It is hard to predict what might happen once a new president takes office. For instance, could next January 20 usher in a new reality television show called Ambassador Apprentice? Those who aspire to run an embassy can describe how they would make America great again through huge foreign policy deals. Then a President Donald Trump could say whether the contestant got the job and where he or she would be Washington’s personal representative.
Sound farfetched? It isn’t. Since naming an ambassador is one of the few ways the most powerful person in the world can reward supporters, almost anything is possible. The only thing that is reasonably certain is that the selection process for ambassadors would likely be more predictable under a President Hillary Clinton – and also be in line with practices that began about 50 years ago.
As I have written in the past, the selling of the title “ambassador” is a thinly-veiled form of corruption that is a time-honored Washington tradition. That’s because the White House only has a few guest bedrooms and a president has a limited number of ways to reward those who financed his (perhaps soon her) election.
Since the Eisenhower administration, roughly 30 percent of ambassadorial nominees have been political appointees; the remaining 70 percent have drawn from the ranks of the senior Foreign Service Officers in the State Department. President Reagan managed to get it up to 38 percent, but only by sending non-career ambassadors to obscure countries like the southern African nation of Malawi. President Obama’s second term percentage is just below 29 percent.
The main limitation seems to be the number of desirable countries a political appointee might want to go. Instead of 30/70, the ratio in Western Europe and the Caribbean is 80/20 political appointees versus career ambassadors. The former rarely go to embassies where there is hardship or danger pay. In Central Asia, there has never been a political appointee. In Mozambique and Peru, the two countries where I served as ambassador, there’s a similar pattern.
One might ask whether the background of the ambassador matters given instant communications and the fact that host countries may think that political appointees have better access to the president. There is no shortage of situations, however, where the ambassador can’t simply say “hold on a minute while I call Washington to make that decision for me.” And very few political appointees really have a “call me anytime” relationship with the White House. Even when these ambassadors are able to bypass the bureaucracy, my own experience is that it usually does not turn out well.
Do career ambassadors always perform better than political appointees? Not always. Admirals don’t always do a great job either, but that is no reason to give command of an aircraft carrier to someone whose only real qualification is bundling campaign cash. In today’s world, embassies are just as important to national security as warships. And embassies can be big, expensive operations. The one in London has a thousand employees from nine different cabinet agencies and has to handle over 20,000 official visitors every year.
Measuring the performance of an ambassador is difficult, in part because all ambassadors have career officers as their deputies to compensate for any shortcomings. The Inspector General of the State Department does a thorough inspection of every embassy, but unfortunately only about once every eight years. Thanks to a 2008 law, those reports are now public information on the IG website. Anyone interested in reading about a badly run embassy should look at the reports for Kenya, Luxembourg or the Bahamas. All three of those political appointees resigned shortly after their inspection reports came out.
Regardless of the implications of underperforming embassies, whoever is the next president will have some of them for sale. There are those who are counting on that. A New York Times report about the Democratic convention described this scene inside one of the convention hotels: “Two stocky men could be heard debating the merits of the different ambassadorships they hoped to earn under Mrs. Clinton. Even a low-ranking posting meant having “ambassador” on a child’s wedding invitation, the two agreed, and would be helpful in wrangling invitations to sit on corporate boards.”
Similar conversations undoubtedly took place at the Republican convention. Bestowing the title is such a routine practice in election politics, it’s even possible to figure out roughly how much it will cost and in which country one might aspire to use it.
So what can be expected from the person that takes office next year? Given her experience as secretary of state and the precedent set by previous presidents, Clinton is very likely to maintain the 30/70 ratio in her administration. That is not to say there won’t be controversial appointments. One prediction: Anna Wintour, British-born high-profile Vogue editor, role model for the movie “The Devil Wears Prada,”—and a name that came up during Obama’s 2012 election campaign--will be nominated this time around as ambassador to the United Kingdom in return for her money raising skills.
What would Trump do? There is no way to judge. One report in the New York Post asserted he had promised an ambassadorship to the chief executive of the National Enquirer in return for all the favorable coverage Trump has received from that epitome of responsible journalism.
One could argue that with few mega-donors, he might make fewer political appointments. He is a nontraditional candidate, the first example in American history of either of the major parties naming a standard bearer who had no experience in government or the military. So Trump, the anti-insider candidate, might appoint only outsiders as ambassadors. On the other hand, lacking any background in foreign affairs, he might make all his nominations from the career ranks to compensate for that.
There is no doubts that a Trump foreign policy would be more of a challenge to represent abroad than that of Clinton. And if one wanted to make American embassies and ambassadors bigger targets for terrorism, it would be harder to think of a more effective way to do that than with rhetoric like banning Muslims from entering this country, torturing terrorist suspects and murdering their families. Those bundling cash in hopes of buying the title may get more than they bargained for.
Dennis Jett, a former career diplomat, is a professor of international affairs at Penn State University and the author of "American Ambassadors: The Past, Present and Future of America’s Diplomats."
The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.