America’s practice of ‘pay-to-play’ ambassadors is no joke

There is one aspect of American exceptionalism about which no one in this country should be proud: The United States is the only country in the world that regularly sells the title “ambassador.” What may be even worse is that efforts to limit the practice may become yet another victim of the hyper-partisan politics of Washington.  

This uniquely American tradition is so deeply rooted that it has become a quadrennial punch line. At the start of every presidential term, journalists ask about the latest crop of “pay-to-play” ambassadors. The White House press spokesperson often responds by making a joke about it. For example, in 2009, the reason that spokesman Robert Gibbs gave for former President Obama’s choice of Louis Susman as ambassador to London was that he was fluent in the local language.

Not much has changed since then, as this exchange at a March 3 White House press briefing demonstrates:

Q. Given the administration’s commitment to repairing foreign relations, when can we expect to see nominations for important ambassadorships like the United Kingdom’s?

A. (Ms. Psaki): Well, this is a popular question, including from some people who want to be ambassadors, which won’t surprise you. (Laughter.) 

Even though it has become a laughing matter, this thinly-veiled form of corruption has prompted efforts at reform. When Richard Nixon was in office, his personal lawyer went to jail for offering to sell the ambassadorship to Costa Rica for a $250,000 campaign contribution. The recipient of that pitch balked at paying so much for Costa Rica, and she eventually went to Luxembourg instead … for about the same price. That amount in 1971 showed no disrespect to the country in question, since today it would be worth over $1.6 million. Still, it is quite high by current standards for any country that is not in Western Europe.

The Nixon administration’s corruption inspired a number of ethical reforms, including the Foreign Service Act of 1980, which explicitly states: “Contributions to political campaigns should not be a factor in the appointment of an individual as a chief of mission.” That barely put a dent in the practice, and it has continued to be used as a fundraising mechanism for every president since then. 

It even expanded under the Trump administration because there were new ways to give besides campaign contributions. One could make a deposit directly into the president’s pocket by paying dues as members of former President Trump’s golf clubs — eight people evidently secured ambassadorships this way. Writing a check for $1 million for the inauguration apparently helped to get Woody Johnson to the Court of St. James and Gordon Sondland, a nice place to stay in Brussels when he wasn’t in Ukraine. 

This type of corruption has inspired proposed legislation aimed at limiting the selling of ambassadorships. The best solution to the problem would be the public financing of elections so that those who contribute to campaigns can’t demand to be paid back — as Psaki indicated is happening to President Biden now.

Total spending in the 2020 congressional and presidential elections topped $14 billion, however. That means, potentially, 14 billion reasons why those who profit from the status quo will fight like hell to maintain it. And the Supreme Court has done its part by ruling that unlimited “dark money” contributions to campaigns are just another form of free speech for billionaires and corporate CEOs. 

Some of the legislative measures being considered aim to bring about modest reform by focusing  on transparency and accountability. They would require more public disclosure of contributions and a better explanation of the degree to which the nominee possesses “knowledge and understanding of the history, the culture, the economic and political institutions, and the interests of that country and its people,” which is another requirement of the 1980 act. In addition, the reforms would provide for much more frequent inspections of the performance of all ambassadors in order to limit how much damage the bad ones can do.

What these reform efforts lack is a Republican co-sponsor; they are being discussed only by Democrats. Having ambassadors who can run their embassies well and not be an embarrassment to the country is essential to our national security and should not be a partisan issue.

But there is little in today’s Washington that is not filtered through the lens of what is good for one’s party, rather than what is best for the country. If reforming the selling of ambassadorships cannot become a bipartisan cause, it would be best to stick more closely to America’s capitalist creed. The job of ambassador for the posh posts desired by political appointees should be put on eBay and sold to the highest bidder. That’s because it would really be a shame if someone paid too much for Costa Rica.   

Dennis Jett is a professor in the School of International Affairs at Penn State University, a former ambassador to Peru and Mozambique, and the author of “American Ambassadors.” Follow him on Twitter @DennisCJett

Tags Ambassador Donald Trump Gordon Sondland Joe Biden Political appointments in the United States Political corruption

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