In a previous article in The Washington Diplomat almost exactly five years ago, I made some suggestions to help this magazine’s readers understand the way government would work under the incoming Trump administration. Some thought it was satire. I preferred to think of it as prophetic.
As the Biden administration approaches its first anniversary in power, it might be useful to explain another facet of the way Washington operates, even though it has not changed with the transition from Trump to Biden. This feature of American statecraft, which is often misunderstood, is the uniquely American tradition of selling the title of “ambassador.”
The American Constitution says the president can name ambassadors as long as the Senate concurs, but it says no more. Even though that gives wide latitude to the president in making such personnel decisions, there are well-established norms that have been generally followed.
One of them is the ratio between career ambassadors and those from outside the government. Worldwide, about 70% of American ambassadors are typically career diplomats who worked their way up through the ranks of the Foreign Service. The remaining 30% are political appointees (except for the Reagan administration, where it was 38%, and under Trump, where it rose to 43%.)
At the start of a presidential term, there are always stories in the press about how the president is appointing a higher percentage of political ambassadors than in the past. That is because all political ambassadors are replaced at that time. Only a third of the career people will turn over as they are left in place to finish out the remainder of what is normally a three-year tour. The percentage of political appointees therefore cannot be meaningfully calculated until the end of a presidential term and never at the beginning.
While the 70/30 ratio between career ambassadors and political appointees will normally prevail, it might not seem that way for another reason: It does not hold true for all regions of the world. About 80% of the ambassadors in Western Europe and the Caribbean are political appointees.
Relations with European countries are so fluid and communications so good that amateur ambassadors can easily be worked around if there are obstacles. And the Caribbean countries are popular with the donor class because they are close to home and so enjoyable. Take the Dominican Republic for instance. It had been a place where only career ambassadors were sent. In the late 1990s, though, someone in the White House must have discovered it has great beaches because it has been a prime destination for political appointees ever since.
In Central Asia, on the other hand, there has never been a non-career ambassador. Places where American diplomats received hardship allowances are places where a political appointee ambassador would very rarely dare to tread.
One might ask why nearly a third of American ambassadors are not career diplomats and, in fact, in some cases, have no relevant experience whatsoever. The Certificates of Competency for some of them, which the State Department is required to post on its website, read like the press releases of a public relations firm rather than a rationale for why they are getting the job. It is easy to understand why State tried for years to keep them classified.
The basic reason for this peculiar practice is that the United States strongly believes in a market economy, including when it comes to selling some ambassadorial posts. Nearly $6 billion was spent on the last presidential election, with another $8 billion expended on congressional races. That means presidential candidates must do everything they can to raise money and one of the ways to do that is to grant the title to rich supporters.
To be sure, nominations are given out for other reasons to people who have helped get the president elected. There are political allies, like former Sen. Jeff Flake, who served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Cindy McCain, the widow of Sen. John McCain, both Republicans who endorsed Biden. Flake is going to Turkey and McCain to Rome to head the delegation to the Food and Agriculture Organization.
While Flake, McCain and others appointed for political reasons didn’t contribute significant amounts to Biden’s campaign, the largest number of non-career ambassadors gave or gathered campaign cash. Over half of Biden’s non-career nominees are among the 817 bundlers who each collected more than $100,000 for his campaign.
There is no requirement to revealing who is bundling bucks for a presidential campaign. Democrats make their names public, however, while recent Republican candidates have not. While it is a mystery who took that route to a Trump nomination, it is clear that personal contributions counted for him a lot more than it has for Biden. Trump named a number of members of his country clubs as ambassadors and at least seven people who came up with a million or more dollars. Biden to date has named only one seven-figure donor.
Trump also heavily favored those who contributed generously to his inauguration. Where the $107 million collected for those festivities went may still be under investigation by the FBI. Given that Trump is the only American president to have come to the White House from an exclusively business background, it is perhaps not surprising that he would try to maximize his profit from his time there.
And, after all, selling the title of ambassador is as American as apple pie.
Dennis Jett was a career diplomat who served as U.S. ambassador to Peru and Mozambique and on the National Security Council. He is a professor in the School of International Affairs at Penn State University and the author of the “American Ambassadors: A Guide for Aspiring Diplomats and Foreign Service Officers” and other books.