The Multilateralist

Big donors as ambassadors: Luxembourg edition (updated)

This AP report paints a fairly awful picture of what can happen when big donors with no diplomatic experience are posted as ambassadors. As a supporter of presidential candidate Barack Obama, Cynthia Stroum was a superstar whose financial backing of the campaign landed her a plum diplomatic posting in Europe. As America’s ambassador to Luxembourg, ...

This AP report paints a fairly awful picture of what can happen when big donors with no diplomatic experience are posted as ambassadors.

As a supporter of presidential candidate Barack Obama, Cynthia Stroum was a superstar whose financial backing of the campaign landed her a plum diplomatic posting in Europe.

As America’s ambassador to Luxembourg, the wealthy Seattle-based businesswoman was a disaster.

According to an internal State Department report released Thursday, less than a week after she quit, Stroum’s management of the U.S. Embassy in the tiny country was abysmal. The report says her tenure of about one year was fraught with personality conflicts, verbal abuse and questionable expenditures on travel, wine and liquor.

Unfortunately, political donors and allies with little diplomatic experience have been named as U.S. point persons in a couple of key multilateral forums as well, namely to ASEAN and as U.N. representative for management and reform. They’ll undoubtedly be better than the ambassador to Luxembourg (it sounds as if they could scarcely be worse), but they won’t be the best or most prepared that America has to offer.

Joseph Torsella, the nominee for the UN management post, is still awaiting Senate confirmation. My understanding is that the nomination doesn’t face political problems, and that the delay has been a scheduling issue. Here’s hoping that someone on the Senate foreign relations committee will at least ask whether he has the requisite international experience for the job.

Update: It has been pointed out to me that Torsella has already had his Senate hearing (although confirmation is still pending) and that the hearing itself should be part of any assessment of the nominee. His hearing was on December 9 (video available here). He was considered as part of a panel with nominees for the assistant administrator of USAID and for ambassador to Montenegro. I’d like to say that the session cleared up my worries about his lack of international experience. I can’t. 

Torsella gave a short introductory statement in which he highlighted his experience as deputy mayor of Philadelphia, his leadership of the National Constitution Center, and his service as chairman of the Pennsylvania State Board of Education. He described himself as someone with a long history of reforming large institutions:

So I come here today with a deep commitment to America’s engagement with the world and at the United Nations, a demonstrated history of managing taxpayer dollars carefully, a willingness to listen to good ideas from all quarters, and a lifetime of experience as a strong voice for reform in public institutions and a builder of coalitions to achieve it.

As far as I could tell from the hearing video, there were two senators at the hearing and only one who asked any questions. Senator Jeanne Shaheen gave Torsella the chance to address rumors that his nomination was a quid pro quo for dropping his Senate bid when Arlen Specter switched parties. Shaheen then asked him a couple very basic questions about his priorities for UN reform, which he answered succinctly. And that was it. In all, Torsella spoke for about seven or eight minutes.

Torsella is a smart, accomplished individual. No doubt he has been well briefed by the State Department experts who have devoted substantial portions of their careers to the issues he will address.  But I still see very little evidence that he was the best person for this post. He has had no international experience that I can uncover. He has had no contact with the byzantine United Nations system. We should expect more.

 Twitter: @multilateralist

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