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The Future Politics of Chief of Mission Selections

Developing a better framework to observe the appointments of U.S. ambassadors.

By Antwain T. Leach

The-American-embassy-in-L-007The recent uproar over President Barack Obama’s selections to serve as U.S. ambassadors is actually representative of an ongoing discussion spanning the administrations of previous presidents dating back to the Jacksonian era. The newfound attention dedicated to this issue is useful because it can be used as an impetus to begin a constructive, national discussion concerning the proliferation of political appointees, as well as the increasing reliance upon them within the foreign policy arena in general. Critics of President Obama’s ambassadorial appointees point to the latter’s inexperience with geopolitics and diplomacy, their inability to speak the host country’s language, and also their unfamiliarity with the host country’s customs and traditions, among other things. Much of the recent criticism over the president’s appointees has come from the American Foreign Service Association. The group, which represents over 31,000 active and retired foreign service employees, set off a firestorm last month with their release of a set of best practices guidelines intended to assist President Obama, as well as other future chief executives, in their deliberations on selecting the best personnel to fill the country’s various chief of mission (COM) posts.

From Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the role of an American envoy to the world has been a position reserved for the country’s most esteemed individuals. Throughout the Jacksonian era however, this practice was slightly modified. According to Andrew Jackson, the winner of presidential elections should be able to fill federal governmental positions with whomever he believed would prove most efficacious in implementing his policies. These appointments were no longer reserved only for highly decorated public officials. They also became available for prestigious campaign supporters, friends and whomever else the president saw fit to carryout his functions. Though this rationale saw much reform in its practice and scope throughout the Progressive era, as well as other subsequent periods towards more contemporary years, the flexibility afforded to presidents in their decisions to fill chief of mission assignments was left largely intact. Recent presidents have generally adhered to the 70-30 principle, whereas 70 percent of the president’s appointments for ambassadorships would go to career foreign service professionals and the other 30 percent to political appointees. President Obama’s current distribution of political appointees is 37 percent. Though in a historical sense this figure is at the high-end, the percentages of political appointees for some of the more recent administrations, such as former Presidents Ford and Reagan, were each as high as 38 percent.

Many of the president’s criticisms regarding his choices for certain ambassadorships are not without merit. Most however, do fail to acknowledge some of the larger and more significant issues that are actually at stake. For instance, asking whether it’s necessary to continue adhering to a 70-30 principle, which pre-dates the Cold War period, is a more useful and meaningful question that should be raised. Though personnel within the “official” foreign service apparatus are uniquely qualified to fill such posts, they represent but a mere sub-section of the country’s qualified men and women with the capacity and expertise sufficient enough to perform effectively within these positions. Reserving 70 percent of these posts to careerists primarily within the State Department, before even surveying and examining the talent existing out in the field, seems a bit counterproductive in identifying the best candidates. The 70-30 principle only notes that 70 percent of the jobs should go to career foreign service professionals, not career foreign service professionals whom have an expertise to the assigned country or area. This means that civilians whom actually do have an expertise to the assigned country, and are quite familiar with the political networks and the elaborate social and business atmosphere there, are more or less excluded simply because they chose to represent their country via different political entities and organizations.

Another point has to do with acknowledging the stability in which the past century has been able to deliver to the international system, as well as with the advances in governance which have taken place at the global organizational level. Surrounding ambassadors within their host countries are scores of foreign service career civil servants, deputy chiefs of mission and a multitude of other well-trained and highly skilled personnel, tasked with maintaining the day-to-day operations and keeping the goals and objectives of the mission in perspective. With this in mind, it seems highly unlikely for a political appointee to work around these institutional arrangements and systematically dismantle U.S. diplomatic relations with their host countries.

Sometimes personnel matters do cause unwanted attention, however, rarely do they cause lasting damage in U.S. relationships and even rarer do they preclude the U.S. from achieving its broader strategic objectives. Although the U.S. is represented in most of the capital cities around the world, they all do not measure-up equally in terms of geo-strategic importance to U.S. interests. Inserting a political appointee with little experience to promote U.S. interests in Jamaica is very different from appointing a similarly qualified individual to manage our relations in Russia. A disruption in relations with Jamaica will be unpleasant, but the consequences from such a fall-out will be very limited. As we are currently witnessing however, a disruption in relations with the Russian Federation can have long-lasting implications not only between Russia and the U.S., but also between the U.S. and our allies in the region (e.g., Ukraine, Poland). President Obama has yet to name a replacement to fill the ambassador post to Russia since Ambassador Michael McFaul announced his resignation in January.

Another consideration that must be taken into perspective is the increased amount of decisions undertaken by recent presidents to create “special” envoys, “at-large” ambassadors, and other such flexible posts in order to pierce-through administrative red tape and accomplish certain geopolitical goals. The rise in such posts seem to suggest that the existing bureaucratic arrangement is either not particularly conducive to deal with the political nuances the new world presents for traditional plenipotentiaries, or that presidents are becoming more comfortable with tasking personnel from outside of normal diplomatic circles to deal with crises around the world. Either way, the trend suggests that there is a growing disconnect between the president and the existing foreign policy machinery. If this is the case, then perhaps the conventional diplomatic community needs to undergo a major structural change in order to confront the multi-faceted challenges stemming from this ever evolving, 21st century world. This could perhaps prevent the likes of figures, such as former President Richard Nixon and former National Security Advisors Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski, from circumventing traditional diplomatic channels, and engaging in the planning, coordination and implementation of foreign policy without their consultation or input.

As concerned citizens, restricting our conversations to whether presidents should nominate appointees predicated upon political reasons is merely a waste of time. All presidents have done so, and the practice will continue. However, the larger issue to be concerned with is whether the current system is suitable enough to assist presidents as they continue to face new and complex challenges from around the world. As the administration of America’s foreign policy continually strives to become more effective and efficient, should adherence to outdated traditions, rather than to innovative thinking and operational efficiency, be the guiding mechanism for planning and executing U.S. overseas policy? The answer to this question will be arrived at through a coherent and collective dialogue between American citizens and their government, however, identifying and understanding the relevant underlying issues at hand, is a great place to begin.

Author: Antwain T. Leach, MPA, is Editor-in-Chief of The American Listener. Previously, he served as president of the Center for Strategic Affairs and Public Diplomacy and was employed as a congressional aide in the office of former Congressman Bart Gordon, where he worked on public administration issues. You can reach Mr. Leach at [email protected] 

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