Diplomacy for sale

By Jack Harris, on 4 March 2014

By Robert Johansen

Given America’s economic, military and political predominance, the somewhat careless manner in which the country chooses its representatives to the rest of the world should come as a surprise to many – though not, perhaps, their diplomatic counterparts. Many US ambassadors are not career diplomats, and are appointed by presidential fiat rather than through the roughly meritocratic procedures of the State Department. Barack Obama has been particularly fond of the practice, with over 35% of his ambassadorial appointees drawn from political allies.

Even the US Secretary of State has usually never been a career diplomat – the position is usually reserved for prominent politicians or generals. It could have been regarded as a stepping-stone to the executive office in the earlier half of the Republic. But, the appointee for Secretary of State is usually a member of the current president’s party, perhaps wisely so considering that the position is fourth in the line of presidential succession.

The President’s nominees have to be approved by the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, yet many past congressmen, party donors, and powerful business people get through with ease. Recent scandals have broken out over the appointment of ambassadors with questionable ability to function as liaison for the US. Colleen Bell, a soap-opera producer, was appointed to Hungary, apparently for the sole reason that she raised over $500,000 for Obama’s re-election campaign. Max Baucus, a former Senator from Montana, was chosen to serve in China, despite himself admitting that he was “no real expert” on the country. Cynthia Stroum, another top donor, proved so incompetent in her abortive tenure as ambassador to Luxembourg that several of her subordinates requested transfer to Iraq and Afghanistan, postings for which volunteers are normally few and far between. The most egregious failure at the recent Senate Foreign Relations Committee was George Tsunis, a hotel magnate, who was appointed to Norway, his unawareness that the country was a constitutional monarchy and his dismissal of the leading coalition party as a bigoted “fringe-element.” He had given almost $1 million to Obama’s re-election campaign.

To put the whole system in perspective, the Norwegian ambassador to the US has over 30 years experience in politics. The Hungarian Ambassador has worked 27 years at the International Monetary Fund. It is no coincidence that most of the politically appointed posts are in the Caribbean, Western Europe, or in countries with large trading relationships with the US. It is also no coincidence that the cushy spots in Italy or France were given to presidential campaign donors of about $1 million or more.

On the other hand, one can argue that an ambassador does not need to be a career diplomat, political expert, or economist to represent the interests of the United States. There is no particular training or career that can prepare an individual for the nuanced responsibilities of a diplomat. Few people are prepared to be an expert in the affairs, languages, and cultures of any specific country. Ambassadors are supported by the vast knowledge and expertise of the US Foreign Service to inform them of important negotiations and plan outreach events. Even flagrantly political appointees whose expertise is limited at best can rely on experienced teams to guide them through an unfamiliar maze of formalities, appearances, and politics.

Thankfully, these ambassadorial appointees are drastic aberrations from the norm. Over 60% are extremely qualified professional diplomats with a lifetime of experience in international affairs. Yet a willingness to treat senior diplomatic posts as sinecures to be doled out to favoured friends will not help to dispel perceptions of high-handedness in America’s relations with its allies. Any damage done by Obama’s appointees is unlikely to be long-lasting, yet at a time when America’s relations with its European allies in particular have been strained by the Snowden leaks and by divisions over foreign policy, the country might be well served by investing in a little goodwill.