So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act, which would require super PACs and other dark money groups to disclose major donors, during an event at the White House in Washington on Sept. 20, 2022. Alex Wong/Getty Images

So you want to be a U.S. ambassador? Broadly speaking, there are two ways to do that.

The first is to make a career in policy or diplomacy and gain lots and lots of experience related to foreign affairs. The second is to have money. Lots and lots of money.

Running for president is really expensive, and presidential candidates in both parties require massive fundraising machines to bankroll campaigns that are becoming all the more so. A pattern has emerged under modern Republican and Democratic administrations alike where presidents will tap deep-pocket campaign donors or “bundlers” who directly donate or help raise hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars for the winning presidential candidate for plum ambassador posts.

So you want to be a U.S. ambassador? Broadly speaking, there are two ways to do that.

The first is to make a career in policy or diplomacy and gain lots and lots of experience related to foreign affairs. The second is to have money. Lots and lots of money.

Running for president is really expensive, and presidential candidates in both parties require massive fundraising machines to bankroll campaigns that are becoming all the more so. A pattern has emerged under modern Republican and Democratic administrations alike where presidents will tap deep-pocket campaign donors or “bundlers” who directly donate or help raise hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars for the winning presidential candidate for plum ambassador posts.

Successive administrations argue that these donor ambassadors have the requisite skills and experience—even if outside the realm of foreign policy—through their work in philanthropy, finance, business, politics, or other career paths.

Critics of the practice, including former senior career diplomats, say it’s a form of “thinly veiled” corruption.

U.S. President Joe Biden has continued the trend of tapping mega-political donors for ambassador posts, albeit to a lesser extent than former U.S. President Donald Trump did—despite a push by at least one Democratic presidential hopeful in the 2020 campaign cycle to ban the practice altogether.

Around 44 percent of Trump’s ambassadors were political appointees, many of whom were deep-pocketed campaign donors, compared to around 31 percent under former U.S. President Barack Obama and 32 percent under former U.S. President George W. Bush. Biden has said he will keep the number of political appointee ambassadors at around 30 percent of the total. The practice is often a source of friction and anger within the U.S. State Department, where career diplomats who spent decades working on foreign policy are passed over for important ambassador assignments to make way for a handbag entrepreneur, a soap opera producer, a car dealership owner, or a consultant who happens to be married to an ultra-wealthy campaign donor.

There’s no clear-cut answer on whether donor ambassadors or career ambassadors are better at their jobs, as even the most disgruntled career diplomat would tell you. Some political donor ambassadors end up being highly effective and are even sought after from foreign governments for their close ties to the White House and political connections that few career State Department ambassadors can offer. Some career diplomats, by comparison, flounder in ambassador posts despite their decades of experience building up to the most sought-after senior assignment.

But granting ambassador posts to mega-campaign donors is a practice that no other Western government has—and one that has come under increased scrutiny as the United States slips in its role as the undisputed global leader with the rise of China on the world stage. Donors typically get high-profile and plum ambassador assignments for countries in Western Europe, South America, and Caribbean nations, whereas career diplomats often get the less-than-plum assignments in sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, or Central Asia.

Washington’s closest allies offer a stark foil to this story. London’s ambassador to Washington, one of its most important diplomatic postings, Karen Pierce, has spent over four decades in the United Kingdom’s diplomatic service and previously served as the U.K.’s ambassador to the United Nations and envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. The United States’ ambassador post to the United Kingdom has been filled by investment bankers, oil company executives, former admirals, car dealership owners, presidential confidantes, billionaire heirs, and more. The United States has only ever had one career diplomat serve as a full-fledged ambassador to the United Kingdom: Raymond Seitz, who served in the post from 1991 to 1994.

Foreign Policy scoured public disclosure and campaign donation filings, many through the nonprofit transparency group OpenSecrets.org, to take a look at five countries where major donors to Biden were tapped to be ambassadors and totaled up the known available amount that they donated.

For the sake of simplicity, we focused only on the confirmed amount that each ambassador donated directly to Democrats or Biden’s campaign during the 2017 to 2020 election cycles. Where possible and where information was available, FP included information on funds bundled, sent through political action committees (PACs) or donated to broader Democratic causes and races over the past two decades to add additional context.

A caveat: In some cases, because of the convoluted nature of campaign donations in the U.S. political system, it’s difficult to assess how much an individual has given. Donors give directly to the candidate’s campaign as individuals (with a strict legal limit), to PACs that support the president’s campaign, to so-called super PACs that can engage in unlimited political spending, to the president’s party at local or national levels, or even to the president’s inauguration fund to bankroll swanky events coinciding with the president’s first day in office. Other times, these donations are all made in the ambassador’s spouse’s name or as individuals through an affiliated organization.

