July 13, 2021

Ranking Member Risch Opening Statement at Nominations Hearing for Assistant Secretaries of State, Ambassador to Vietnam

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Jim Risch (R-Idaho), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, today gave the following opening remarks at a full committee nomination hearing for Ms. Monica P. Medina, nominee to be assistant secretary of State for oceans and international environmental and scientific affairs, the Honorable Gentry O. Smith, nominee to be assistant secretary of State for diplomatic security, the Honorable Rena Bitter, nominee to be assistant secretary of State for consular affairs, and Mr. Marc Evans Knapper, nominee to be ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary of the United States of America to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

Ranking Member Risch gave the following remarks:

“Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

“And I want to thank the witnesses for being here today and being willing to serve in these positions, and your families who we know share the sacrifices that you make.

“I want to start with the nomination of assistant secretary of State for oceans and international environmental and scientific affairs.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed what I believe to be serious gaps in U.S. international pandemic prevention, preparedness, and importantly, response efforts. This includes the failure of the Department of State – over multiple administrations of both parties – to adequately prioritize global health policy and diplomatic engagement beyond the PEPFAR program. We now realize how important that is. PEPFAR, of course, was an exception to that. It was very successful and it’s important that we duplicate the success that we had in PEPFAR in what will undoubtedly be future challenges of global health nature.

“Ms. Medina – if confirmed, you will lead the bureau responsible for ensuring foreign policy coherence and program integrity for global health and biosecurity. I look forward to hearing from you how you plan to improve State’s leadership in these vital areas which as I said, I think, suffer some shortcomings, which have become painfully obvious as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“In addition, COVID-19 has brought to light the risks of collaboration on life sciences research with countries that do not share our interests, like China. If confirmed, you will have a role in overseeing international scientific cooperation and global health security, and it is critical that you work across the Department to prevent the misuse of such research.

“Lastly, as we discussed when we met last month, the Columbia River Treaty remains an important issue to myself and the rest of the northwest delegation. I look forward to hearing more about how you plan to make Columbia River Treaty negotiations a priority.

“Next, we have the nomination of assistant secretary of State for diplomatic security.

“For decades, the State Department has struggled with what has been dubbed a colloquial “bunker mentality” which greatly over-prioritizes security to the detriment of our diplomatic effectiveness. Security is undoubtedly very important but, as with all things, it must be put in its proper place. This severe risk aversion often keeps our diplomats cooped-up behind embassy walls instead of engaging with the local community and conducting traditional diplomacy.

“America’s adversaries do not place similar burdens on their diplomats, putting the United States at a strategic disadvantage.

“Earlier this year, I introduced legislation to improve the process for investigating security incidents abroad so that the Department’s diplomats can safely do their jobs – promote U.S. interests with host countries and engage local populations with appropriate protection.

“If confirmed, it will be vitally important to ensure the Department learns to manage risk more effectively. Ambassador Smith, I look forward to hearing your thoughts on these issues.

“Moving on to the nomination of assistant secretary of State for consular affairs.

“The Bureau of Consular Affairs has a unique opportunity to demonstrate how the State Department assists U.S. citizens every day while also advancing our national interests. Whether it’s helping Americans who lost a passport on vacation get home or visiting U.S. citizens who have been incarcerated abroad, Consular Affairs often directly serves the American people.

“However, last year’s travel restrictions and the resulting loss of visa fee revenue greatly hurt the bureau’s finances, potentially affecting its ability to provide these important services.

“As vaccination rates climb, there will be more people seeking to travel. Demand for passports and visas are rapidly increasing, leading to significant delays in processing times. Ambassador Bitter, I look forward to hearing your plan to get Consular Affairs fully operational and to reduce these extremely irregular passport processing times.

“Finally, we have the nomination of ambassador to Vietnam.

“Vietnam is an important U.S. partner and ASEAN member. I am very glad to see the recent U.S. donation of two million Moderna vaccines through COVAX to Vietnam, in addition to separate donations to Indonesia and Malaysia.

“Southeast Asian countries need vaccines. Given the importance of this region to the United States, and the pressure some countries are facing from China to accept its clearly sub-standard vaccines, it is crucial that the United States continue to prioritize deliveries to our partners there.

“We need to redouble our efforts following the nontransparent COVAX procurement deal announced earlier this week that will allow China to profit mightily from the distribution of its sub-standard vaccines.

“Beyond vaccines, I think it is crucial that we advance collaboration with Vietnam in important areas such as the South China Sea, the Mekong region, and the crisis in Myanmar. We should also continue to prioritize all forms of energy engagement, including liquefied natural gas.

“Finally, I continue to support engagement with Vietnam to promote freedom of speech and religion. Mr. Knapper, I look forward to hearing how you will tackle all of these issues if you are confirmed.

“We have a lot to cover today, so with that, I yield back to the chairman.”

These remarks have been lightly edited for clarity. Witness testimony is available on foreign.senate.gov.