Qualified ambassadors — not campaign donors — should represent US
Will President Biden nominate campaign donors and fundraisers for ambassadorships following a longstanding bipartisan tradition? We hope not. This is, in our opinion, a bipartisan corrupt practice, a strict quid pro quo of money for a government job.
“What qualifies you to be the US ambassador to our country?” — a blunt question — was asked in 2009 by the head of the Liberal Party in Sweden of a U.S. Ambassador newly arrived in country, Matthew Barzun, who had been a major fundraiser for President Obama. As the embassy number two accompanying the ambassador, one of the authors jumped in and deflected the question.
This leader of Sweden was reflecting feelings that, in our experience, are often widely shared by friendly governments and publics in countries that get campaign donors and fundraisers as the U.S. ambassador. They don’t like being treated as a prize in the U.S. spoils system. They send professional diplomats — not campaign donors — to represent their countries in Washington.
Congress has tried to tackle this practice for decades with little success. As money has grown in importance in presidential campaigns, so too has the number of donors who are appointed to ambassadorial posts.
The best effort remains the Foreign Service Act of 1980, which states that all ambassadors must be qualified, that such positions should normally be accorded to career diplomats and that campaign donations should not be a factor in such appointments; however, the law doesn’t elaborate specific qualifications other than noting that knowledge of the country and its language are important.
In the absence of specific qualifications, U.S. administrations have offered creative qualifications for their donor nominees: for example, for ambassadorial nominee to Belgium, Denise Bauer, it was suggested that chairing local civic charities showed the kind of background needed to manage our relations with a NATO ally and major economic partner. She had no prior U.S. government experience or career in international affairs and no special language skills. She had raised more than $2.3 million for the 2012 Obama campaign in California, $4.3 million overall. She was confirmed by the Senate in 2013.
In 2014 the two of us decided to tackle this problem. We convened a diverse group of 10 former ambassadors to produce a set of qualifications to guide the nomination and confirmation processes. The group included political appointees from both parties, based on the collective experience of professional diplomats that non-career nominees with relevant experience can be effective in the role. But all ambassadors must meet the same high standards.
The resulting document — “Guidelines for Successful Performance as Chief of Mission” (i.e. presidential envoys who usually carry the title of ambassador) — describes four headline criteria that should apply to all nominees. They are (a) leadership, character, and proven interpersonal skills; (b) understanding of high-level policy and operations, and of key U.S. interests and values in the host country; (c) management skills; and (d) understanding of the host country and international affairs.
These general guidelines were adopted in 2014 by the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), which represents all career U.S. diplomats. We believe that these are minimal standards for assessing future nominees for ambassadorial positions.
The guidelines don’t preclude a campaign donor or fundraiser from qualifying, but — as the Foreign Service Act of 1980 states — the relationship created with an administration through money must not be a factor in the nomination. Any nominee — career or political — who doesn’t meet these guidelines should not be confirmed by the Senate, should not, in fact, even be nominated in the first place.
Facing a complex array of challenges and opportunities overseas, the U.S. must rely on its ambassadors and their staffs for day-to-day management of our foreign relations. We cannot afford any longer to give these jobs to unqualified persons and we should never have allowed the tradition of granting them to campaign donors. The AFSA guidelines, if adhered to, would provide a level of assurance that we are in fact sending our best people abroad to represent the nation’s interests.
Perhaps it is time to tell campaign donors the truth. Seeking these jobs with the leverage of donations — unless one is qualified under the AFSA guidelines — is not patriotic; rather, it is perpetuating a corrupt practice that stains America’s reputation abroad and handicaps our diplomacy.
Charles Ray served as U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia and Zimbabwe, and since retirement has been a full-time author.
Bob Silverman was President of the American Foreign Service Association and currently teaches Middle Eastern Studies at Shalem College in Israel.