The Foreign Service Journal - July/August 2014 - page 17

THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL
|
JULY-AUGUST 2014
17
SPEAKING OUT
How to Get Better Ambassadors
BY DENN I S J ETT
W
hen an ambassador’s con-
firmation hearing makes
“The Daily Show,” it is not
because it went well. The
nominees for ambassadorships to Nor-
way, Hungary and Argentina, all major
Obama campaign contributors, pro-
vided so many cringe-worthy moments
when they appeared before the Senate
Foreign Relations Committee earlier this
year that Jon Stewart had more material
than Fox News provides in a month.
There was also a flurry of stories in
the media about the qualifications (or
lack thereof) of these nominees, which
raised the hope that higher standards
might be possible in the future. Presi-
dents appoint people as ambassadors
for many reasons, however, and cam-
paign contributions is one of them. Still,
money does not have to speak louder
than foreign policy credentials.
There are some limits on the amount
an individual can give to a presidential
campaign, but thanks to recent Supreme
Court decisions, these are largely mean-
ingless. And supporters of a candidate
for president can bundle the checks of
friends without limit for a campaign that
Dennis Jett is a professor of international affairs at Pennsylvania State Univer-
sity. A retired FSO, he served as ambassador to Peru and Mozambique, on the
National Security Council and on assignments in Argentina, Israel, Malawi and
Liberia. He is the author of three books:
Why Peacekeeping Fails, Why American
Foreign Policy Fails
and a forthcoming book on American ambassadors (all
now costs over a billion dollars.
In an electoral system so thoroughly
driven by money, asking a president
to cut back on the number of ambas-
sadorial titles he can bestow on those
who played a critical role in getting him
elected is like suggesting the United
States unilaterally eliminate its nuclear
weapons.
One might look to Congress for
reform, but members of Congress owe
their jobs, in no small part, to their own
ability to raise money. In addition, the
Senate traditionally gives the president
wide latitude in selecting the people
he wants as his envoys. Congressional
opposition to ambassadorial nomina-
tions therefore tends to be ephemeral,
partisan and only rarely related to a lack
of qualifications.
Reform Has Never
Been Easy
In the late 19th century, profession-
alization began to make a serious dent
in patronage only after a frustrated job
seeker, who thought he should be chief
of mission in Vienna, assassinated Presi-
dent James Garfield in 1881.
It took the criminality of the Nixon
administration and the support of Presi-
dent Jimmy Carter to bring about the
Foreign Service Act of 1980. So, in the
absence of another major scandal, there
is little hope for change coming from the
legislative branch.
Yet the need for campaign cash
and the existence of a dysfunctional
Congress do not mean that nothing
can be done to ensure better qualified
ambassadorial nominees. AFSA could
help bring about modest reform, but its
recent efforts are not enough.
Take for instance, AFSA’s issuance of
the “Guidelines for Successful Perfor-
mance as a Chief of Mission.” A group of
retired ambassadors put the guidelines
together. Most of the members of the
group had been career Foreign Service
officers, but the group also included sev-
eral former political appointee ambas-
sadors who were unlikely challengers of
the status quo. While the AFSA Govern-
ing Board approved the guidelines, the
vote was not unanimous.
But even if meaningful guidelines
could be drawn up, they alone would do
little to improve the quality of ambas-
sadors. Expecting those who do not
meet the criteria to forgo applying for
the job is the equivalent of thinking that
describing virtue will rid the world of
sinners.
Another AFSA initiative that is not
likely to bring about substantial change
is its Freedom of Information Act
request for the “certificates of demon-
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