Wednesday, December 17, 2008

II - Political Ambassador[ship]: A Reality Check on the Ship

Historical Comparison of Ambassadorial Appointments from

To my last count, there were actually 192 ambassadorial posts, including the permanent representatives to the UN and other international/ political/economic organizations (ICAO, OECD, AU, EU, OSCE, OAS). The Bush political ambassadorships based on manual count currently numbers 63 which puts the total number at 32.81% -- more or less the same number of appointees under the Kennedy and Reagan Administrations (32%). The lowest number of political ambassadorships in the last 50 years occurred during the Carter Administration when this number was at 24% and career diplomats enjoyed the all-time high appointments at 76%.

Frankly, the suggestion of 10% non-career appointees for ambassadorships is quite a stretch and unrealistic given the political realities. Despite the change mantra, I doubt very much that this “19th century spoils system” is going away very soon. Can you actually imagine shrinking the number from 63 to 19 political ambassadorships? I can’t. Al Gore reportedly proposed a cap of 15% during his time in the Senate, but it’s nothing more than a nugget of history now. Perhaps a more realistic approach would be to lower the non-career political ambassadorships to 20% (about 38 ambassadorships in real numbers) which would shift the all-time record with the lowest appointees from former President Carter to President-elect Obama. I think Obama would appreciate this watermark and it would not tie his hands down to just 19 positions.

Besides – there’s a couple of things we don’t talk about often. First, host countries assigned a political ambassador often welcome these assignments on the premise that such an ambassador has the President’s phone number in his speed-dial. But like Ambassador Abramowitz says this doesn't really work unless the political ambassador is able and has the knowledge, insight and experience to serve the United States and the host country well. In any case, an ambassador who is a presidential friend will not think twice about calling the White House directly and saying, "We have a problem, Barry." And I think that' part of the attraction. Seriously, if I were a foreign country, I’d want that quick line to the U.S. President, too. But one would hope that in this day and age that a political ambassador would be more than just a speed-dial operator or overnight mailbox.

Second, most of the assignments for political ambassadorships are in European countries. Have you seen Mercer’s 2008 Quality of Living Survey? Good lordy! European cities dominate the worldwide rankings of locations with the best quality of living. I’ve listed below the top most expensive cities with their corresponding ambassadorial appointees (the non-capital cities/non embassy posts are in brackets):

#1 Moscow, Russia John Beyrle Career Diplomat

#2 Tokyo, Japan J. Thomas Schieffer Political Appointee

#3 London, UK Robert Tuttle Political Appointee

#4 Oslo, Norway Benson Whitney Political Appointee

#5 Seoul, South Korea Kathleen Stephens Career Diplomat

#6 [Hong Kong, China] Consul General Joseph Donovan, Jr. Career Diplomat

Embassy Beijing (#20 Mercer List) Clark T. Randt, Jr., Political Appointee

#7 Copenhagen, Denmark James Cain Political Appointee

#8 [Geneva, Switzerland] Warren Tichenor Political Appointee/UN Geneva

#9 Zurich, Switzerland Peter Coneway Political Appointee

#10 [Milan, Italy] Consulate Daniel Weygandt Career Diplomat

Embassy Rome (#16 Mercer List) Ronald Spogli Political Appointee

#11 [Osaka, Japan] Consul General Edward K.H. Dong Career Diplomat

#12 Paris, France Craig Roberts Stapleton Political Appointee

#13 Singapore, Singapore Patricia Herbold Political Appointee

The business of diplomacy requires a lot of things but nothing gets done without effective engagement, personal relationships and representations (aka: cocktails, dinners, coffee, breakfasts, etc). Dining has not been called the soul of diplomacy for nothing. As Abigail Adams said in 1784, “More can be accomplished at one party than at twenty serious conversations. Now, imagine entertaining host country nationals in Uncle Sam’s meager representational allowance. It’ll be painful, I assure you. I once watched guests walked out of a top diplomat’s reception after being served eggplant kebab.

Forbes mag in a write up about our Ambassador in London, Robert Tuttle provides some helpful insight:

“American ambassadors picked for desirable posts like London and Paris tend to be wealthy as they are expected to entertain guests more extravagantly than the State Department budget might allow. (Tuttle would no doubt have served highest-quality marmalade and croissants at his post-election breakfast last Wednesday, for instance.) "Ambassadors are given representational funds, but some have chosen to use personal funds[,] to go into their own pockets," an embassy spokesman said.”

Hmmn, extravagant breakfasts, goody! You know -- a cup of coffee in London is a mere €2.93 ($4.60) but €4.60 ($7.22) in Paris. And if you ever serve burgers in Rome (I don't know why you would), each would set you back about €5.90 ($9.26) a meal. If anyone is really serious about bringing down the political ambassadorships to 10%, they better ensure that there is a a bigger budget for representational funds, too (what's the chance of that happening in today's budget mess?). If not, we might soon see our ambassadors' wives in countries X,Y, Z and more, display their household budget online for all to see.

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