Review by Amb. (ret.) Brian E. Carlson
American Ambassadors: The Past Present and Future of America’s Diplomats by Dennis C. Jett, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, ISBN-13: 978-1137395665, 300 pp. including appendices, $34.29 (Hardcover)
When it comes to ambassadors, there are dueling narratives in America.
A persistent one is that the best ambassador is a close friend of the President, a deep-pocketed contributor who succeeded in the corporate world, or perhaps as an "up by his bootstraps" entrepreneur. This view holds that only a loyalist who shares the President's philosophy can possibly represent the United States abroad at the highest levels. Foreign affairs, especially in the hallways and drawing rooms of our most significant European allies, are too important to be left in the hands of bureaucracy-loving careerists and unimaginative time-servers, most of whom are out of touch with the real America back home.
The competing view is that our country is best served by a professional diplomat a person schooled, trained, and experienced through a career steeped in foreign policy. Such an ambassador comes to the job with essential and nuanced understanding of U.S. interests, strategies, and past tactics, as well as a finely honed ability to assess, comprehend, and negotiate with foreigners. He or she will generally be fluent in the relevant language as well as versed in the smorgasbord of issues that land on a superpower’s doorstep every day. Moreover, it is said, the career diplomat arrives with a hard-won appreciation for Washington's real and imagined needs, as well as the confidence to “call an audible” on his/her own initiative when necessary.
This debate follows a well worn path, one trod every spring at least in the Washington press when the sitting President nominates some former college roommate, a check-writing supporter, and or a fawning syncophant to a senior government position. If Dennis Jett, himself a former Ambassador and now a Penn State professor, explored only the arguments for and against the sale of ambassadorships to wealthy donors, this book would be a useful contribution. But American Ambassadors does more.
The first chapter presents something I have not seen before: a concise, practical history of American diplomatic practice. Jett proves his scholarly mettle as he traces American diplomacy’s evolution in keeping with a growing and maturing nation’s needs. He does it with an immensely readable mixture of anecdotes, statistics and fact-based arguments.
In the early years, America’s status as a new and third-rate power merited only the most modest of diplomatic establishments. As Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson insisted that America be represented abroad by “ministers” or a “chargés d’affaires” rather than ambassadors (which were thought to be emissaries of kings and emperors). As President, Jefferson showed his disdain for “Old World” formality by receiving the British ambassador at the White House, dressed in a tattered bathrobe and slippers. By 1892, however, the major European powers acknowledged the increasing importance of the United States by raising their Washington diplomats from ministers to ambassadors. And, the following year, Congress responded by creating that rank in the United States diplomatic service. Even so, it was not until the 1960’s that almost every U.S. embassy came to be headed by an ambassador.
During what Jett calls the middle years, from 1893 to 1960, professionalization of the diplomatic service went full steam ahead. This was the time of the 1924 Rogers Act that created a unified Foreign Service, mandated that entry and promotion to the Service be based on merit, established a personnel system for assignments, and set a retirement age of 65. It was also a high water point for the State Department; in four consecutive State of the Union speeches from 1908 to 1912 President William Howard Taft devoted substantial time to describing what he had done to improve the Department of State and calling on Congress to legislate reforms for American diplomacy. Presidents Taft and Roosevelt not only pressed for professionalization, but also called for an end to partisanship in matters of foreign policy.
In the last sixty years, Jett notes, “professionalism hit its limit,” at least in terms of ambassadors. His numbers and charts tell the story. While a general 70:30 ratio of career to political appointees has prevailed overall since 1960, it is also clear that Democratic incumbents have some of the highest ratios (39 and 40 percent for Kennedy and Johnson) of political appointees nominated. Without going into the numbers, Jett also describes the controversy that erupted over Obama’s nominations in early 2014.
Scholars and Foreign Service Officers as well as political nominees will appreciate Ambassador Jett’s description of the ways to get to the ambassador’s chair. There’s a chapter for the traditional route via the career path, and another for the non-traditional route a shorter and less arduous path. Nevertheless, both have one thing in common: merit is a factor.
