THE BLOG

Obama's Political Nominees for Ambassadorial Positions

Feb 21, 2014 | Updated Apr 23, 2014

The United States is the only major country that still nominates non-career persons as its ambassadors to foreign countries. Despite the protestations of the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), this practice has continued. In defense of this procedure, the administration states that the ratio of career to non-career appointees is around 7 to 3. But this statistic omits one crucial fact: The so-called plum diplomatic appointments, such as those to London, Paris, Berlin, Moscow, Tokyo, and Beijing, are more often than not given to presidential fundraisers (also known as "bundlers") or cronies who have no previous diplomatic experience.

This long-standing debate has again come into prominence with some of the latest nominees of President Obama. These persons' main qualification is that they raised large sums of money for the president's electoral campaigns. For example, in blog post that appeared on the website of The Telegraph in July, political commentator Nile Gardiner wrote, "What's the going rate for the US ambassadorship to London? Apparently around $2.3 million, judging by President Obama's latest appointment to the Court of St. James's, the most prestigious diplomatic posting in the world for a US official." According to Gardiner, that was the amount personally raised by Matthew Barzun, the chief fundraiser for President Obama's 2012 reelection campaign, which realized $730 million. Barzun is an Internet businessman. He was earlier rewarded with the ambassadorship to Sweden for raising substantial money for Obama's successful 2008 campaign. Gardiner also revealed that Louis Susman, Barzun's predecessor in London, had raised $300,000 for Obama. Susman's main qualification reportedly was that he was a friend of Obama and could speak English. Gardiner opined that in "many Western countries, this kind of appointment would be viewed as an unacceptable form of corruption, a dangerous linkage between political patronage and political fundraising."

The Washington Post revealed in a recent article that Obama's nominee for Norway displayed ignorance of the country. Similarly, a soap-opera producer nominated for Hungary appeared to have little knowledge of the country where she would be representing the United State. The Washington Post also stated that a former U.S. senator, Max Baucus, the newly appointed ambassador in Beijing, "managed to raise eyebrows during his confirmation hearing by acknowledging, 'I'm no real expert on China.'"

It is no wonder that most U.S. career diplomats dislike this practice because it awards important assignments not on the basis of perceived merit but on the basis of fundraising ability. This goes against the practice of countries such as Britain, France, Germany, Turkey, India, and others, where ambassadorial appointments are awarded to high-ranking career diplomats on the basis of seniority and merit. This means that the implementation of the foreign policy of these countries is entrusted to persons who have spent years in the diplomatic profession. For the U.S. not to follow suit is to disregard the important role of diplomacy in safeguarding and promoting the country's national interests. After all, the U.S. president would not dream of appointing a fundraiser or personal friend to a senior position in the military. The Pentagon would just not stand for this kind of patronage. But just because the career Foreign Service does not wield the same clout as the military brass, their senior echelons are often bypassed in favor of political nominees. The U.S. would be better served by following the established practices of the many other countries who appoint their ambassadors on the basis of proven ability, experience, and merit. Not doing so risks degrading the U.S.'s global diplomatic efforts. Surely fundraisers and personal friends can be accommodated elsewhere for their services.