David Rothkopf

Do we really need ambassadors?

Once again, the Obama administration has put the lie to the idea that they represent the end of politics as usual in Washington. And once again, the self-inflicted wound comes courtesy of those wonderful folks at White House personnel whose gaffes and misjudgments have produced many of the most notable missteps of the otherwise successful ...


Once again, the Obama administration has put the lie to the idea that they represent the end of politics as usual in Washington. And once again, the self-inflicted wound comes courtesy of those wonderful folks at White House personnel whose gaffes and misjudgments have produced many of the most notable missteps of the otherwise successful first few months of the Obama Era.

But their latest moves, the announcement yesterday of a raft of diplomatic appointments, do more than remind us that the gap between ideals and actions is Washington’s version of the Grand Canyon. They raise a larger question about the nature and practice of U.S. foreign policy: Do we even need ambassadors anymore?

Of course, if your impulse is to answer the question by saying, “sure we do. If we didn’t have ambassadors where would we send all the campaign donors and political hangers-on for whom we couldn’t find plum jobs in Washington?” then you not only understand Washington but you understand where I think Obama went wrong yesterday and why my question about the need for ambassadors is genuinely open to question.

Now, not all of the administration’s ambassadorial appointments yesterday are open to criticism. Two exceptionally important jobs were given to excellent candidates. Tom Shannon, a gifted career diplomat who most recently was the assistant secretary of state in charge of the Americas is going to Brasilia where I suspect he will remain the single most important official in the Administration dealing with Western Hemisphere issues. Tim Roemer, the former Indiana congressman and 9/11 Commission member is headed to New Delhi where his closeness to the president, his understanding of American politics and his smarts will help move the U.S.-India relationship right to the top of those most important to us in the world where it ought to be.

But some of the appointments suggest that whenever the new ambassadors enter a room, they should be piped on deck with the ka-ching of a cash register or at least a chorus or two of Abba’s “Money, Money, Money.” Most notable among these is the decision to appoint a tech lawyer named John Roos as the ambassador to Japan despite having little experience in the region, no diplomatic background, and no political background besides having raised over $500,000 for the president. To the face-conscious Japanese, already reeling from their economic nightmare of the past decade and China having supplanted them as America’s top diplomatic priority in the region, this has got to come as a blow…which is no way to start an ambassadorial tenure. The message is clear: U.S. political fund-raising matters more than mastery of the diplomatic interchanges with the world’s second largest economy and our primary democratic ally in East Asia.

Similarly, to our number one ally in Europe, the UK, we send Louis Susman, another big time fund-raiser whose credentials include having been a vice chairman of financial invalid Citibank (who knew overseeing the decline of an American financial institution would become the great path to top government jobs that it has been in this administration?) and a director of the St. Louis Cardinal’s baseball team. To France, the decision is to send another fund-raiser, this one whose most notable credential is having been the President of the Muppets. (He once ran the Jim Henson Company.)

Other campaign friends ended up with good posts such as Vilma Martinez, an employment lawyer who once ran the Mexican-American legal defense fund. That the Argentines will wince that we think somehow think one size Latina fits all posts and that experience on Mexican-American issues will translate into knowledge of how to deal with challenges in Buenos Aires will soon become apparent. Revealingly, beyond the Shannon appointment — which itself came only after a long and heated battle between the State Department and the White House about whether to give the slot to a career foreign service officer or a political appointee — the three other career diplomats who were named to slots yesterday got assignments in Iceland, Kosovo and Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

Of course, Obama is not the first to send unqualified fat cats off to be America’s face to the world (and there is a certain element of truth-in-advertising there that is refreshing amid the finally buffed bullshit of diplomatic intercourse). But this only underscores my core point. If a job is meaningless enough to be entrusted to someone who is unqualified to do it, do we really need to fill that post? This point is made especially forcefully when even the most important such jobs (like Japan) are being filled by political bag men. Further of course, anyone with much exposure to foreign policy knows that to our closest allies and most important enemies, dealing with ambassadors is often viewed as being at the bottom of the food chain. It is too easy today to pick up the phone or send ministers to speak to cabinet secretaries or sub-cabinet officials to meet with sub-cabinet officials or even to arrange exchanges among leaders than to entrust really important communications to intermediaries who need to pass it up through multiple layers in the State Department and/or the White House before they reach the eyes of anyone who is actually a policymaker. Furthermore, with the proliferation of special envoys in this administration…diplomats who report directly to the Secretary of State or the President…being a regular ambassador is rendered even more of a bag-carrier or logistical coordinator role.

Once upon a time, we need diplomats because they served as our primary means of confidential communications with other governments. They played a vital role. They carried secret communications back and forth. Heck, they even had attaché cases named after them. (And other things. Poinsettia plants, for example, are named after Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first U.S. Ambassador to Mexico.) 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? Or someone who doesn’t understand the country or diplomacy? Unless of course, our main objective is to raise money from these countries which, come to think of it, could be a growing responsibility of U.S. ambassadors in the future and could justify some of these recent Obama appointments.

For really important relationships, we need permanent high-level representation. But those relationships are comparatively few and in those cases, we need a special breed of highly empowered, highly experienced people…people who look more like Tom Shannon or perhaps Tim Roemer or Jon Huntsman…and not the others. A good rule of thumb might be: If you think a job can go to someone with no regional, diplomatic or relevant national security experience, then perhaps we ought to really be thinking about whether we need the job rather than who should fill it.


David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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