The race for the White House is finally over, but now another race begins: the jockeying for plum ambassadorial appointments overseas. And if the past is any indication, it’s clear who will have the inside track on diplomatic postings — those who donated or raised the most money for the president-elect.
It’s a long (and checkered) bipartisan tradition. Presidents John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan tied for the number of political ambassadors they appointed, at 32 percent each, according to a 1983 study by the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA). That figure is just above an average of roughly 30 percent since World War II.
President Jimmy Carter, in the wake of scandals over President Richard Nixon’s blatant selling of ambassadorships, holds the record for the lowest number, with 24 percent. It was Nixon’s practices that focused public attention on the quid pro quo of appointments for campaign donations, with reported price tags of at least 0,000 to “buy” an overseas posting.
Campaign finance reforms that followed Nixon’s excesses didn’t stop the practice — they just made it subtler. Now it’s “bundlers” who raise the most money from rich friends who get rewarded with ambassadorships to sunny destinations such as Barbados. After Senate confirmation and a mere two-week U.S. Foreign Service training program, these fundraisers-turned-diplomats may be sent to a country in which they have absolutely no personal knowledge and where few of their existing skills are relevant.
But there has been a renewed push this year to turn back the tide of the wealthy-but-unqualified in the diplomatic ranks and raise the bar for all U.S. ambassadors. The American Academy of Diplomacy issued a high-level challenge back in June to both presidential candidates to institute a 10 percent cap on political appointees — although neither campaign ever responded.
The academy’s career diplomats — which includes all living ex-secretaries of state — say finding experienced candidates is more critical than ever given the complexity of today’s interconnected world. Decreasing the number of political appointees is also more possible in an era when smaller Internet-based fundraising is gradually replacing big-name financial cronies.
Such reform proposals also no doubt stem from embarrassments caused over the years by political appointees from both Republican and Democratic administrations. Joseph Kennedy, a top donor to Democrats in the 1930s and President Franklin Roosevelt’s ambassador to Britain, resigned in disgrace after declaring democracy “finished in England” in the wake of Adolf Hitler’s early triumphs in World War II. Another Roosevelt appointee, the brother of wealthy financier Bernard Baruch, caused sex scandals during his tenure as ambassador to Portugal and again when he was moved to the Netherlands.
Sometimes the scandal involves not knowing when to be quiet, and other times it’s simply not knowing enough. At his confirmation hearing, Maxwell Gluck — a wealthy women’s clothing store founder who was picked by Dwight Eisenhower to serve in Sri Lanka — confessed he couldn’t pronounce the Sri Lankan prime minister’s name and pontificated that the people there were “friendly and unfriendly.”
Likewise, many prominent socialites are often tapped to serve overseas in plush postings such as Barbados, which welcomed real estate heiress Joy Silverman — a Bush Sr. appointee who lacked a college degree — and current U.S. Ambassador Mary Ourisman — a Bush Jr. appointee and Texas-born socialite who’s the wife of the well-known D.C.-area automobile dealer.
But perhaps the worst example of the spoils system was Vincent de Roulet, a New York aristocrat whose contributions to Nixon’s campaign won him a posting to Jamaica. As recorded in a three-part 2008 report titled “Checkbook Diplomacy” by the Center for Public Integrity, de Roulet openly referred to Jamaicans as “idiots and children” and meddled in a national election where he allegedly offered to support one candidate in exchange for a promise not to nationalize Jamaica’s bauxite industry. It 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 in response.
President Bill Clinton’s chief ambassadorial embarrassment was Larry Lawrence, a top donor whose association with money launderers handicapped his ability to advocate on America’s top concern in the country where he was appointed ambassador — Switzerland. Lawrence was also later exposed for fabricating his war record, causing him to be disinterred from Arlington Cemetery.
President George W. Bush had his own share of embarrassing political appointee moments, including naming an ambassador to Ireland who was accused of investing in a bogus tax shelter in that very country. The Center for Public Integrity (CPI) reported that 42 percent of Bush’s political appointments have gone to fundraisers and donated or raised between 0,000 and 0,000 for his campaigns, a figure that is historically high for non-career appointments, according to CPI Executive Director Bill Buzenberg.
This practice of diplomatic patronage seems to be a distinctly American one. One reason may be because many countries around the world view a posting in Washington as the pinnacle of a diplomatic career, so governments only send the cream of crop, whereas for U.S. diplomats, a posting in, say, Monaco or Madagascar might not require as much experience or rigor.
“A few countries have used the odd ambassadorship to get a potential political rival out of the country, but I am not aware of any other nation that has a practice of sending non-career ambassadors,” said Ambassador Ronald Neumann, the president of the American Academy of Diplomacy. “The major European states do not normally send any non-career ambassadors and when they do, it is someone who has extensive foreign policy experience as well as a particular tie to the government.”
