Political Ambassadors

Brian Knowlton for the New York Times takes a look at the practice of appointing political favorites, typically donors, to ambassador posts in fun countries. His specific focus is our new ambassador to France, Charles H. Rivkin, a major Obama fundraiser:

Mr. Rivkin can certainly find France. A graduate of Yale (international relations) and Harvard (M.B.A.), he spent years as a youth studying, traveling and working in France — he did an internship at Renault — and is fluent in French. Business interests have taken him to Paris or Cannes every year for the past 20 years, he said.

One measure of an ambassador’s effectiveness can be how well-connected he is in Washington. Here, a political appointee like Mr. Rivkin can enjoy a significant advantage.

One thing to note here is that as a general matter this is a much bigger deal for US foreign service officers than it is for foreign governments as such. Because the United States is such a large and influential country, it’s simply in the nature of things that Spain’s ambassador in Washington will be a more senior figure in Spanish policy circles than America’s ambassador in Spain is in American policy circles. Which is to say that whether or not we appoint career professionals, government-to-government contacts that need to be run through an embassy will almost certainly be run through embassies located in Washington, where most countries are represented by very senior officials. And as the article notes, in terms of access and influence you may be better off with a political appointee. A major fundraiser and longtime personal friend like Rivkin will have an easier time getting a message to Obama than would any career person who might possibly get the job.


At the same time, for American foreign service officers heavy reliance on political appointees is extremely demoralizing. Foreign service professionals do extremely important, often overlooked work and it’s not as if they’re getting rich doing it. Declining to use career FSOs for the top diplomatic positions devalues the work of the entire foreign service. The Obama administration is nominally committed to the view that the United States needs to rebalance its international agenda toward less reliance on the military and more reliance on our civilian capabilities. The foreign service is integral to that idea, and moving to curb the use of ambassadorships as patronage positions would have been an excellent signal of seriousness about elevating the status of the foreign service.