Having political appointees with no realistic idea of what diplomacy is in the 21st century occupying 30 percent of U.S. ambassadorial posts around the world makes little sense. I've written about it right here on The Huffington Post, in The Atlantic and in my book America's Other Army. But Caroline Kennedy's likely nomination as ambassador to Japan actually makes more sense than most similar appointments.
That doesn't mean she is the perfect candidate -- for one, she doesn't speak Japanese. Neither does the incumbent in Tokyo, John Roos, nor did most, if not all, of his predecessors. In fact, historically, a tiny number of political ambassadors have spoken the language of their host country. Roos, as well as Tom Schieffer and Howard Baker before him, did a fine job, but they might have done even better had they been able to communicate with the locals in their own language. Those skills are important in diplomacy -- and unlike in The Netherlands or Switzerland, most people in Japan don't speak English.
Aside from the lack of language skills, Kennedy is a much better choice than most campaign bundlers who get plush ambassadorial posts for no other reason than having fundraised for the winning presidential candidate. Many of them have nothing on their resumes suggesting they would make good ambassadors -- even though they are often leaders in their own professional fields. Being a successful partner in a law firm or an academic -- or even a CEO of a profitable company -- doesn't mean you'd be great at diplomacy and running an embassy.
Kennedy wouldn't go to Tokyo just because she fundraised for President Obama. She could have almost any political position in Washington or elsewhere, but she evidently knows her own strengths and weaknesses. Thanks to her experience and connections, she is actually more qualified to be an ambassador than most other political appointees. She knows well how the U.S. government operates and how international relations work. More importantly, she knows whom to turn to on almost any issue, even if the right person is not a friend or acquaintance. She is certain to command the attention of the Japanese government, media and public in a way few other people could. She has a strong sense of public service and representing the United States abroad.
It's not easy being a U.S. ambassador in 2013, with so many complex issues to deal with and embassies housing many federal agencies to run. There is hardly any profession other than diplomacy that can fully prepare one for such a post, and one gets almost no training before taking up an assignment -- the two-week ambassador class at the Foreign Service Institute outside Washington barely scratches the surface of what an ambassador is expected to do. That said, there have been a few political appointees in history who have put to shame career diplomats.
Having visited the U.S. embassy in Tokyo several times during the research for America's Other Army and during my travels with four secretaries of state as a newspaper correspondent, I know there are many excellent public servants there on whom Kennedy can rely every day. The Foreign Service is full of good followers, but they do need leaders to follow, and Kennedy could be one of those leaders.