To play that role the twin institutions of the Department of State and the Foreign Service of the United States must be able to attract, train, retain and deploy a professional cadre. It is difficult to see how this objective can be successfully achieved if the majority of key senior diplomatic positions at home and abroad are reserved for political appointees. In contrast, our military combatant commands, USAID missions, and CIA stations are all headed by professionals serving in those services. Diplomacy cannot be treated as a lesser instrument of our national security.
For nearly a century, starting with the Rogers Act of 1924, Congress has expressed its strong support for building a professional diplomatic corps. The Foreign Service Act of 1980 states that "positions as chief of mission should normally be accorded to career members of the Service." Further, ambassadorial nominees “should possess clearly demonstrated competence to perform the duties of a chief of mission, including … useful knowledge of the language … and understanding of the history, the culture, the economic and political institutions, and the interests of that country.” Furthermore, it declares, “Contributions to political campaigns should not be a factor” in appointments. It is high time to apply these legislated criteria to all nominees – career and non-career.
The American Foreign Service Association continues to urge that only experienced and qualified members of the Foreign Service be appointed to represent the United States as ambassadors. AFSA believes that America is best served - as in the case of its uniformed military - by having experienced and knowledgeable career officers fill all positions in our career diplomatic service. Now is the time to end the spoils system and the de facto “three-year rental” of ambassadorships. The United States is alone in this practice; no other major democracy routinely appoints non-diplomats to serve as envoys to other countries.
The appointment of non-career individuals, however accomplished in their own field, to lead America’s important diplomatic missions abroad should be exceptional and circumscribed, not the routine practice it has become over the last three decades. Over this period 85 percent of ambassadorial appointments to major European countries and Japan, and nearly 60 percent of appointments to a wider group of emerging global powers such as Brazil, Russia, India, and China, have been political.
AFSA appeals for a bipartisan commitment to a more professional, better trained and better resourced diplomatic service. America deserves the best ambassadors, men and women with a track record of achievement in diplomacy, to represent our nation around the world - just as we do for our military, development and intelligence professionals.
For historical interest, click here to read the transcripts from President Nixon's grand jury testimony in 1975, where very candid discussions took place regarding the sale of ambassadorships to political contributors.