by Alan Berlind
SUMMARY — With America’s role in the world at large under attack and her motives under intense scrutiny from several quarters, the need for skilled diplomacy has never been greater. Yet, we continue to place many of our overseas missions in the hands of people rewarded for partisan loyalty rather than professional experience and expertise. Moreover, these political appointees are heavily concentrated in areas of traditional and continuing great importance to United States interests. Those who should be most concerned – the career Foreign Service and the U.S. Senate – apparently are not. What can we do?
For much of its history, but especially since the nation’s victory on all fronts in World War II and the lead role it played subsequently in the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, the United States has earned, along with admiration and imitation, envy and sometimes resentment over its economic, scientific, military, and cultural achievements. Such is the price of leadership and dominance. More recently, however, as American leadership has morphed into unilateralism and dominance is seen by many as imperial ambition, as the rule of law has been challenged on both a national and international scale, and as the growth of executive power in Washington seems to be challenging the system of checks and balances, envy and resentment have hardened into distrust and disrespect and, in some quarters, fear.
It may therefore seem almost trivial and, for a retired Foreign Service officer, myopic to devote time and effort toward reforming one of the principal tools with which the United States relates to the rest of the world: diplomacy. On the other hand, we may assume the day will dawn when our elected leaders rediscover the need for dialogue and reasonable accommodation in our international relationships. When that happens, the job of repairing the enormous damage done to those relationships and restoring our reputation, credit, and influence in the world will fall in large part to America’s diplomats, most particularly, American ambassadors, i.e., the senior representatives of the American government and people abroad. What better time, then, to re-examine the almost uniquely American practice of including among those representatives large numbers of people only rarely qualified for the job.
How often has it been asked, rhetorically but reasonably, whether it would make any more sense to assign businessmen, campaign contributors or professors to senior military or naval command positions ordinarily manned by generals or admirals? Any more sense than it does to place them at the helm of American embassies? The attainment of four-star rank in the Pentagon or its equivalent at States presupposes training, experience, and superior performance over a period of time sufficient to merit the assumption of senior command responsibility. But the question is usually dismissed out of hand as irrelevant or defensive or disrespectful of the special qualities and qualifications required of our uniformed leaders.
The arguments for and against political appointments to diplomatic posts have been rehearsed over the years, but largely as an academic exercise. That only the United States — with rare exceptions that test the rule — entrusts diplomatic missions to amateurs rather than professional diplomats is broadly accepted in Washington as a matter for presidential judgment and a function of American exceptionalism. As for the general public, interest is minimal. Would interest pick up were it broadcast outside the beltway that, for example, half of the non-career ambassadors in Europe, who account for 63 per cent of all U. S. ambassadors there, have no apparent qualifications for the job unless one counts prior service with either the Republican National Committee or a Presidential campaign; in short, that they were rewarded for nothing other than partisan political activity?
One might expect keen interest in the subject at least among active and retired career Foreign Service officers, and not only because of the obstacles placed in the way of their own advancement by political appointments. But they, too, it seems to me have become resigned to the implicit insult, if one can judge from the reaction from the readers of the Foreign Service Journal. In its January 2006 issue I published a long signed letter calling for a review of the question of political appointments. Five months on, there has been not a single note of agreement or dissent to this plea placed prominently in the house organ of the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) – the voice of the foreign service and the union upon which the profession depends for the protection and advancements of its interests.
Feeling discouraged and isolated, I turned in seek of solace to AFSA’s web site and found instead the following policy statement: “The primary authority for choosing Ambassadors rests with the President, and the United States has a long tradition of public service by private citizens. This is appropriate and valuable, and private citizens should continue to serve in the diplomatic field.” The President’s constitutional prerogative is of course a given, but AFSA’s explicit endorsement of the practice leaves little hope for protest from that quarter; a subsequent face-saving admonition that ambassadors should not be chosen on the basis of their campaign contributions or friendship with the president rings hollow.
And then there is the United States Senate with its Foreign Relations Committee. Both bodies have far greater access than does the general public to information concerning the qualifications of ambassadorial nominees, whom they must approve. Alas, over the years Congress has ignored the relevant law and has welcomed inappropriate selections made by successive presidents, ignoring the issues of professionalism and qualifications, treating ambassadorships as party favors, and implicitly insulting the career service in the process.
The law in question, The Foreign Service Act of 1980, states in part (emphasis added): “Positions as chief of mission should normally be accorded to career members of the Service, though circumstance will warrant appointments from time to time of qualified individuals who are not career members of the Service.” If we need solid proof of Congressional willingness to overlook its own rules, we can find it in the fact that the most radical proposal for reform came several years ago in a proposal by Senator Charles McC. Mathias, Jr., that would have put a limit of 15 per cent on non-career ambassadorial appointments. Even that idea went nowhere.
