Do ambassadors matter?

December 24, 2013
Max Baucus, beef salesman. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Last week, President Obama nominated Sen. Max Baucus to serve as ambassador to China. It was a surprising choice for such an important post, and not just because of the Montana Democrat's professed commitment to finishing the giant tax reform project he started: The 72-year-old senator has no apparent Chinese language skills, and only a few trade promotion trips under his belt. The Chinese people have likely never heard of him, and, as my colleague Max Fisher pointed out, there were many, many more qualified people for the job.

But it also raises another question: Does an ambassador even matter all that much, anyway? Most crises seem to be dealt with by high-level administration officials, and the U.S. Trade Representative swoops in to finish off trade deals. Embassies typically have a dedicated corps of highly professional foreign service officers who do most of the day-to-day work. And in lots of cases, ambassador assignments have more to do with rewarding campaign supporters than picking the most qualified person for the job, as if just anybody could effectively advocate for the United States' interests.

I checked in with the Council of American Ambassadors, which represents people who once held the office and weren't career State Department officials -- accounting for about one-third of the total number appointed -- to ask if they would make the case for why they matter. Council president Tim Chorba, who served as ambassador to Singapore in the 1990s and now represents multinational companies in their foreign dealings, acknowledges that it's difficult to really screw things up on the job.

"Even if you're just average-ish, you'll generally have a pretty good staff at your embassy who can carry you. You have to go out of your way to make a mess of it," Chorba says, noting that he's only heard of one ambassador being "eased out" of his position, for carrying on with local women. "If you're a decent person, you'll muddle through."

At the same time, though, the position is far from insignificant. Even though the ambassador might not claim credit for completed peace treaties or trade deals, the final version is usually the product of extensive negotiations in which the ambassador is intimately involved. Especially on the trade side: More and more, Chorba says, ambassadors are expected to be salespeople for American business -- and run interference when they get into trouble.

"There's a very heavy emphasis on the ambassador as part of the sales team, in a good sense, for the United States," Chorba says. "The strength of the United States derives from its wealth, the same way the strength of Qatar derives from its oil wealth. And the ambassador and the embassy need to be advocates for that -- not only advancing opportunity for the sale of products and services, but when a problem arises, going in and solving it, helping the company to solve it and get on with their business." For example, Chorba remembers an incident from his ambassadorship when a large American food company had a contamination scare and was nearly banned by the Singaporean government until Chorba intervened to iron things out.

The Obama administration expanded the ambassadors' sales role in October, announcing an overseas economic strategy that would judge ambassadors on the amount of foreign direct investment they brought in, on top of the American exports they enabled. In China, Max Baucus -- just like ambassadors Gary Locke and Jon Huntsman before him -- will have to deal especially with American technology and financial services companies that want to be able to compete fairly for business in China's booming consumer markets. Baucus has been an advocate for free trade with China for decades, and of late has mostly focused on preserving access for Montana's beef and wheat exports, in which China is increasingly interested.

Of course, it's true that much of this stuff -- not to mention the essential but pedestrian functions of an embassy, like processing visas and getting American citizens out of binds -- is managed by lower-level staff. But an embassy without a leader people can believe in isn't as much of an asset. "A great ambassador can be the difference between a high-morale embassy team and one of average morale, and one that's just there," Chorba says. "Like the quarterback of a football team."

Oh, and as for the personal friends a president might reward with a cushy ambassadorship? That's something the countries often ask for themselves. The United States runs its ambassador picks by the host country before they're formally nominated, in case the other nations have a problem with the choice (Fiji, for example, once rejected a proposed ambassador because he was gay, but that's rare). Campaign bundlers and others who might have the president's ear are most welcome.

"They appoint them because they trust them, and they have a familiarity with them, and they can pick the phone up and say, 'Hey, John,' or 'Hey, Sally, what's the problem?'" Chorba says. "A lot of countries really, really value someone like that, because if there's an issue, that person can literally get the president on the phone in an emergency. If the person knows the president personally, it's a lot easier for the host government."

And Baucus certainly is used to talking to Obama, even if the conversation hasn't always been friendly.

Lydia DePillis is a reporter focusing on labor, business, and housing. She previously worked at The New Republic and the Washington City Paper. She's from Seattle.
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