Despite a flurry of media speculation earlier this year, Anna Wintour is unlikely to be the next U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom. But the fact that the iconic Vogue editor and prolific Obama fundraiser apparently received consideration for the post despite having zero diplomatic experience says a lot about how U.S. presidents make diplomatic appointments.
For more than a century, U.S. presidents have often used diplomatic appointments to reward contributors, political operatives and other allies. Roughly 30 percent of diplomatic postings abroad go to political appointees over career Foreign Service officers. But with elections becoming increasingly expensive over the decades, the trend of rewarding donors with cushy appointments, both ambassadorships and high-level jobs at the State Department, has intensified.
As President Obama works to complete his roster of key appointments for his second term, much of the media scrutiny has fallen on his selection of Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense and the titillating rumor that Wintour could’ve be America’s next ambassador to the Court of St. James’s. (For a while, Bill Clinton’s name was even floated around to replace Dan Rooney, owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, as the U.S. ambassador to Ireland.) But away from the spotlight, hundreds of political insiders and career diplomats are jockeying for dozens of plum ambassadorships and key diplomatic postings in Washington.
On the campaign trail in 2008, President Obama spoke about the need to appoint career diplomats rather than political appointees, but critics say he hasn’t lived up to that pledge.
“He was the hope and change guy, but when he sent [Louis] Susman to London, the press corps asked about his qualifications and the best thing the White House press secretary could say about him was that ‘he speaks the local language,'” said former U.S. Ambassador Dennis Jett, a professor at Penn State’s School of International Affairs who was a career member of the Foreign Service for 28 years. “And that was the best way they could deflect attention from the fact that it was business as usual.”
Susman, a retired Chicago investment banker and lawyer, is a longtime Democratic fundraiser who raised more than $500,000 for Obama’s 2008 campaign.
“With people like Anna Wintour being rumored to be next in line, I don’t think it does us any favors,” Jett told The Washington Diplomat.
Jett is the co-author of “What Price the Court of St. James’s? Political Influences on Ambassadorial Postings of the United States of America,” an academic paper that attempts to quantify the relationship between political contributions and ambassadorial picks. Their conclusion: The top spots don’t come cheaply.
In recent years, only about 40 percent of politically appointed ambassadors have been campaign contributors or bundlers, but those who brought in the most cash are most likely to get the kind of cushy postings where tourists might want to spend their holidays — wealthy, safe nations often located in Western Europe.
Jett and co-author Johannes Fedderke even theorized what different posts might cost. For personal contributions, Luxembourg comes with a hefty $3.1 million price tag, while Portugal costs $602,686, they surmised. London falls in the middle, requiring an estimated $1.1 million in personal donations. Bundlers — who raise money from various sources on behalf of a candidate — apparently get a bargain rate. For them, the Court of St. James’s costs $640,583, according to Jett and Fedderke.
“In terms of the tourist metric, the most desirable posting is France and Monaco, for which personal contributions would have to amount to approximately $6.2 million, bundled contributions to approximately $4.4 million,” the report found. “The lowest positive price is for Norway, at $119,900 for personal, and $85,756 for bundled contributors.”
Clearly, Europe is a prime destination for well-heeled donors. In the last 60 years, 72 percent of U.S. ambassadors in Western Europe and the Caribbean have been political appointees while all but 14 percent of ambassadors in Africa and the Middle East have been career diplomats, according to the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA). No political appointee has ever been sent to Central Asia as an ambassador.
President Obama’s ambassadorial appointments have followed the same 70 percent career/30 percent political split as that of President George W. Bush. Since the 1970s, the appointment ratio has ranged between Gerald Ford’s 62 percent career record and Jimmy Carter’s high-water mark of 73 percent.
But while the ratios haven’t changed much, the total number of political appointments has grown as the number of sovereign countries has increased since the breakup of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. According to AFSA, the ratio and total number of key diplomatic jobs in Washington have grown over the years.
In 1975, there were 18 top positions at the State Department in Washington (deputy, assistant or undersecretary of state), of which 11 were filled by career Foreign Service officers and seven by political appointees. Today, there are 33 top positions, and career diplomats hold just a quarter of those jobs.
No other Western country uses private citizens over career diplomats to anywhere near the same extent the United States does, but does the practice actually harm U.S. interests overseas?
In an era of tightening budgets, wealthy donors can be an asset to a cash-strapped embassy, helping to bankroll parties and events that the mission might not otherwise be able to afford. Supporters of political appointees also say it doesn’t hurt to have an ambassador with direct, personal ties to the president. And appointees with little foreign policy experience but strong business backgrounds can sometimes run an embassy more effectively and creatively than a career diplomat can — sometimes.
“Everybody understands that good political appointees are beneficial to the Foreign Service, because outside blood is needed,” said Nicholas Kralev, author of “America’s Other Army: The U.S. Foreign Service and 21st Century Diplomacy.” “The problem people have is that political appointees aren’t selected based on their skills and background.”
Kralev pointed to three recent examples at U.S. embassies in Malta, Luxembourg and Kenya where Obama political appointees prematurely resigned in the wake of scathing reports from the Office of the Inspector General (OIG). The report on the U.S. mission in Luxembourg described Ambassador Cynthia Stroum’s management style as “aggressive, bullying, hostile and intimidating,” and noted that a string of senior officers volunteered for service in Iraq and Afghanistan because they didn’t want to work for her any more. Stroum, a prominent philanthropist who bundled more than $500,000 in contributions for President Obama in the 2008 campaign, resigned less than a year into her assignment.
