Against ambassadors

Donor diplomats are embarrassing. Let’s get rid of them

March 11, 2014 8:00AM ET
Colleen Bell, a producer of the TV soap opera “The Bold and the Beautiful” who donated to the president’s re-election campaign, was confirmed as the ambassador to Hungary in 2013.
Stefanie Keenan/WireImage/Getty Images

For anyone looking to take a cheap shot at Washington, ambassadors are the gift that keeps on giving. In every administration — Republican or Democrat — individuals of no particular talent beyond their prodigious fundraising skills are picked and sent off to represent the United States in posh locales. Inevitably, some of them will manage to embarrass themselves, either before they leave or, worse, after they arrive.

It happened most recently with confirmation hearings for President Barack Obama’s picks for Norway and Hungary. The envoys-to-be in both cases proved ignorant on the most basic aspects of the states to which they will be posted. Long Island hotel franchisee George Tsunis, whose previous public service includes stints as counsel to the Dix Hills Water District and as a member of the Private Industry Council of Suffolk County, thought Norway had a president. (Forgive him; he’s never been there.) Colleen Bell is a producer of the soap opera “The Bold and the Beautiful” when she isn’t raising money for the president. She fumbled her way through confirmation hearings, unable to comprehensibly articulate U.S. interests in Hungary. Cue a tranche of reports and editorials lamenting the rise of political appointees, with more than enough precedent to fill out the story. The ambassador discovered with two prostitutes in the official residence in Copenhagen? Check. The one rescued by an underling, drunk, face down in the snow? Check. The one who spent almost as much time back home in the U.S. as at her post in the Bahamas? Check.

The same stories will be written with a new administration and the one that comes after that and the one after that still unless we take a second look at the system itself. Embassy appointments will be decoupled from patronage only after they are turned into less appealing prizes. And in many places, we don’t need ambassadors anymore at all. So here’s a modest proposal: Let’s just get rid of them. 

Sails and steamships

Historically, ambassadors served as go-betweens for European monarchs. In the days of sail and then steamship travel, ambassadors necessarily had discretionary authority; they were positioned to exercise their judgment on behalf of the state within the confines of negotiating instructions. There could have been no other way to maintain reliable diplomatic contact between nations back then. The lines of communication were too long to refer all but the most important questions back to national capitals. The Congress of Vienna formalized the office in 1815, and it’s been a mainstay of nations’ foreign policies ever since.

Even with the advent of the telegraph and the diplomatic cable, ambassadors continued to make a difference. As Max Hastings writes in his new history of the origins of World War I, “In those days, ambassadors were important people, as intermediaries and sometimes as principles.” The hawkish pan-Slav Russian ambassador to Serbia, Nikolai Hartwig, was a key player on the road to war. In Cold War postings, ambassadors needed a mastery of the local language, fortitude and political smarts if they were stationed in effect behind enemy lines. Information was hard to come by. Ambassadorial reporting could add crucial data to the policymaking mix. This was the heyday of the professional diplomat.

Ambassadors once played a key role in bilateral relations. But they don’t any longer. That’s a clear byproduct of improved communications and travel. If something serious comes up, foreign ministers can reach for the telephone. (Obama managed to find Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s number in September even though the U.S. broke off relations with Tehran more than 30 years ago.) When matters require sustained face-to-face talks, an assistant secretary of state can be there in hours. The reporting function, meanwhile, is now dwarfed by the Internet. Dissident voices have better outlets than the ears of the resident U.S. ambassador. Besides, everything’s in English now.

Political ambassadors are like minor royalty – harmless, until they do something silly.
Former U.S. Ambassador to France Pamela Harriman.
Pascal Guyot/AFP/Getty Images

What’s more, diplomatic postings don’t serve much of a political purpose. They were once a political stepping stone: Thomas Jefferson was minister to France in the early days of the republic, before serving as the third president of the United States. John Quincy Adams, Martin van Buren and James Buchanan all served as U.S. envoys to European powers on their way to the White House.

Today no politicians would see an embassy posting as a track to the White House. (If they do, like Jon Huntsman did, they need to have their political eyesight checked.) To the extent that ambassadorships fit into a political career, they're an end, not a beginning. From 1993 to 2005, former vice president Walter Mondale, former House Speaker Tom Foley and former Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker served successively as U.S. ambassadors to Japan. For each, it was a final position in public service. The same will surely be the case for Max Baucus, the six-term Montana senator just confirmed to represent the United States in Beijing.

Ambassadorships no longer build presidential resumes. They’re too far out of the policymaking loop. The politically ambitious will see a risk in engaging too intimately with anything foreign, for the same reasons that an assignment on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is now more to be feared than coveted. Political appointees can, of course, be good at their jobs (Pamela Harriman and Felix Rohatyn, who served as U.S. ambassadors to France, are two oft-cited examples, albeit from a bygone era), but the fact that non–career diplomats rarely climb ambassadorial rungs on the professional ladder is a symptom of the job’s decline.

Donor drawback

So, how do we get rid of ambassadors? The drawdown should start with the posts coveted by incompetent fundraisers: Paris, London, Rome. Embassies in key friendly states do have visas to process and play some continuing role coordinating run-of-the-mine policy at the staff level. But the largely ceremonial function of the ambassador has become dispensable. Would our relationship with countries like the United Kingdom, France and Canada be damaged if no ambassador were in residence? Probably not. Ambassadors in those cushy posts are more in the business of cutting ribbons and hosting cocktail parties than toughing it out on the diplomatic front lines. Political ambassadors are like minor royalty — harmless, until they do something silly.

The top job in our European delegations could be rebranded as a minister position, a lower-ranked diplomatic status also recognized under international law. That’s what U.S. envoys were called until 1893, when Congress first authorized the appointment of ambassadors. Ambassador, on the other hand, is a title for life. One might doubt whether the likes of George Tsunis and Colleen Bell would be so eager to go home as something less.  

Other trappings of the modern, grandiose embassy could also be cut. The sale of Winfield House, a 12-acre spread in London’s Regent's Park that has served as the U.S. ambassador’s residence since 1955, might make a nontrivial dent in the U.S. budget deficit. Residences can be comfortable without being opulent. With the reduced circumstances would come a downsized social profile. That would take care of the money set’s scoping out ambassadorial digs and nonstop entertaining as part of their payback.

The same could go for less diplomatically sensitive but donor-attractive posts in smaller European, Caribbean and other nonhardship posts. In some cases, these posts could be eliminated altogether. Other countries consolidate their diplomatic representation. That’s true not only for resource-strapped smaller states. If the United Kingdom doesn’t have an embassy in its former colony the Bahamas, why should the United States?

That leaves envoys in trouble spots, where senior-level diplomacy requires years of training and study. Ambassadors to unstable but strategically important states in Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia can make a difference, cultivating local relationships and curating information for policymakers in Washington. (WikiLeaks made career diplomats in some of these areas look good.) Ambassadorial status facilitates success in those postings; it gives envoys immunity, access and credibility. The kind of ambassadorships that donors don’t want — those are the only ones we should keep.

Peter Spiro teaches at Temple University Law School. His book “At Home in Two Countries: The Past and Future of Dual Citizenship,” will be published by NYU Press this spring.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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