Barack Obama may not have the most foreign policy experience among the presidential wannabes, but he’s the only one who’s had the German ambassador attend a fundraiser. During his speech to the hundreds of supporters who paid at least $1,000 each to attend a fundraiser on April 11 at Washington’s Union Station, Obama specifically acknowledged Klaus Scharioth, the German ambassador to the United States.
But, according to one person who attended the event—which was closed to the media—Obama quickly added that Scharioth did not contribute to his campaign.
That would have been illegal, since foreign nationals are barred by law from contributing to federal campaigns.
But Scharioth’s presence at Obama’s fundraiser highlights issues both men may rather see left alone. For Obama, who has represented Illinois in the U.S. Senate for two years, it could invite scrutiny of his foreign policy. And for Scharioth, a relatively new ambassador, it could draw unwanted attention to his—and his country’s—political positioning at a time when it’s assuming a more prominent role on the world stage and navigating an uneasy relationship with the Bush administration.
Obama’s campaign confirmed Scharioth’s attendance but didn’t answer several specific questions about it. Scharioth’s spokesman stressed that the ambassador is not supporting Obama but rather trying to meet all the presidential candidates.
If Obama wins the Democratic presidential nomination, Republicans might try to use the incident to bolster criticism he’s weak on national security and deferential to dovish countries in Europe, said University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato. But they’d try to apply the same storyline no matter the Democratic nominee, he said, adding: “The German ambassador committing a faux pas on one occasion isn’t enough to ratchet up that equation.”
A Republican strategist working on the 2008 presidential race differed. The strategist, who declined to be named out of concern for the campaign, called it “a glaring sign of inexperience that he would showcase support from a foreign diplomat.”
After a long and distinguished career in the German foreign service, Scharioth, who has graduate degrees from the Fletcher School for international affairs at Tufts University, presented his credentials as the German ambassador to President Bush last March.
Since then, he has been trying to meet as many leaders as possible, said Jose Schulz, a spokesman for the German Embassy. The ambassador had yet to meet Obama and saw the fundraiser as a good opportunity to do so, Schulz said.
“It’s not too often, even for an ambassador, that you get to see Obama live, so when you get the chance, you take it—even if it’s a fundraiser,” Schulz said, adding this was the first fundraiser Scharioth attended. The embassy could not immediately determine if previous ambassadors had attended political fundraisers, but the spokesman said Scharioth wouldn’t rule out attending another if it helped him meet additional candidates.
“We are not politically involved,” Schulz said. “We consider it the duty of the ambassador to follow U.S. politics—in this case, the campaign—as closely as possible. And that means that the ambassador, being here, does not just look at TV. To be the best possible observer, he has to see the main contenders in action.”
Before the fundraiser, Scharioth had met presidential hopefuls John McCain, a senator from Arizona, and Mitt Romney, a former Massachusetts governor—both Republicans—as well as Democrats Hillary Rodham Clinton, a senator from New York, and John Edwards, a former senator from North Carolina, Schulz said.
Those meetings occurred during congressional delegation and chancellery trips, Schulz said, adding that Scharioth is looking forward to meeting former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a Republican. “That’s the main contender he still hasn’t met,” Schulz said, adding the ambassador would attend a fundraiser to meet Giuliani, if necessary.
Scharioth was invited to the Obama fundraiser by Frank Loy, according to Schulz, who said Loy assured Scharioth he could refrain from contributing, would be considered neutral and that “nobody [would] misunderstand it.”
Loy, one of 10 event chairs, is a big Democratic donor and former State Department official under President Clinton, and he has been active with organizations promoting German-U.S. relations.
“It is very important for foreigners to understand our process and to get to know the candidates,” Loy said of his invitation. If Scharioth had endorsed Obama over Edwards or Democrats over Republicans, “that would be a serious breach of his role and it would probably hurt the party that he was plugging,” Loy said. “But that’s not at all what happened.”
Upon meeting Scharioth, Obama mentioned his sister had lived for eight years in Heidelberg, Germany, Schulz said.
For an ambassador to attend a fundraiser edges close to the bounds of diplomatic protocol, according to George Washington University professor Edward Gnehm Jr., who during the last three administrations served as U.S. ambassador to Jordan, Australia and Kuwait and also as director of the foreign service and of personnel for the State Department.
“I think it’s unusual,” said Gnehm, whose courses include one on running an embassy. “Most ambassadors, and diplomats as a whole, wouldn’t really attend a fundraiser. That has a fairly specific purpose, and that’s not something we can participate in.”
That’s because, he said, to be effective, diplomats need to avoid being seen as “interfering in domestic politics, which isn’t acceptable in international norms,” or as having backed the wrong horse. “You really don’t want to set a situation up where whoever is elected sees you having been partisan toward another candidate. That doesn’t help you do your job,” he said.
Federal law states “a U.S. citizen employee, spouse or family member shall not engage in partisan political activities abroad, other than authorized activities pertaining to U.S. elections.” But State Department spokesman Kurt Cooper was unsure if that precluded attending fundraisers.
Gnehm said when he was in Kuwait, candidates for parliament asked him to visit their election tents—basically campaign headquarters in which they made speeches, greeted voters and sometimes provided entertainment.
“Because I had an image in Kuwait as having been the ambassador who was there for liberation, I had a particularly strong status and they would like to have me come because it gave them prestige,” he said. But instead he sent deputies, he said, explaining “it would be inappropriate for me to go to those.”
And he stressed the election tent “was not a fundraiser. Fundraisers are—I think in the American mind—a bit more of the real serious politics.”
But Donald McHenry, a former U.S. diplomat, and Jackson Janes, executive director of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins University, said Scharioth was just doing his job.
“In general, foreign diplomats are doing their job if they are keeping up with developments in the country, including following up political events,” said McHenry.
That’s especially important now that Germany is taking a turn heading both the European Union and the Group of Eight, said Janes.
That “gives him an even greater opportunity to represent not only Germany but [Europe],” said Janes. “There is an enormous negative attitude toward George W. Bush throughout Germany” and Europe, said Janes, adding many believe “that if it was a Democrat who got into the White House in 2009 that everything would be totally better.”
But Janes stressed “there is still going to be the same template of problems’’ when a new president is sworn in, so it’s important to figure out where candidates stand on trans-Atlantic issues.
About the Author
Kenneth P. Vogel is a contributor to The Politico & Politico.com, a division of Allbritton Communications Co.