitical competition with China the cornerstone of its broader foreign policy, Burns would be the spearhead as ambassador.
He would likely undertake the double duty of implementing policies deeply unpopular with his Chinese hosts while maintaining a warm working relationship.
The White House has signaled that it will seek a relationship with Beijing that, in some ways, reflects Washington’s strategy towards the Kremlin.
While Russia and the United States are adversaries on almost all fronts, senior diplomats in both countries maintain specific areas of cooperation on issues where cooperation is in their mutual interest, such as nuclear arms control.
Such a model could be applied to US-China relations, with collaboration on issues such as North Korea and climate change.
In contrast to Burns, Emanuel is neither a professional diplomat nor a Japan expert.
As former White House Chief of Staff to then President Barack Obama and previously an Illinois Congressman, Emanuel has close ties with several of the top figures in the Biden White House, including current White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain.
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However, within the broader Democratic Party, Emanuel is a polarizing figure.
As a centrist on issues such as immigration and health care, Emanuel has drawn the wrath of progressives in Congress since the early days of the Obama administration.
But it was his time as Mayor of Chicago that nearly ruined any chance Emanuel had to join the Biden administration.
As Mayor, Emanuel has been heavily criticized for refusing to release police dashcam footage of the 2014 shooting of Laquan McDonald, a black teenager who was shot 16 times by a police officer who alleged McDonald had himself killed crashed on him.
More than a year after the shooting, Emanuel declined requests to release the dashcam footage of the incident.
This footage showed that McDonald was actually turned away by the policeman when the policeman shot him. McDonald collapsed on the first shot, but the officer didn’t stop; he fired another 15 shots at McDonald while the teenager was on the ground.
Emanuel claimed he never saw the video, which clearly showed the Chicago police’s version of the events was a lie.
Emails later revealed that Emanuel’s closest mayor’s aide knew early on that the police story did not match the footage.
Emanuel’s nomination as Biden’s ambassador to Japan is a blow to the progressives who fought against him.
But as with any ambassador, it is Emanuel’s personal friendship with Biden and other senior White House officials that is most important to the Japanese government.
In this regard, Tokyo is no different from any other foreign capital: a US ambassador is only as good as the time it takes to get the president on the phone.