The United States is the only first world nation that allots ambassador jobs as political patronage.
You don't have to know anything, or have any specific background or training, to be the president's personal representative abroad and conduct foreign policy on behalf of the World's Most Powerful Nation. You do have to donate heavily to the president to buy one of those appointments.
Back during my own 24 years working for the State Department as a diplomatic serf my mother asked what I'd have to do to make ambassador. The answer was simple: dad needed to die young, and mom should donate the entire inheritance to the winner of the next presidential election. I'd get appointed and hobnob with State's elite!
For so many reasons, I am glad dad is still alive.
What is an Ambassador?
The U.S. ambassador is the head of the embassy in a particular country, and serves as the senior representative for the United States there. S/he interacts personally with important leaders of the host country, negotiates on behalf of the U.S. and serves as America's public face and mascot, appearing in the media, making public appearances and hosting social events that in some parts of the world are the primary venue for serious business. Some say it's an important job. Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson did the job.
Embassies are otherwise primarily staffed by foreign service officers, folks from the State Department who are diplomatic professionals. The question here is between those two groups-- political hacks or trained professionals-- who should be an ambassador?
Is the U.S. Exceptional?
The U.S. is exceptional, because every other major country in the entire known universe answered the question already: being an ambassador is a job for professionals. It makes sense that a person who likely has already served in a country, who probably speaks the language and who is familiar both with U.S. foreign policy and the mechanics of diplomacy might do a better job than a TV soap opera producer who turned over $800,000 to the president's campaign (true; see below.) Why, in almost any other setting other than U.S. politics, that would be called corruption.
A quick note to people of the internet. Every political party in power doles out ambassadorial appointments as patronage, and has, from the 19th century to the present day. Democrats, Republicans, Whigs, the Boston Tea Party and all the rest did it and do it. Obama is slightly ahead of the 30 percent historical average, though many pundits are over-weighing his second term picks because he is filling his First Class (i.e., political posts) before the generally mediocre locations allocated to career jobs. This is true bipartisan sleaze, an issue we can all get into regardless of our views on other issues.
Yet despite the clear record of patronage, the State Department insists that political campaign donations have nothing to do with diplomatic nominations. "Either giving or not giving money doesn't affect either way. It doesn't make you more or less qualified," deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters this week. Welcome, Ambassador Sponge Bob. Talk about your credibility. You could almost watch it drain out of the spokeswoman as she spoke the words with a straight face.
Why It Matters
Many, many politically appointed ambassadors are frighteningly unqualified. Sure, many don't have a clue about the country they'll serve in and very, very few have any language skills or experience in diplomacy. Some haven't even been abroad, except maybe a bus tour or two. The latest crop, however, are reaching new heights of stupidity:
--The nominee to China admitted he's no expert on China;
--The nominee to Argentina never set foot there and speaks no Spanish. Same for the nominee to Iceland, who never visited and also does not speak Spanish, though that is less important in Iceland;
--The nominee to Norway insulted their government in his Senate approval hearing (he was approved by the Senate anyway!)
--Then there is Colleen Bell, the nominee for Hungary, whose qualifications include being the producer of "The Bold and the Beautiful" TV soap opera, and of course raising $800,000 for Obama. She stammered her way through testimony to the point where John McCain basically begged her to just shut up as a kind of mercy killing.
Political Appointees in the Wild
What happens to these kinds of boneheads abroad is not hard to imagine. Some wonderfully extreme cases include the American ambassador to Finland, who sent out official Christmas cards with him in "Magic Mike" beefcake poses and whose signature accomplishment is basically renovating his own office. A political appointee ambassador to Kenya paralyzed his embassy with personnel demands, including internet access in his executive toilet. The political appointee ambassador to Belgium was accused of soliciting sexual favors from prostitutes and minor children.
