Diplomats as Political Appointees

Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy (L) and U.S. Ambassador to France Charles Rivkin (R).

Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy (L) and U.S. Ambassador to France Charles Rivkin (R).

One of the unique features of the U.S. Foreign Service that it’s highest ranking personnel are not generally professional diplomats. Sure, for some posts—mostly places people don’t want to spend a lot of time—they are. But for many posts, including in many important U.S. allies, the ambassador is a political appointee who raised a lot of money for the winner of the presidential election.

When President Barack Obama was elected, 32 of the 58 ambassadorial appointments he made were to large campaign contributors. And less you think that Obama is an anomalies, he was simply following a longstanding tradition. Fifty of Preside George W. Bush’s ambassadors were each responsible for campaign donations of at least $100,000. Since the Eisenhower administration, approximately 30 percent of all ambassadorial appointments have been to campaign donors. That is an exceedingly high figure when you think that the United States has embassies in approximately 198 countries around the world.

Perhaps not surprisingly, this process can create problems. As one blogger put it,

American political appointee Ambassadors are usually neophytes – all too often innocents abroad – as opposed to career people who have worked their way up the ranks of the all too hierarchical U.S. foreign service and have had extensive exposure to the country, language and culture to which they are being assigned – e.g. the professionals usually know something about the country of their posting, or if not, know how to make an Embassy function, the policies of whatever the administration is in the White House and how to deliver them as well as basic Ambassadorial does and don’ts.

But a recent story in The Atlantic suggests that the use of political appointees as ambassadors is not necessarily a bad thing. Profiling Charles Rivkin, the U.S. Ambassador to France, The Atlantic argues that political appointees can carry greater connections to the White House, often bring a fresh perspective on relations and issues between the two countries, and frequently possess significant management and leadership skills developed during their time in the business world.

What do you think? Does the appointment of campaign donors to key posts in the U.S. Diplomatic Corps undermine U.S. foreign policy and national security? Or can business leaders make effective diplomats? Take the poll or leave a comment below and let us know what you think.


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