How to Become a U.S. Ambassador

COMMENTARY Global Politics

How to Become a U.S. Ambassador

Jul 23, 2013 2 min read
Ted R. Bromund, Ph.D.

Senior Research Fellow, Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

Ted Bromund studies Anglo-American relations, U.S. relations with Europe and the EU, and the U.S.’s leadership role in the world.

Last week, President Barack Obama appointed a new ambassador to the Court of St. James's (most of us call it Britain). It's our most prestigious diplomatic post. It also had a "for rent" sign on it: the new ambassador, Matthew Barzun, was the chief fundraiser for Obama's re-election campaign.

Barzun was formerly our ambassador to Sweden, a job he got because of his fundraising prowess in 2008. Otherwise, he has has no obvious qualifications for his new job, but in 2012 he personally raised about $2.3 million, and led a campaign that raised $730 million -- and evidently, that was enough. By that standard, Barzun was better qualified than his predecessor in London, Louis Susman, a Chicago businessman who raised a mere $300,000 for Obama in 2008. In 2009, Obama issued an executive order requiring that government hiring be "based upon qualifications, competence and experience, not political connections." But when Susman got the London job, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs described him as qualified "because he speaks English."

Unfortunately, giving diplomatic posts to the moneymen is an ignoble bipartisan practice. George W. Bush's ambassadors to London -- oil men and car dealers -- were major donors to his campaigns. Not since 1994, when Raymond Seitz left office, has the United States had a professional diplomat in Britain.

London is not the only job that can be yours if you are generous enough. Since the last election, Obama has given nine top foreign posts to major donors, who on average raised almost $1.8 million apiece.

The United States is the only nation that tries to get away with making money the measure of all things. The British ambassador to the United States, Sir Peter Westmacott, has 40 years of distinguished diplomatic service. The U.S. ambassador to France, by contrast, is the former president of The Jim Henson Co., of Muppets fame. True, not all donors are failures. Our man in Paris, Charles Rivkind, has been lauded for his assertive promotion of the United States. But the suspicion lingers that Rivkind was selected because he was the 2008 California finance co-chair for Obama.

What we have is a new spoils system. The term was coined by Sen. William Marcy of New York in 1828, and derived from the phrase "to the victor belongs the spoils." Over the 19th century, the United States slowly cleaned up the mess. But today, the spoils system is back, and not just in our embassies. According to the American Foreign Service Association, the State Department had 18 senior positions in 1975, 11 of them filled by career diplomats. By 2012, it had 36 such posts, and two-thirds of them were, like our ambassadors, appointed by the president.

The problem is not that politicians are deciding our foreign policy: That's why we have elections. The problem is that the more foreign policy becomes political, the less it speaks for the nation and the more it becomes the mouthpiece of the White House's continuous campaign.

But being good at campaigning is not the same as being good at governing. Campaigns are about image. But in foreign policy, the desire to look good leads to tragedies, like the effort to deny that Benghazi was a concerted terrorist attack, and farces, like the State Department's recent expenditure of $600,000 to increase the number of "likes" on its Facebook page.

Diplomats don't need "likes"; they need knowledge. A recent study of the Foreign Service quotes former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who was stunned to find that there "were many people in senior positions who . . . didn't know basic things." The fish rots from the head down: Where unqualified ambassadors lead, undertrained staff follow.

Competent, well-trained diplomats, chosen on merit, are not the be-all of foreign policy. But we are trying to skate by with Internet businessmen and former associates of Kermit the Frog as our ambassadors, and we're doing it because they're rich. And the most embarrassing thing about this is that neither Democrats nor Republicans are embarrassed about it.

- Ted R. Bromund is a senior research fellow in The Heritage Foundation's Thatcher Center for Freedom.

First appeared in Newsday