The chapter on the career route to the top begins at the bottom, with the entrance exam to the Foreign Service and the qualities the Department seeks in candidates. Some FSO’s might dismiss this as unnecessary information, but in a scholarly approach is it beneficial to see how the skills and characteristics sought in entry level officers are replicated in the Department’s own internal criteria for selecting ambassador nominees. It also serves to highlight what is not required of political nominees by the White House selection process, regardless of party.
The chapter on the non-traditional route to the right rear seat in the black limousine is heavy on anecdotes. Jett sought to interview previous directors of White House personnel operations and to explain the processes followed by various administrations. It’s a tough job, because every White House operation is distinct from every other. There are no rules at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. If Jett displays a little pique with the Republican administrations, especially Reagan’s, it may be because he thinks Reagan and his team deserved it. “If the president believes career officers cannot be trusted to implement foreign policy, then the White House will push harder to put more men and women who share that president’s philosophy in such positions than there were in the past. That is exactly what happened in the case of the Reagan administration.” The author seems not to notice that history may be repeating itself in the Obama administration if the American Foreign Service Association and the American Academy of Diplomacy are to be believed.
American Ambassadors is an enjoyable read owing to the many colorful anecdotes that pepper what might otherwise be a dry disambiguation of diplomatic bureaucracy. In the chapter on getting confirmed once you’re nominated, there is the wonderful story of Hassan Nemazee, a citizen of Iran until just two years before his nomination by President Clinton in January 1999 to be U.S. ambassador to Argentina. Nemazee was so convinced that he would be confirmed that he traveled to Buenos Aires and told embassy officials what kind of furniture he wanted in his office. It’s a cautionary tale Nemazee never got to enjoy the furniture he picked out, even though later he did get to live in government housing. (He plead guilty to running a Ponzi scheme from 1998 to 2009 and got a twelve and a half year sentence in a federal facility.)
This book is especially useful for the chapter “What an Ambassador Does.” Library bookshelves abound with memoirs and autobiographies recounting what some ambassadors have done or how they saw their job. But, the State Department seems unable to say what are the qualifications for an ambassador, or what an ambassador is expected to do. (The ever-changing syllabus for the two-week Ambassadorial Seminar (“charm school”) for new chiefs of mission testifies to the Department’s institutional indecision.)
The fact that it fell to the employees’ association, the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), to issue “Guidelines for Successful Performance as a Chief of Mission” says a lot about the Department’s inability to write a useful position description. Even if guidelines existed, they would do little to improve the quality of ambassadorial nominees. “Expcecting that those who cannot meet the guidelines are going to decide not to apply for the job is the equivalent of thinking that describing virtue will rid the world of sinners” concludes Jett.
In the final chapter, “Why It Matters and How It Might Be Changed,” the author sums up the discussion: “There are several arguments offered for why there should be political appointee ambassadors, but most of them fall apart in practice.” Take the loyalty question: career officers know they serve the president in power, and there is no faster way to Foreign Service oblivion than to pursue a competing agenda. Or, as a New York Times reporter once confided to the director of the State Department press office, “Only the political appointees leak. The career guys don’t dare.”
In this final chapter the author wanders off into a discussion of some specific narrow issues (American exceptionalism, globalization, tax treaties, Law of the Sea, rights of the disabled, rights of children) with no clear explanation why they are in this book. Yes, they are important issues that come up everywhere, and they may especially bedevil one or another embassy, but it’s hard to understand why they are in this book at this place.
That is however a small complaint for a book which otherwise fills a niche on the diplomacy bookshelf. The fact is, American national security depends on effective diplomacy. Military power can win battles and destroy the enemy, but it does not forge the relationships among friends and allies that assure America’s safety, peace and prosperity. For that, you need a strong and capable Department of State, which in turn depends on smart, experienced and capable diplomats. They deserve great leaders.
American Ambassadors makes that case.