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Review: American Ambassadors, The Past, Present, and Future of America's Diplomats

02/18/2015 03:31 pm ET | Updated Apr 20, 2015

The micro-review of Dennis Jett's American Ambassadors: The Past, Present, and Future of America's Diplomats is this: Since 1960, 72 percent of America's ambassadors to Western Europe and the Caribbean have been political appointees, their primary if often only qualification being that they donated obscene amounts of money to the guy who won the presidency. America is the only first world country that hands out ambassadorships as overt prizes of corruption. Many/most of these political ambassadors have done mediocre-to-poor jobs, and no one does much of anything about that, or even seems to care. Likely the only way to reform this sad system is to reform big money politics in America.

Getting to Know Our Ambassadors

Author Dennis Jett, himself a two-time career ambassador (meaning he served as a State Department diplomat, rising through the ranks to one of its highest positions) is now a professor of international relations and founding faculty member of the School of International Affairs at Penn State University. His book is one of the few (only?) volumes that parses the idea of politically-appointed ambassadors outside of a partisan rubric, and is the only one I am aware of that fully details the actual process and mechanics of becoming an ambassador. It also manages to be a quick, entertaining read, all at the same time. While Jett does not traffic in gossip, his book is filled with anecdotes and details that reveal the at times pathetic actions of America's representatives abroad.

How about the one whose signature accomplishment was a new mattress for her residence? The one who was absent from her assigned country almost half the time? The ones who stumbled in front of the very host country officials they were supposed to get to know? The one who insisted on singing popular tunes at all of his formal dinners, drowning out critical sidebar interactions? The one who... well, you get the idea.

A Little History

Professor Jett's book begins with a history of America's ambassadorship, noting that an early attempt to reform the spoils system so angered one job-seeker that he assassinated President Garfield. Things only went downhill from there.

Various well-meaning moves by Presidents from Taft to Teddy Roosevelt failed to budge the spoils system through Republican and Democratic administrations. Along the way presidents stopped trying to change the system and began to openly embrace it as a tool to reward both individual donors and, the whales of any campaign, the "bundlers," those connected individuals who not only drop off millions of their own money, but get their wealthy friends to do the same.

It would be foolish to expect someone not to want something in return for their cash.

The Best and the Worst

To be fair, Jett offers his share of criticism to ambassadors in general (about 70 percent are in fact State Department careerists, though as noted, career diplomats are disproportionately assigned to hardship posts; some 14 percent of African embassies are run by career Foreign Service Officers.)

One of the most overriding criticisms is the lack of standards and definitions of success for an ambassador. Easier to delineate are the points of failure, and Jett's book has far too many examples for any taxpayer to be happy about. The problems range from ambassadors who seem to have little-to-no interest in the job save some social aspects and the title itself, to those who hamstring an embassy through mis- or micromanagement.

The better ambassadors (surprise!) use the resources at hand well, rely on their career No. 2 (the Deputy Chief of Mission, or DCM) to handle most of the internal embassy management, and respect the chain of command. Add to that an ambassador who is willing to work with not only the State Department personnel under his/her direct authority, but also the many other Federal workers in a modern embassy, never mind the ever-growing military presence abroad, and you have a recipe for success. The book is clear what happens in the inverse.

Resources

American Ambassadors is also an excellent resource for those seeking to learn more of the inside baseball side of the American ambassador game. Jett surveys the roles of women, African-Americans and gay ambassadors, and charts the changing way race and religion have played out in assignments. Readers get to see the lengthy actual questionnaire used to vett Obama's appointees, guidelines drawn up for successful ambassadors by informed third parties, and examples of the Letters of Instruction three presidents wrote as "marching orders" to their new envoys. These resources are likely of more use to a student, researcher or potential political appointee than a general reader, but are not uninteresting to browse.

Reforms?

Reform to a spoils system so deeply embedded in the way someone gets elected to the White House depends on reform of how someone gets elected to the White House. This is a task far beyond the scope of Jett's book, though he touches on some ideas. Recent Supreme Court decisions that allow virtually unlimited corporate funds to flow nakedly into the system won't help.

So if you can't do away with the spoils system, the only alternative left is to better prepare the political appointees. Making Dennis Jett's American Ambassadors required reading for every person up for consideration would be a hell of a start.