Reality Check

Experts, Shmexperts

Let's not be so quick to prejudge Caroline Kennedy's appointment as U.S. ambassador to Japan.

Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images
Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images

I’ve never met Caroline Kennedy and really have nothing invested one way or the other in her appointment as U.S. ambassador to Japan. She strikes me a caring, talented woman with a passion for public service and a heavy but meaningful legacy to bear. But I must say that as an American, a defender of common sense, and a former career civil servant who spent the better part of a quarter century at the State Department dealing with Foreign Service officers, political appointees, career ambassadors, and assorted other Foggy Bottom types, I disagree with David Rothkopf’s recent reaction to her appointment.

I’m not at all sure the smart and savvy Rothkopf intended it to come off this way, but the article echoes the elitism that gave the Department of State the reputation for striped-pants snobbery that it enjoyed for years. What I’m referring to is the notion that representing the nation abroad is solely a function of how much you know about country X and whether you have the right credentials — whether they’re bestowed by the American Foreign Service Association, the Council on Foreign Relations, or Foreign Policy magazine.

I understand that diplomacy requires more than just common sense and a general familiarity with an atlas. One of the career ambassadors I admire most, a friend and former colleague, Thomas Pickering, is dead-on accurate in saying that the trend since the late 1970s has been toward marginalizing the Foreign Service. America needs a professional diplomatic corps and it needs to be taken seriously by the political establishment otherwise diplomacy itself is devalued. And the statistics suggest that professional diplomacy is being undermined by politics. Since 1975, the number of top leadership positions at State has nearly doubled, yet the share filled by Foreign Service officers has fallen from 61 percent in 1975 to 24 percent in 2012.

But based on my own experience, I can’t in all good conscience concede wholesale the notion that representing U.S. interests abroad is such a sacrosanct duty that it can be handled only by the high priests of the foreign policy temple. I knew lousy political appointees and terrific ones; great career FSOs who became ambassadors and awful ones. Most colored between the lines, both for good and ill. After all, the State Department, like most bureaucratic systems, doesn’t encourage a great deal of bold, innovative thinking.

In my view, what defined the best of both careerists and politicos and what is required above everything else were sound judgment, emotional intelligence, a dose of humility, perspective, a knowledge of history, and how to deal with people — all kinds of people. And this goes for foreign policy experts outside the State Department, too, including Cabinet officials. The foreign policy and national security credentials and resumes of those advising George W. Bush in the wake of 9/11 stretched around the block. But those same foreign policy experts brought us Iraq. I’d take judgment and balance in decision-making anytime over so-called expertise.

I’ve written that Barack Obama is the most controlling foreign policy president since Richard Nixon. He dominates and doesn’t delegate. Just ask his first secretary of state. But the notion that the Obama administration’s reliance on political appointees or marginalization of the State Department is somehow new or Obama’s responsibility just doesn’t add up.

The Obama administration has certainly furthered the trend. Only five of the 35 special envoys, representatives, advisers, and coordinators appointed during Obama’s first term were Foreign Service offers. But who are we kidding? The State Department hasn’t been the chief driver of U.S. foreign policy since the days of James Baker. Moreover, the tendency of both U.S. administrations and host governments to bypass ambassadors and deal with each other directly has been in train for years — a trend that has been encouraged not just by the White House, but also by secretaries of state who also routinely bypassed their own Foreign Service in favor of more senior host government contacts. In a previous column, David Rothkopf himself raised the matter of whether or not we even need ambassadors anymore:

But today, for the purposes of most really important diplomatic exchanges there is almost always a better conduit than the ambassador and for the ones that aren’t that important, do we really need someone in a special ceremonial post?

The trend toward ignoring and politicizing the Foreign Service is a bad one. But the nature of patronage, political payoffs, for fundraising are a part of the system, and that’s not going to change. Finding the balance in U.S. politics on many issues is the key. In unusual and exceptional cases, a rational argument can be made for assigning a non-foreign policy specialist with no special experience in diplomacy, government, or expertise to a country — even to an important country and ally like Japan. And, yes, access to the president, the cachet of a famous name, even the image of an ambassador who represents a set of American experiences other than those of conventional diplomats can be important.

Caroline Kennedy may or may not prove to be an effective non-diplomat diplomat. But to prejudge her appointment, blast her in the process, and assume that because she’s not a Foggy Bottom heavy she cannot represent the United States capably — even brilliantly — makes no sense. That kind of elitism also sends a terrible message about America.

Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can't Have (and Doesn't Want) Another Great President.

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