“If you look at her CV before she got her assignment, there was nothing there to even hint that she would be a good ambassador,” Kralev said. “According to the OIG report, I think she made three employees spend six days looking for an umbrella for her patio. Is that how we want our diplomats to spend their time?” (The report stated that “several” employees spent “several days” searching for the umbrella.)
But Daniel Drezner, a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, thinks that the president can always work around an ineffectual ambassador and argues that ambassadors don’t hold the same clout they once did.
“Even a truly incompetent ambassador isn’t going to disrupt a bilateral relationship that much,” he said. “Ambassadors matter more with rival countries, but the president isn’t going to name bundlers [as] ambassador to Moscow, Beijing or those types of posts. And the public does not fundamentally care about foreign policy unless you have an ambassador who is thoroughly incompetent and, ideally, with a good sex scandal.”
There have, in fact, been more than a few scandals over the years. President Richard Nixon, whose blatant selling of ambassadorships drew public attention to the issue, chose Vincent de Roulet to head the U.S. Embassy in Jamaica. As documented by the Center for Public Integrity’s 2008 report “Checkbook Diplomacy,” the wealthy dilettante quickly antagonized Jamaicans by openly calling them “idiots” and “children” and meddling in their national election, allegedly offering to support one candidate in exchange for a promise not to nationalize Jamaica’s bauxite industry. The move backfired: The Nixon appointee was kicked out by the country’s outraged new leader, who also tripled taxes and royalties on bauxite purchases by U.S. companies.
Scandals involving political appointees, however, rarely spark public outrage and are soon forgotten about. But Jett thinks that the public should care about diplomatic appointments and argues that ambassadors still play a key role in advancing U.S. interests overseas, particularly because policymakers in Washington can usually only focus on a few geopolitical hotspots at any one time.
“I think there should be transparency; even where there is a whiff of pay-to-play, there ought to be concerns,” he said. “What does it say about American leadership and how we view the rest of the world when a European country sends us their best career diplomat and we send them a real estate developer?”
While President Obama’s picks for diplomatic posts are unlikely to please his critics, both Democrats and Republicans praised his nomination of John Kerry, the son of a career diplomat, to replace Hillary Clinton as secretary of state.
“Kerry has the potential to be very good for the Foreign Service,” Kralev said. “But he’s not as exciting as the last four secretaries of state, so he’s going to come off as a bit dull.”
Dull is something another nominee would probably love to be at the moment. Chuck Hagel, a former Republican senator and Obama’s hotly contested pick for defense secretary, quickly came under fire from pro-Israel and gay rights groups — not to mention his former GOP colleagues, who say he’s too accommodating on Iran and critical of Israel, among other complaints.
“Nominating Hagel put the GOP in an uncomfortable position,” Drezner said. “Because for a long time they claimed to be the big tent when it came to foreign policy, with a fair number of realists and a fair number of neoconservatives, but the way the GOP has reacted to Hagel’s nomination is effectively pushing out all the realists.”
Drezner said the fact that Obama picked Hagel, a vocal critic of the war in Iraq who has been wary of committing U.S. troops to counterinsurgency campaigns abroad, to lead the Pentagon sends a clear signal the president wants to fulfill his promise to end the wars overseas and invest the savings at home.
The selection of Kerry has reinforced the belief that Obama’s second term may be marked by retrenchment. Like Hagel, Kerry is a Vietnam vet who in the past has warned against military overreach and becoming mired in risky foreign interventions.
Drezner noted that the appointment of Denis McDonough, a trusted foreign policy hand who served as deputy national security advisor in Obama’s first term, to be White House chief of staff has led some to speculate that foreign policy might play a larger role in the president’s second term. “But I would look at it as Obama wanting to abandon the Team of Rivals approach and simply bringing in people he’s comfortable with,” he said.
In recent years, what’s made some career diplomats uncomfortable is the steady erosion of foreign policy influence at the State Department and the concentration of power being amassed by the Department of Defense and the National Security Council, with the military in particular taking on work traditionally done by civilians.
The longstanding tug of war between defense and diplomacy is likely to generate debate and news stories for the foreseeable future, as observers wait to see how Kerry and Hagel perform in their new jobs and how Obama’s second-term foreign policy agenda plays out.
But what’s unlikely to attract much attention is the quiet selection process that will unfold over the next few months for top diplomatic postings. And the relatively muted backlash against the well-established donor-ambassador quid pro quo probably won’t curb Obama’s enthusiasm for the practice any time soon.
None of the experts consulted for this piece support stripping presidents of the right to make diplomatic appointments or giving the Senate greater power to veto unqualified nominees, but Jett thinks more can be done to influence the president’s choices.
He believes that AFSA or perhaps the American Academy of Diplomacy should rate nominated ambassadors as “well qualified, qualified or not qualified” before they are confirmed, in the same way that judges are rated.
“Maybe that would create enough potential public pressure that the president would be more careful about who he nominated.”
About the Author
Dave Seminara is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat and a former U.S. diplomat.