Would you like to be an ambassador? Attractive posts are for sale. Whenever a new American president takes office, he parcels out ambassadorships to rich donors and others who helped him win. It’s a great way to pay off political debts. The prestige of being an ambassador — you get to call yourself that for life — is almost unrivaled among job titles available to rich dilettantes.
Joe Biden has a chance to end the longstanding practice of handing out ambassadorships as political rewards. The temptation to continue, however, is strong. Biden is unlikely to resist it any more successfully than his predecessors.
Walking into the office of an American ambassador in a foreign capital is like opening that proverbial box of chocolates — you never know what you’re going to get. More than half of our ambassadors are career diplomats. Most are insightful professionals who easily measure up to their colleagues from other countries. Then there are the amateurs. Many are pleasant enough, but few are either trained or interested in the practice of diplomacy. This separates them from ambassadors representing more diplomatically sophisticated countries like Britain, France, Sweden, China, Germany, South Korea, Russia, the Netherlands, and Japan. In those countries, important posts are reserved for experienced diplomats, not handed out as political sugarplums.
Over the last half-century, about 30 percent of American ambassadors have been political appointees rather than members of the foreign service. Many were nominated after giving or raising money to help a presidential campaign. Barack Obama, maintaining a pattern set by his predecessors, named three dozen of his campaign fund-raisers to ambassadorial posts. His ambassadors to Britain, Singapore, and New Zealand each raised more than $1 million for him.
Trump has exceeded all recent presidents in his use of ambassadorial appointments for political payoffs. Soon after taking office, he nominated 14 donors to ambassadorships; their average contribution to his inaugural committee was $350,000. Overall, about 43 percent of the ambassadors Trump nominated were political appointees. Among the ambassadors who gave or raised at least $1 million for Trump are Gordon Sondland, an Oregon hotelier who became ambassador to the European Union; Woody Johnson, owner of the New York Jets and our ambassador to Britain; and Kelly Craft, who has “gold” status at Trump Hotels, our ambassador to the United Nations.
Trump’s escalating abuse of this already corrupted system has focused attention on the need to change it. “The practice of auctioning off American diplomacy to the highest bidder must end,” Senator Elizabeth Warren declared during her presidential campaign. Yet even she has voted to confirm lightly qualified campaign donors. So have all senators. The tradition of political ambassadorships is deeply rooted in Washington. Both parties recognize its value in attracting top-echelon campaign donors. It will be hard for Biden to abandon.
Not every one of our nearly 200 ambassadors must be a professional diplomat. Highly qualified outsiders have been glittering figures in American diplomatic history. Senator Mike Mansfield had immersed himself in Asian history and politics for decades before becoming our longest-serving ambassador to Japan. Professor John Kenneth Galbraith cut a towering figure in India. But a real estate developer like our current ambassador to Belgium, and a designer of high-end handbags like our ambassador to South Africa, are in another category. Senior diplomats have spent their careers learning how best to promote national interests. Every day an amateur ambassador is on the job represents a lost opportunity for the United States in an increasingly competitive world.
“An ambassador should be a trained theologian, should be well-versed in Aristotle and Plato, and should be able at a moment’s notice to solve the most abstruse problems in correct dialectical form; he should also be expert in mathematics, architecture, music, civics, and civil and canon law,” the Venetian diplomat Ottaviano Maggi wrote 400 years ago. “While being a trained classical scholar, a historian, a geographer, and an expert in military science, he must also have a cultured taste for poetry.” That may set the bar too high for Biden’s incoming crop of ambassadors. Many of those named by recent presidents, though, set the bar too low.
Biden will have to decide whether it still makes sense for so many of our ambassadors to be amateurs. Contributors who wrote big campaign checks are presumably now elbowing for a chance to feed at the ambassadorial trough. Biden will make a lasting contribution to American diplomacy if he sends them away hungry.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.