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Comment on:
“End Political Appointments to Embassies” 0709/oped/berlind_endpolitical.html

From: Ambassador (ret.) Edward Marks

Our colleague Alan Berlind has made, once again, a fervent appeal for better American diplomacy by moving away from the old spoils system of appointing American Ambassadors. Unfortunately, as he has pointed out, President Obama is faithfully pursuing that ancient, if not hallowed, practice.  Ambrose Peirce noted in the 19th Century that American Ambassadors “were officials, who having failed to obtain a government position by election by their fellow citizens, were given one by the current Administration on condition that they leave the country.”   That motivation for political appointees has been supplemented by the more modern practice of rewarding financial contributors. So be it. Modern campaigning is expensive and in one sense, the appointment of people from the private sector is a compliment to the profession of diplomacy by making it clear that it meets the criteria of the marketplace.  People are willing to pay for the position and the title.

However as Alan Berlind and others have pointed out ad infinitum and ad nauseum, the people and the government of the United States pay a price for this habit in less than desirable performance of an important public function – representation and furtherance of the national interest in the international community.  The problem we face in pointing out this cost is that diplomacy and foreign affairs lack the quality of quantification, of metrics, of the legendary bottom line. How do we prove that our diplomatic performance is inadequate and often dangerous if we cannot quantify it?

As we cannot, we are driven to inadequate arguments: indentifying individual political appointees who are demonstrably unqualified and often embarrassing.  The problem is that most Americans don’t find these people unqualified given that they have some degree of success in American society and therefore have proven their worth. After all, someone who can manage a beer company or an automobile agency can obviously run an embassy.  America is a commercial society so it is not surprising that financial success in one area is generally seen as competence in any area.  In addition one can always find the occasional individual political appointee who was in fact rather good at the job; and individual professional diplomats who were not.

A change in this attitude is difficult to envision in the short run, as the almost instinctive political behavior of a president even as intelligent and sophisticated as President Obama demonstrates. Perhaps a longer term campaign might be more successful.
But to do so, we will have to find a rationale for reform which goes beyond any embarrassment about individuals.  We will have to enunciate a broader argument which can make sense to large numbers of fellow citizens regardless of their personal experience and exposure to the exotic world of diplomacy and foreign affairs.

That argument may lie in an experience which many Americans in fact share. In large organizations, beginning with the American military services, Americans understand that organizations need expressed missions and objectives; competent personnel carefully selected, trained, educate, rewarded and promoted. A good deal of the education pursued at our universities is preparation for such careers – MBAs being the most obvious example in the private sector.

Americans also understand that the selection of senior management of organizations is a vital task. The recent experience in the financial and automobile industries has made that painfully clear. The business section of our daily newspapers (those that continue to exist) print on a regular basis the notice of senior appoints in private firms, always emphasizing the relevant experience of the appointee, the key word being relevant. It is rare to see an appointment justified on the grounds that the appointee was helpful in getting the Chairman of the Board appointed. And I seriously doubt that any business school recommends a managerial approach that encourages the appointment of subordinate executives because of a personal relationship with the CEO, not would they encourage such subordinates to communicate directly with the CEO bypassing the organizational hierarchy. .

Organizations, especially government organizations, depend upon a well-designed, well-organized, adequately resources, and well-directed bureaucracy.  The objective of a bureaucracy is to guarantee disciplined, dependable competence, in the best meaning of that word. Organizational performance is what counts, not individual heroics.  This is obtained by creating and maintaining as high a degree of professionalism as possible. And organizational professionalism is not obtained by chance.  It requires                                        conscious decision and planning.

There is nothing new or original about these comments. Max Weber: noted that:

Modern officialdom functions in the following specific manner:
Methodical provision is made for the regular and continuous fulfillment of these duties and for the execution of the corresponding rights; only persons who have the generally regulated qualifications to serve are employed.

Weber compared this development to that of traditional states, empires and feudal empires where policy and programs are executed “through personal trustees, table-companions, or court-servants.” – which sounds uncomfortably like the traditional management of American foreign policy.

In other words, the objection to the American practice in the conduct of the country’s diplomacy by political appointees, as distinct from the political management by elected officials, is a systemic one.  The current system works against the development of professional expertise, discipline, and morale.  It works against the development and maintenance of a bureaucratic organization in the field of foreign affairs designed to function as a dependable instrument of national policy – regardless of the political orientation of the elected leadership. The practice in fact is even against the interest of that political leadership to the degree it inhibits success in their foreign policy regardless of what that policy is.  Good strategy can be frustrated by poor execution, as any football coach can testify. And, of course, in the long run a less than optimal diplomatic service works against the interests of the United States. It is this case that we should make to the American public.


Ed Marks
Ed Marks

Ed Marks served more than 40 years in the U. S. Foreign Service, including an assignment as ambassador to Guinea-Bissau. He graduated from Michigan and Oklahoma universities and attended the National War College. Retiring in 1995, he subsequently served on detail to the U. S. Pacific Command. He is currently a Senior Fellow at the Joint Forces Staff College and a member of the American Diplomacy board.


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