Why our ambassadors need to be rich

I've found the rumors that Anna Wintour could be named ambassador to  Britain surprising. Being empress of Vogue and the unofficial head of the fashion world seems like a more interesting job, and my understanding is it provides plenty of opportunities to travel to London, if that's important to you. But to each their own.


Sufficient operating budget not included. (Brendan Hoffman – GETTY IMAGES)

As to why the Obama administration might be interested in making Wintour  ambassador to the Court of St. James, that seems obvious: It's a reward for being a generous fundraiser. These kinds of appointments happen all the time. In fact, 31 percent of ambassadors are political appointees and, wouldn't you know it, they tend to be the ambassadors to fun places, like Paris, rather than tough places, like Iraq.

But Business Week says that there's more to it than that. As a rule, big fundraisers tend to be rich themselves. And that's apparently something of an important qualification for ambassadorships to wealthy countries, where the budget doesn't come anywhere near covering the cost of the job:

The funds embassies receive from the U.S. Department of State don’t begin to cover the high costs of the frequent parties and dinners ambassadors are expected to host. Some wind up paying more than $1 million a year out of their own pockets, according to one of the president’s top donors who requested anonymity because he didn’t want to discuss private conversations.

This is why the high-profile postings to places like France and Italy typically go to wealthy donors, rather than career diplomats. The current ambassador to the U.K., Louis Susman, a former Chicago investment banker, holds three to four social events a week, says an embassy spokeswoman, who declined to give a cost estimate for these soirees. “Political ambassadors have more resources and are able to entertain a little bit more lavishly,” says Mel Sembler, a Florida Republican fundraiser and former ambassador to Australia under George H.W. Bush and to Italy under George W. Bush. “We did spend more than our budget, because that’s the way we entertain.”

Whether all this entertaining is actually necessary is a question for more experienced diplomatic minds than mine. But with Congress steadfast in its unwillingness to increase embassy budgets, the tendency to name rich benefactors to these positions is an interesting kind of award. The White House makes it seem as if they're doing their donors a favor. In fact, they're asking them to pony up some more.

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Brad Plumer · December 29, 2012