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American “Diplomacy”:

Ambassadors, Senators, and the System


Once upon a time, the United States appointed its chief diplomatic representatives abroad — its ministers in the old days and its ambassadors in the twentieth century — from among its small corps of experienced careerists, diplomats who had been forged in the fires of controversy and the practice of arcane diplomatic skills while furthering American interests abroad over a period of years.

Politicians, sometimes “retired,” might clamor for plum postings abroad, perhaps claiming that their health needed a spell of recuperation and ease at one of the more salubrious garden spots of the world, say at London, Paris, or Rome, or that their support, financial and otherwise, of the party in power entitled them, and their wives, to the rewards of a prestigious social title and overseas sinecure, or finally that their personal fortunes could well serve the nation at one of the plush but expensive cities to which the nation perforce sent envoys, again citing London, Paris, and Rome.

The Washington leadership, however, ever mindful of the democratic sentiment of the voters, and convinced of the need for competence in the conduct of policy abroad, carefully named only tried and proven professionals to these posts. It has been only in more recent years, roughly since the advent of Ronald Reagan to the White House, that the system unfortunately has put forward as American ambassadors such politicos as a former Vice President and, recently, a New England governor, as well as fat-cat contributors to the party coffers too numerous to cite here.

In your dreams!

The above fairy tale, if somehow I had intended it to be taken seriously, would have represented the ramblings of a deluded mind out of touch with historical reality, one perhaps seized of the wishful thought that the crucial importance of diplomacy has always been evident, both to the populace as a whole and the Washington political leadership.

Not so, of course. The system has appointed numerous notorious, totally inappropriate klutzes as ambassadors over the years. The sometimes hilarious tales of their activities abroad can be found in most U. S. diplomatic histories. The United States admittedly has also boasted able noncareer senior diplomats and consular officials throughout its history, including as far back as the late eighteenth century.

Those appointments of amateur diplomats who turned out to be first rate can be counted virtually as accidents, however. Certainly over many decades Washington made all of its appointments abroad with no semblance of an administrative system designed to pick the most able individuals available to send off to foreign lands. The anarchic, politics-ridden system did manage to turn up Americans as distinguished as Thomas Jefferson for assignment as U. S. envoys abroad. Many lesser but still competent men (no women were named until well into the twentieth century), can be included in the list of those sent abroad a century and more ago, men who served the nation better than it deserved.

Not until 1924, however, did the United States have in place a career rank-and-file service, decades after the other industrialized nations of the West and Japan. With the passage of the Rogers Act that year, the framework finally came into being for a merit-based, professional service combining the U. S. consular and diplomatic functions in the Foreign Service of the United States. As modified by subsequent legislation, most recently by the Foreign Service Act of 1980, the system has continued to develop a corps of professionals skilled in the demanding art of conducting American diplomacy overseas.

One crucial point should be noted here: American Presidents send ambassadors as their personal representatives to the heads of state in the country to which assigned. No provision of the Constitution, statute, regulation or tradition ties the hands of the President in this regard; neither law nor custom holds that all, or even part of these important officials, the American ambassadors, must come from the ranks of the Foreign Service professionals. The President retains the authority to send his own personal choice to show the flag at each of the well over 100 American Embassies, ranging from prestigious showplaces to obscure, remote diplomatic outposts. He could, if he so chose, reward a heavy contributor to party coffers or an out-of-work former governor with the choice assignment as American ambassador to Bujumbura, for example.

But who in that category of political-appointee “friend of the President” would want to spend a couple of years of his busy, potentially rewarding life in Gabarone? No one, would be my guess — not one politico.

That leaves the professionals to take the less-than-desirable posts, those numerous Embassies in locales other than London, Paris, and Rome. There remains, therefore, a role for professionals at the highest levels of the Foreign Service, even without a structure of laws or regulations dictating their service.

Roughly two out of three U. S. envoys abroad in recent decades have come from the senior Foreign Service, a seemingly high percentage, but one lower than other industrialized nations, notably our NATO allies and Japan. The division of ambassadorial labor is straightforward: political appointees fill the prestigious, often expensive, mainly European assignments (plus Tokyo, Mexico City, and a few others of like prestige), while careerists staff the far less eminent, smaller Embassies worldwide.

That brings up another crucial point: Nothing in our laws or national lore accords to any single United States Senator, even the chairman of a powerful committee such as that concerned with foreign relations, the authority to decide for the President whom he may or may not send as his personal diplomatic representative.

I make this bold assertion even though aware of the “sanctity” of that august body’s rules and am familiar with the fact that congressional committee chairmen somehow rule their fiefdoms with virtually dictatorial powers. Under the Constitution, the President makes ambassadorial appointments with the consent of the Senate, meaning, I would have thought, with the favorable vote on confirmation of a majority of that body.

Again, not so.

The recent confrontation between the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the President — or more exactly, the President’s ambassadorial nominee — brings into question just what those Constitutional relationships really are. The situation, now resolved, causes me to construct, with appreciation and respect for the memory of the late, great Mike Royko, the following beer hall dialogue:

Me: I see that chairman of the Senate 
Committee has buried for good the nomination 
of ex-Governor Weld as ambassador to Mexico. 

Billy Bob: Who? You mean ol' Claghorn?

Me: Just so. Well, his name's Helms, actually.

Billy Bob: And the Guv, he's that fellow that 
belongs to Claghorn's own party. Right?

Me: Correct. I have little or no feel for his 
suitability for assignment to Mexico, not being from 
anywhere near his part of the country, but still 
it's all hard to figure on more than one count.

Billy Bob: Why so? Power's power, and always 
will be, for sure in politics, I say. Claghorn decided 
he didn't like him -- the pinko liberal soft on drugs 
and abortion, or whatever. So he used his God-given 
right to squash him like a bug. If you got clout and 
let it pass you by, up there in Washington or anywhere 
else, you'll surely end up losing it.

Me: But don't you think he deserved a hearing? 
I, for one, don't have any idea whether he speaks a word 
of Spanish or has ever been south of the Potomac.

Billy Bob: The way I see it, those things aren't 
specially important; he'll have people assigned to talk 
the lingo for him down there and others to make sure 
he gets where he's supposed to go.

And anyway, he had a hearing of sorts when he showed 
up on those TV interview programs with a bunch of 
talking heads, making like Claghorn was endangering 
democracy as we know it simply because he's the 
noodle that he always has been. Mr. Nominee from 
Boston, in the little bit I saw of him on the tube 
right up there over the bar, came across like he 
had never heard the meaning of the word "diplomatic."
He didn't like Claghorn much and said so, right 
out loud. And he made it plain to even me, even 
in those late replays after we had set up quite a 
few rounds of this prime brew, that he sure has 
learned to fake sincerity like nobody's business.
All in all,the Guv struck me as having the light 
touch of Genghis Khan's crabby stepfather. 
No sensayuma atall.

Me: Well, maybe you're right, maybe Claghorn -- 
I mean Helms -- has in truth, on this Mexico ambassador-
ship thing, saved the Republic from itself. You want 
another beer?

Billy Bob: Does the sun rise in the east?

~ The Editor

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