Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

The Political Determinants of Ambassadorial Appointments

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

The Political Determinants of Ambassadorial Appointments

Article excerpt

During a January 9, 2009, press conference (1) announcing members of his national security team, President-elect Barack Obama responded to this question from Hans Nichols of Bloomberg News: "Will you be appointing big donors in the time-honored tradition to foreign embassies to serve as ambassadorships? Or will you draw solely from the ranks of career foreign service?" He responded as follows: "Are there going to be political appointees to ambassadorships? There probably will be some. ... I think it would be ... disingenuous for me to suggest that there are not going to be some excellent public servants but who haven't come through ... the ranks of the civil service."

While he did not provide a definitive yes or no regarding the prospect of appointing big donors, the president-elect gave strong hints that he would do so, following the well-trod path of other chief executives before him. Indeed, in the ensuing months, when making his nominations to the United Kingdom, France, Japan, and Denmark, he would nominate individuals who had either bundled or donated at least $100,000 to his campaign or inauguration. (2) Additionally, he would nominate former six-term Democratic congressman Timothy Roemer to be his ambassador to India and David Huebner--general counsel for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation--to be his ambassador to New Zealand and Samoa; while neither had contributed significant amounts to President Obama's campaign, they both provided political assistance in other ways. Representative Roemer--who was also a member of the 9/11 Commission---endorsed then candidate Obama during the Democratic primary and was a strong advocate of his foreign policy; the nomination of the openly gay Huebner was perceived as a gesture to shore up support within the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community. (3)

Worrying to many in the media was that none of aforementioned had prior diplomatic experience; indeed, while relatively rare, scandals caused by ambassadors without prior diplomatic experience had been detrimental to American interests in the past. For example, during his tenure as President Richard Nixon's ambassador to Jamaica, Vincent de Roulet--who had no previous diplomatic experience, but donated $75,000 to President Nixon's reelection campaign--publicly referred to Jamaican locals as idiots and children, closed off the American embassy's restrooms to Jamaican visa applicants, offered to improperly support one candidate in a national election in return for a promise to refrain from nationalizing the U.S.-owned bauxite industry, and was eventually declared persona non grata by the Jamaican government and expelled from the country; this move was followed by the tripling of Jamaican taxes and royalties on purchases made by American companies. (4)

Overall, critics at home and abroad lambasted President Obama's decisions as nothing but the perpetuation of the politics of patronage, to the possible detriment of American interests abroad. (5) Indeed, over the course of his first term, approximately one-quarter of all his nominees for ambassadorships and other chiefs of mission to foreign states would begin their tenure without previous Foreign Service experience; four of them--his ambassadors to Malta, Luxembourg, Kenya, and the Bahamas--resigned after the State Department's Office of the Inspector General issued reports alleging neglect and the fostering of dysfunction and low staff morale. (6) However, as Figure (1) illustrates, the proportion of nonprofessional ambassadorial appointments is roughly in line with prior presidents, if not reflective of a larger trend toward a greater emphasis on formal Foreign Service experience. (7)

Nonetheless, despite their prevalence, nonprofessional ambassadors are not uniformly distributed, as certain countries are more attractive postings than others. Figure 2 displays several regional patterns; nonprofessional appointments are common in Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, China, India, Japan, Canada, and the Caribbean. …

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