This is a guest post by Dennis Jett, Pennsylvania State University. He is the author of American Ambassadors: The Past, Present and Future of America’s Diplomats, published by Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.
As was discussed in yesterday’s post and in a recent article, a significant number of American ambassadorial appointments are the result of a thinly veiled system of corruption that is as much a part of Washington politics as flag lapel pins. Ambassadors to the wealthiest countries are almost always large contributors to political campaigns. Furthermore, the greater the gross domestic product per capita of the country, the more the ambassador to it contributed. The same applies to the number of tourists a country receives. In other words, as an ambassadorial posting, London costs more than Lisbon.
This pay-to-play system is not new. In 1971, President Nixon’s personal lawyer, Herbert Kalmbach, offered Ruth Farkas, the wife of the owner of a chain of department stores, the ambassadorship to Costa Rice in exchange for a campaign contribution of $250,000. Mrs. Farkas famously replied to that proposal by saying “Isn’t $250,000 an awful lot of money for Costa Rica.” Mr. Kalmbach went to jail for that and other crimes, and Mrs. Farkas went to Luxembourg as ambassador. Following the announcement of her nomination for the post she began to make contributions to Nixon’s campaign, which added up to $300,000, demonstrating that Europe costs more than Central America.
The corruption of the Nixon administration prompted a number of ethics reforms, including the Foreign Service Act of 1980. It states, in part, that ambassadorial appointments should normally go to career diplomats and that campaign contributions should play no part in determining when a noncareer person is nominated as ambassador.
The Act had only a very small impact in reducing the number of political appointee ambassadors, however, and they continue to number about 30 percent of the total. The exception was under President Reagan, where an aggressive White House personnel office, a weak secretary of state and a president disinterested in the details of governing, caused the percent to go up to 38 percent. This was accomplished by sending political appointees as ambassadors to obscure places like Rwanda and Malawi where normal only a career officer would be sent. The Reagan appointees were arguable some of the worst examples of public servants. The embassy in Rwanda, for instance, received an instruction ordering it to refuse cashing the ambassador’s checks because so many had bounced.
While in the earlier blog post there was discussion of theories that might help understand such appointments to high government positions, those theories are of no use when trying to speculate about what the incoming administration might do. The Foreign Service Act notwithstanding, a president has wide latitude about who he appoints as his ambassadors. The 30/70 ratio is more tradition than anything else and, as the Reagan administration demonstrated, can easily be ignored. Perhaps the only real limitation is that there are only so many countries to which political appointees aspire to be ambassador. Those nations where the diplomats earn hardship or danger pay do not attract noncareer ambassadors.
What might therefore be expected from the person that takes office of president on January 20th? If it had been Hillary Clinton, a former secretary of state, the 30/70 precedent set by previous presidents would undoubtedly have continued.
What will President Trump do? There is no way to judge. He has already broken with traditional practice by insisting that all the political appointee ambassadors currently in place must depart on January 20th. Normally, many of them would have been allowed to stay on until their successors arrived in order to smooth the transition.
One could argue that with few mega-donors, he might make fewer political appointments. The problem is, as with his potential conflicts of interest and ties to Russia, there is no transparency. The most common form of winning favor with a presidential candidate is for a person to bundle the contributions of his or her friends and colleagues and present it to the campaign. There is no legal requirement to reveal who is trying to buy influence in this fashion however.
In the last two presidential elections, the Democratic nominees have released the names of their bundlers, while the Republicans have not. Clinton and Obama put the names of hundreds of their bundlers on their websites. But as with their tax returns, the information on the bundlers for Trump and Romney remains a secret hidden from the voters.
In addition to the lack of transparency there is also the fact that Trump was the first candidate of a major political party in American history to have no experience in either government or the military. Trump, the anti-insider candidate, might appoint only outsiders as ambassadors. Think of the possibilities for a new reality TV show called Ambassador Apprentice.
His announcements for his ambassadorial appointments thus far have been governors for China and the United Nations, a businessman for Japan and his bankruptcy lawyer for Israel. One thing they all have in common is no experience in the federal government and a level of international experience that can at best be described as limited.
The nominee for Israel, David Friedman, is especially important to a president elect since he has declared bankruptcy six times. Friedman could charitably described as a little short on diplomatic ability, however, as he has said American Jews who support the two-state solution for Israel and Palestine are as worse than the Jews who assisted the Nazis in concentration camps. A majority of the American Jewish community would fall under that description.
One might think that lacking any background in foreign affairs beyond real estate deals, Trump might make a greater percentage of his nominations from the career ranks. As anyone in the intelligence community has discovered, however, Trump thinks nothing of denigrating career civil servants if he decides it in his best interest.
So, as Yogi Berra once said “it’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” A theory about presidential appointments won’t help and the world will have to await more Tweets from Trump Tower.
One thing about which there is no doubt is that whoever gets to serve as ambassador for the next administration will have a foreign policy that will be a challenge to defend. If one wanted to make American embassies and ambassadors bigger targets for terrorism, it would be harder to think of a more effective way to do that than the rhetoric like banning all Muslims from entering the United States, torturing terrorist suspects and murdering their families.