Retired Foreign Service officer James Bruno posted a recent blog on Politico entitled "Russian Diplomats are Eating America's Lunch". I have never met Mr. Bruno and have no idea whether he leans to the Left, or the Right, or doesn't lean at all, but the points in his article are worth pondering. He notes, for example, that the United States is "outmatched diplomatically" with a "foreign policy apparatus" that is "bloated at the White House level," "over-politicized at the State Department," and lacking in the expertise that could be provided by career diplomats.
Mr. Bruno observes that countries such as Russia, Germany, Norway, and Hungary have appointed ambassadors who not only speak multiple foreign languages but who also have substantial and extended experience as career diplomats. By contrast, he points out that Barack Obama's ambassador to Germany raised $3 million for Obama's presidential campaigns. President Obama's nominee to be ambassador to Hungary raised well over $2 million on behalf of President Obama and embarrassed herself during her Senate confirmation hearing. President Obama's nominee as ambassador to Norway bundled almost $1 million for the President's 2012 reelection campaign and also embarrassed himself before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The U.S. ambassador to Belgium reportedly bundled more than $4.3 million.
What has happened to the quality and prominence of our diplomats? Why have both Democratic and Republican presidents tended to reward their top political fundraisers with key ambassadorial positions?
An ambassador is neither a social secretary nor a socialite. We need men and women posted in all of our embassies throughout the world who understand what ambassadors do, why diplomacy matters, and the key role they play as links between the host country and its interests and the United States. It is, quite frankly, embarrassing that so many of our key diplomatic positions are now considered commodities for sale to the highest bidder or bundler.
Yet another important aspect of American government has now become a commodity -- part of the Supreme Court-endorsed endless money chase that characterizes political campaigns at state, local, national, and state judicial levels. By contrast, the Russian diplomats cited in Mr. Bruno's op-ed all have extensive diplomatic careers, speak multiple languages, and take diplomacy seriously.
The issue here is not to eliminate political control over the State Department. That is why we have a Secretary of State and senior department officials appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. I'm not arguing that all of our diplomats should be career diplomats, but it makes no sense to name as diplomats people who are (1) incompetent, (2) inexperienced, and (3) have no background that could translate into the diplomatic skills and sensitivities necessary for being an effective diplomat.
There are, for example, people who have significant experience in the business world, who can negotiate complex agreements, including agreements involving multiple nationalities, whose experience would translate readily to diplomacy. I see virtually no link between the skills required for raising and bundling large political contributions and the skills required for being an effective ambassador.
The overriding criterion for each ambassadorial appointment should be whether the nominee has the requisite skills for the job -- not the size of the nominee's network or bank account. It is sometimes said that key ambassadorial posts are reserved for people of considerable wealth because the State Department lacks sufficient resources to pay for these embassies' social expenses. If that is the case, then the president and Congress need to revisit and increase the State Department's annual appropriation. A "hat-in-hand" approach to paying for our public-diplomacy efforts is not commensurate with our status as the world's largest economy.
There are, of course, exceptions to every rule. Bill Clinton appointed Democratic fundraiser Pamela Harriman as Ambassador to France, where she was immensely popular and considered to be highly effective. Today, however, we have gone too far and project to the world the appearance that key ambassadorial posts are for sale.
Might there not be a presidential candidate running in 2016 who is willing to pledge that, if elected, all of his or her ambassadorial appointments would involve people of talent and experience, and that no bundlers need apply?
Charles Kolb, a Lumina Foundation Fellow, is President of the French-American Foundation--United States in New York City. He served in the first Bush White House from 1990 - 1992 as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy and at the U.S. Department of Education from 1986 - 1990. From 1997 until 2012, he was President of the Committee for Economic Development, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. The views in this article are solely the author's.