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American Diplomacy
Editorial Comment

February 1999

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On Professionalism Among American Ambassadors
by Henry Mattox
As the philosopher had it,

“However much thou art read in theory,
if thou hast no practice, thou art ignorant.”

THIS OBSERVATION, WHILE AN OVERSTATEMENT, reflects much truth, whether in

an intellectual field, an area of physical skill, the artistic world, or the work

of a skilled craftsman.

Devoting thought and study to a given discipline or attainment can provide understanding and lead to the command of theory. But reading up, even in profound detail over a long time, in the end does not—cannot—serve as a substitute for practical experience. Complete mastery of the game of basketball as a coach a Michael Jordan does not one make. The brightest product of an MBA program has no business suddenly undertaking to guide the fortunes of a large corporation. And a scholar of military history, no matter how erudite, does not gain through study the minimum qualifications personally to lead even a platoon of soldiers.

Given the focus of this journal, you see without doubt where I’m heading: Successful students or practitioners of professions other than diplomacy do not—with some few exceptional cases, to which I will return—by those accomplishments qualify themselves for appointment by the President as ambassadors abroad. They lack the practical experience career diplomats gain through many years of dealing with foreigners, living around the globe, and practicing the arcane skills of diplomacy.

And yet the United States year after year, administration after administration, entrusts a substantial portion of its embassies abroad to diplomatic amateurs (I started to write “rank diplomatic amateurs”). Alone among industrialized nations, America continues to follow in large measure selection procedures for its highest diplomatic appointments that most advanced nation-states discarded close to a century ago. Careerists fill nearly all of the latters’ ambassadorial posts, and have for many decades.

In contrast, currently no less than thirty percent of the more than 100 U.S. ambassadors are non-professionals. They come directly from such sources as the president’s political party or election campaign, the ranks of former members of Congress or governors, leaders from business and on occasion education and literature, and retired senior military officers. The White House makes such appointments on the basis of political calculation, influence, or service to the party in power—through the time-honored spoils system, that is.

These 1998 percentage figures approach the rule of thumb one-third to two-thirds ratio of nonprofessionals to careerists that came to be deemed “normal” after the end of World War II. According to data on the years since 1963 provided to this journal by the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), the current thirty percent matches fairly closely the ratio prevailing during the Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Bush administrations. Only the Reagan Administration had a higher ratio of political-appointee ambassadors to professionals (thirty-three to sixty-seven percent) and only the Carter Administration, a lower ratio (twenty-four to seventy-six percent).

Thus, at any given time these days, the United States maintains abroad some forty amateur ambassadors, many with at least debatable qualifications. These individuals hold posts from London to Beijing, from Stockholm to Nassau and a number of capital cities in between. (They are not, however, often to be found in demanding hardship posts, as in Africa.)

A case can be made for their nomination, and indeed for an even greater number of non careerists. The President appoints ambassadors as his personal representative to a given head of state, and in some circumstances an American representative known to have the President’s ear could be viewed as more effective in the foreign capital; twentieth century advances in communications lessen the need for an ambassador’s exercise of experienced judgment in the absence of instructions from Washington; and not infrequently figures of the highest distinction, while not professional diplomats, find their way into the ambassadorial ranks, including as examples Ellsworth Bunker, David Bruce, Averell Harriman, Douglas Dillon, and Sol Linowitz in recent times. Increased professionalism does not necessarily solve all problems.

The case for amateurism as a general approach, however, is not at all persuasive. As AFSA has pointed out repeatedly over the years, its opposition as the U.S. Foreign Service’s professional organization is not to all political appointees because many are well qualified, but the Association is concerned by those who are not.
American Diplomacy associates itself with this position. Unprofessional behavior and actions by spoils-system American ambassadors too often have proved to be an embarrassment abroad. The nation deserves better.

I conclude with a remark that, while perhaps as overstated as the one with which I led off this commentary, quite naturally supports my position:

“Even in those cases where success has attended the efforts of an amateur diplomat, the example must regarded as an exception, for it is a commonplace of human experience that skilled work requires a skilled workman.”

François de Callières,
On the Manner of Negotiating with Princes
(1716)




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