As for many other political appointees, some, like Caroline Kennedy in Japan, understand they are just living photo-ops and stay out of the way of the adults working (which may sum up Kennedy's entire life.) A few appointees become sentient and actually turn out to be decent managers based on their business backgrounds before being sidelined by State's incestuous culture. The best political appointees are old pols like Howard Baker, whose Washington connections and political savvy make them at least effective stooges for the president's personal political agenda, if not always America's.
Why It May Not Matter
The bad news is that there are equal inconsistencies on the side of State Department professionals who become ambassadors outside the political appointee spoils system.
Many, especially to smaller nations (think Africa, parts of the Middle East), have spent most of their careers in the neighborhood, and have built up significant, trusted relationships. Many of these career ambassadors got to know young leaders long ago, and have kept the relationship intact as those men and women ascended into positions of authority. Pretty cool to call your old buddy and sort out a diplomatic problem using first names and shared experiences as a base.
There are exceptions to excellence; watch one of our career ambassador's in a Congressional hearing not know how much money his embassy is spending in Afghanistan nor the U.S. death toll for the year.
Unfortunately, even for out-of-the-way places, it is very hard to make it to ambassador without sucking up to State's big shots, even if you have the chops to do the job well. Every careerist at State (i.e., everyone) wants that title, the big house and the limo that comes with the job. As an autocracy, just being the most qualified for anything inside State is rarely enough. That leaves plenty of suck ups, wankers and toadies of the higher ups mucking around to get into an ambassador's chair. It's unavoidable.
The last sticking point on why foreign service officers can make lousy ambassadors is the dual nature of the job. While in most cases the ambassador's primary task is headline-level "policy," s/he also is the head of the embassy. Many administrative and personnel issues rise to the ambassador's office. Most State Department ambassadors have gotten as far as they did based nearly 100 percent on those policy things, and many thus make very poor managers. The best defer the decisions to their own management staff; the worst dive in, wielding power without responsibility and the very worst use the position to settle old scores and promote the interests of their own lickspittles.
Why It Really, Really Doesn't Matter
Critics of political appointee ambassadors inside State are quick to point out that people don't get appointed as generals in the military. Senior leaders in the Army are expected to have come up through the ranks. Admirals have captained ships. Marine generals have eaten snakes, that sort of thing.
The reason big campaign donors don't get appointed as generals in the military is because what generals do can matter, matter beyond at least embarrassing the nation. Not to say all or even most generals make the right calls, but to say that generals need technical knowledge of the services they work for, and the decisions they make literally affect lives and can shape world events.
Ambassadors are increasingly becoming curios left over from a distant past, before instant worldwide telephone and internet communications, before senior White House officials could jet around the world, a past when ambassadors actually had to make big decisions in far-off places. Nowadays most ambassadors don't change their socks without "conferring with Washington." Their own jobs matter less and less, as does the State Department they work with.
So never mind ambassador slots, which often stay empty for months as donors wrangle for the prime positions. A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report shows that more than one fourth of all U.S. State Department Foreign Service positions are either unfilled or are filled with below-grade employees. These vacancies and stretches at State are largely unchanged from the last time the GAO checked in 2008.
In government, what matters most gets funded most. There are more military band members than State Department foreign service officers. The whole of the Foreign Service is smaller than the complement aboard one aircraft carrier. The State Department is now a very small part of the pageant. The Transportation Security Administration has about 58,000 employees; the State Department has 22,000. The Department of Defense has nearly 450,000 employees stationed overseas, with 2.5 million more in the U.S.
In an age of military ascendancy, when State and diplomacy are seen as tools to buy time for later military action instead of as potential solutions themselves, it just might not matter who is ambassador anymore. Of course the man or woman in the chair might best avoid sexual solicitation of minors and inane, embarrassing acts, but really, that's just a nice thing, not a requirement.
Old-school political patronage was about giveaways, handing over some largely ceremonial job to a hack. The medieval kings had it down, appointing dukes and grand viziers and equipping them with plumed hats and lots of gold braid while ensuring they stayed out of the way.
Political appointee or career foreign service officer as ambassador? Why does it matter?