Thus foreign envoys are overwhelmingly chosen from the career diplomatic corps, although that is not always the case either. Many monarchies and dictatorships send ambassadors from their families or other personal emissaries they trust, but who may have marginal diplomatic experience at best.
Yet not all U.S. political appointees have been failures. Experts on both sides of the issue repeatedly point to former Sens. Mike Mansfield and Howard Baker, along with former Vice President Walter Mondale, as successful examples (all three served as ambassadors to Japan). Another frequently mentioned name is W. Averell Harriman, a wealthy businessman who is praised for his diplomatic service in Russia and Europe during World War II and the Cold War. Even those without political experience have succeeded in the role with little background in diplomacy: Child actress Shirley Temple Black served with distinction as ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia.
One political appointee of current President Bush cited as a success in CPI’s “Checkbook Diplomacy” series is Melvin Sembler, a real estate developer, GOP fundraiser and ambassador to Italy. Sembler’s appointment was initially opposed by then Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.), who protested Bush’s large number of donor appointees, arguing that if ambassador postings were going to turn into a bidding war, “at least we should put it up for public bid so the money goes to the U.S. Treasury.”
Sarbanes’s objections were eventually overruled and Sembler was appointed to the post. Since then, Sembler has been widely acknowledged by career diplomats at the Rome Embassy as a competent, effective leader who took prudent steps to make the embassy compound both safer and more cost-effective.
Although Buzenberg argues that political appointees often overrate their ability to translate business success into diplomatic triumphs, he acknowledged that as loyal supporters, these political envoys can be effective spokespersons for the president.
“A political appointee also may have certain transferable skills that would benefit their abilities as ambassador — entrepreneurship, innovation, financial management,” he said. “Also, many wealthy donors bring a lot of money to the job. By using their own funds and fundraising abilities, they have improved ambassadorial homes and personally funded social events to promote the U.S.A.”
Indeed, advocates of political appointees point to them as proof that their business savvy and access to the president make improvements possible that career diplomats couldn’t achieve. “The main argument for political appointees is that they work for the president,” said Ben Friedman, a research fellow with the libertarian Cato Institute. “They heighten the president’s control over the State Department. Republicans in particular struggle to control the bureaucracy.”
Neumann disagrees, arguing that ambassadors are called to represent the foreign policy of the United States, not just the personal views of the president. “Few issues involve presidential leadership or policies in which the president is personally vested,” he said. “If they do, that may well be a case for an ambassador with special ties to the president, but the case is very rare.”
Neumann has unique (and personal) experience with the issue, because his father Robert was a politically appointed ambassador himself. Indeed, Neumann and his father, who were both ambassadors to Afghanistan, are the only father-son team other than John Adams and John Quincy Adams to serve as ambassadors to the same country.
“We recognize that there have been very qualified non-career ambassadors and that this should continue in selected cases,” said Neumann. “But as a standard practice, appointing nonprofessionals is an out-of-date remnant of the spoils system.”
Neumann is also advocating for more qualified ambassadors in general, not just fewer political appointees. To that end, the academy, along with the Henry L. Stimson Center, recently issued a report urging the next president to boost the U.S. diplomatic corps by 50 percent to meet the increasing foreign policy demands placed on the U.S. government.
Neumann points out that foreign policy is like any other specialized field — it can’t just be done by anyone, but by people professionally trained in that field. And training becomes all the more crucial when assigning envoys to hotspots such as Afghanistan and Iraq.
But Friedman counters this very point, arguing that appointing career diplomats to non-sensitive positions such as ambassador to Australia makes sense, but that the president needs to have political appointees in high-priority locations such as Iraq. “The more the president cares about a country, the more they will want a political appointee there as ambassador,” Friedman said — although he admitted that it’s a “little embarrassing” for the United States to send ambassadors to countries where they don’t know the language or culture. He notes though that career diplomats are also seldom immersed in such issues before they are appointed ambassador.
As debate on the merits of political appointees continues, many agree that the current system is unlikely to change anytime soon. “Bestowing an ambassadorship has for both Republican and Democratic administrations been a dependable outlet to reward well-heeled contributors and prominent campaign bundlers,” said Buzenberg.
“Unless Congress acts to alter or prohibit the practice, there is nothing to prevent future administrations from rewarding large contributors with an ambassadorship,” he added. “While both campaigns have made some effort to reduce the role of lobbyists in their campaigns, McCain and Obama have each benefited from hundreds of ‘bundlers’ who have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the campaign. Undoubtedly, many will expect some reward should their candidate win.”
About the Author
Mark Hilpert is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.