How do other governments, diplomatic services, and general publics view our odd habits? While a retired career ambassador recently opined that astonishment was a common reaction, there are those who try to convince us that foreign leaders are indeed flattered to have a friend and political supporter of the President of the United States as local interlocutor, and that the latter will have easier access to the halls of power in the capital in which he serves. That may occasionally be the case where autocratic rulers prize adulation and personal contact above substance, but, as will be shown below, political appointees ordinarily seek and end up in postings to countries where higher value is assigned to professionalism and sophistication in diplomatic relations. Might not governments in such places wonder why they do not merit professional representation from the United States?
In 1982, The Heritage Foundation published a study laying out the pros and cons of political appointments to diplomatic posts in terms of both effectiveness at post and influence in Washington. The author, a former Foreign Service officer, laid out the usual arguments in defense of the practice. To counter, without challenging, the claim that career diplomats were more versed in international relations, foreign cultures and languages, and the art of diplomacy, the Foundation alleged that Foreign Service officers were insufficiently alert to or knowledgable about domestic American interests, for example, “developments at International Harvester or Firestone and their implications for U. S. relations with important trading partners.” Quite aside from the fact that a Firestone had not long before served as ambassador to Belgium, the argument was offensive and scandalous: no career ambassador in my experience neglected to inform and prepare himself as fully with respect to U. S. commercial interests as he or she did concerning the full range of U.S. interests in the country of assignment.
A second argument, long a favorite, put forward by the Heritage Foundation in defense of political appointees was that they “had the ear of the president.” Similarly, a retired ambassador suggested in a Foreign Service Journal article in 1982 that “political appointees enjoy better access to the president, which enhances their influence with accrediting countries.” Quite aside from the implausibility of these virtually identical claims, the consequence in logic is that U. S. decisions concerning trade, aid, investment, and high level visits, among other things, may be made on the basis of an ambassador’s personal friendship with and partisan support for the president, rather than on the basis of a rational assessment of U. S. interests.
That same Journal article noted that 70 per cent of all American ambassadorial posts were manned at the time by career diplomats, as against (only) 30 per cent by political appointees. As if to support the reasonableness of those statistics, the article’s author noted that the ratio had remained relatively constant over the preceding twenty years, i.e., since 1961, and therefore were typical of practice under both Democratic and Republican administrations. Indeed, a recent check of the Department of State web site reveals that the overall figures remain unchanged: of 171 chief of mission slots currently filled world-wide, fifty-three, or 31 per cent, are occupied by political appointees, leaving a solid majority of posts in the hands of the career service. We can say, then, that the current administration’s appointments are statistically in line with practice over the last half-century or so. But the figures, both past and present, conceal a larger truth.
We can note the following with respect to posts filled by the current administration. Of twenty-nine embassies in the Americas, twelve, or 41.4 per cent are headed by political appointees (half of them on sunny and small, but not unimportant, Caribbean islands). Of the fifty-three posts in Europe and Eurasia, thirty-one, or 58.5 per cent, are occupied by political appointees. Of the twenty-five posts located in countries members of NATO and/or the EU, twenty, or 80 per cent, are occupied by political appointees. Finally, of the eight ambassadorial posts at U. S. missions to multilateral organizations, either European, Atlantic or UN-related, all eight are occupied by political appointees.
Therefore the oft-cited traditional quota of 30 per cent, itself basically indefensible, is clearly misleading in that it understates the true dimensions of the situation. The Americas, where we live, are the focus of increasing attention by the White House and Congress and, it might as well be specified, the Defense Department. Leftist regimes, rising anti-Americanism, the drug trade and, most prominently, illegal immigration are all at the top of the regional agenda. We are represented in the capitals of our two land neighbors, Canada and Mexico, by political appointees. Our interests in what must still be called “core Europe,” no matter what Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld calls it, and regardless of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s program to downgrade the region by another name (“transformational diplomacy”), are largely in the hands of political appointees. And our interests at international organizations, whether we like them or not but which surely require the maximum of diplomatic expertise, also are handled exclusively by – yes – political appointees. (It should be noted in this connection that the current Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs, who presumably oversees their work, has no obvious qualifications in that field either.)
The qualifications, experience, and abilities of American representation abroad are crucial to the achievement of American foreign policy objectives. Leaving aside the concentration of political appointees in tropical climes and attractive European capitals, and given a senior Foreign Service trained and ready to serve, the question arises: why should an embassy of the United States of America anywhere in the world be placed in the hands of a private citizen having few or no qualifications for the task? What can be done about it? For my part, I’ll be calling the foregoing to the attention of my congressmen and some others who ought to care.
Alan Berlind, a frequent contributor to this journal, is a retired senior Foreign Service officer. His career took him to assignments at Khartoum, Athens, the U.S. mission to NATO, as well as earlier tours in Greece, Ghana, Belgium and Washington.