And even then, the Biden administration, like all administrations, insists that it does not “sell” ambassador posts but matches the right people for the right job overseas. “I’m going to appoint the best people possible,” Biden promised on the campaign trail. “Nobody, in fact, will be appointed by me based on anything they contributed.”

A White House spokesperson told Foreign Policy that Biden “takes selecting ambassadors who carry out our foreign-policy agenda across the globe very seriously” and characterized all of his ambassador picks—including those below—as “highly experienced individuals he has worked with and trusted for years.”

The spokesperson also cited examples of non-career diplomats who Biden tapped for ambassador posts, such as former U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake to Turkey and Julianne Smith, an expert on trans-Atlantic security, to NATO.

Still, nearly two dozen other people Biden chose to be ambassadors happened to raise or donate a lot of money to the Democratic cause. If you want to start putting a price tag on an ambassador post in the Biden era, here’s what it would look like.

Switzerland: $419,200

Biden’s ambassador to Switzerland, Scott Miller, and his husband gave $365,000 to funds helping elect Biden in 2020, and Miller himself gave a total of $54,200 directly to Democrats and Biden’s campaign between 2017 and 2020, according to news reports and campaign donation data from OpenSecrets.org. In total, however, Miller and his husband have donated around $3.6 million to Democratic candidates and causes for the Democratic Party since 2010. Miller is a former vice president at UBS Wealth Management firm based in Denver. He and his husband, Tim Gill, are also major LGBTQ rights activists and philanthropists. In 2016, they gave around $1.1 million to aid the election of then-Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Miller was confirmed as Biden’s ambassador in December 2021. The White House spokesperson cited Miller’s “career in LGBTQ advocacy and philanthropy” as a factor in his nomination to be ambassador.

United Kingdom: $656,980

Biden tapped a longtime Democratic donor and former U.S. ambassador to France, Jane Hartley, to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom. According to campaign donations data from OpenSecrets.org, Hartley donated $645,780 to Democrats during the 2017 to 2020 election cycles and $11,200 specifically to Biden during that same time period. But this number doesn’t fully encapsulate how much money Hartley has sent or bundled to Democrats overall. Between 2007 and 2012, she reportedly raised around $2.2 million for Obama’s campaigns, when Biden served as vice president. Hartley is one of the few political appointee ambassadors in the Biden administration who has previous experience in a senior diplomatic post, which the White House spokesperson cited in defending Biden’s decision to nominate her for the post in London. Hartley—who worked for the Democratic Party, corporate broadcasting companies, and consulting firms over the course of her career—served as Obama’s ambassador to France and Monaco from 2014 to 2017.

Canada: $514,378

David Cohen, a former top Comcast executive and lobbyist, was a longtime fixture of Philadelphia’s political and philanthropic scenes. In the 2017 to 2020 election cycles, he donated $514,378 to Democrats and Biden, according to the data from OpenSecrets.org.

That number is the floor, not the ceiling, however, as Cohen was listed as one of 800 top “bundlers” for Biden’s 2020 campaign, a list of individuals who helped raise at least $100,000 for the presidential campaign, but it’s not clear just how much additional money he bundled for Biden.

Kenya: $917,599

Meg Whitman—a former top business executive who was once named one of Forbes Magazine’s 100 most powerful women in the world—currently serves as Biden’s ambassador to Kenya, considered one of Africa’s most economically powerful and diplomatically important countries. Whitman, the former CEO of eBay and Hewlett-Packard, used to be a Republican donor and ran as the Republican candidate for governor in California in 2010 but switched to backing Democrats after disavowing Trump and his rise to the top of the Republican Party. Whitman in 2020 gave $500,000 to the Biden Victory Fund, a joint fundraising committee, and separately donated $417,599 to Democrats and Biden directly during the 2017-2020 election cycle.

The White House spokesperson said for both Cohen in Canada and Whitman in Kenya, their “distinguished careers in business and their ability to advance U.S. economic interests abroad significantly informed their selection to their current posts.”

Argentina: $148,630

Biden picked Marc Stanley, a prominent Dallas lawyer, to be his ambassador to Buenos Aires. Stanley and his wife, Wendy, have donated at least $1.5 million to Democratic causes in the past two decades, according to the Dallas Morning News, and served as major bundlers for Biden and other Democratic candidates through fundraisers and bundling campaign donations. Stanley also led an arm of Biden’s 2020 campaign called Lawyers for Biden that helped organize lawyers to donate legal services to the president’s campaign run. During the 2017 to 2020 cycle, Stanley directly donated $148,630 to the Democratic Party. The White House spokesperson defended Stanley as Biden’s ambassador pick for Argentina for his “career as a leading lawyer and Jewish advocate [that] has spanned four decades.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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