Every president rewards some major campaign contributors by appointing them as ambassadors, but it's not a practice that's considered very beneficial for U.S. foreign policy. So when President Obama put up campaign bundler George Tsunis to become the U.S. ambassador to Norway -- even though Tsunis himself conceded at confirmation hearings that he has little idea how Norway's government functions or even the names of its major political parties -- former diplomat and Lehigh University international relations professor Henri Barkey had had enough.
"President Obama does a disservice to Norwegians, to himself and, above all, to the people of the United States by sending such an unqualified person to represent him and us in the capital of a long-standing NATO ally," Barkey wrote in a Washington Post op-ed, calling the appointment a "taxpayer-funded three-year junket to enjoy the fjords."
George Tsunis will have lots of company: 23 current U.S. ambassadors or ambassadorial nominees are political appointees who were also major campaign-donation bundlers. As a way of seeing just how pervasive this practice is, Slate and the Center for Public Integrity put together this excellent interactive map showing them all (in green), as well as a selection of other political appointees (in red) and actual career diplomats (in blue). Here is a static grab of the map :
The Slate/Public for Center Integrity story has lots of details on the bundlers and how much they gave to get their respective posts, which you should explore more fully here. I'd add a few points:
1) Some political appointees can be great ambassadors.
Don't assume that just because someone is a political appointee that they only got the job because of politics. It's true that there's some debate around whether Caroline Kennedy is the right person to be U.S. ambassador to Japan, and particularly over Obama's recent decision to send Sen. Max Baucus to Beijing, even though he has little China experience. But others make a lot more sense, such as Joseph Westphal, the current under secretary of the Army and Obama's nominee for U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia. The U.S.-Saudi relationship often includes lot of military components, and U.S. military leaders are not strangers in Riyadh, so Westphal makes sense.
2) The U.S. could use better diplomacy in Europe than it has right now.
Look at all those political bundlers representing U.S. interests in Europe! The National Security Agency programs revealed by Edward Snowden have caused significant turmoil in U.S.-European relations, which are already troubled by differences over European Union policies and by the occasional trade dispute. A recent leaked recording that purportedly has top State Department official Victoria Nuland and the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine disparaging the E.U.'s role in Kiev drives home that U.S. diplomacy in Europe is really hard and really important. Unfortunately for American interests, Europe is also the sort of place where campaign bundlers would like to be sent. This practice cannot be a good thing for the United States.
3) Maybe the U.S. has better diplomacy in places that are less desirable destinations for campaign bundlers.
There may be an upshot to all this. Career diplomats are probably, in most circumstances, also going to be the best diplomats. They're competing against campaign bundlers for assignments, though, and they seem to lose out for assignments like Belgium or Italy. Countries like Egypt and Russia are probably important enough that no administration would send a bundler there. But there's a category of countries that are not Egypt-level difficult to demand a technocratic assignment, nor Portugal-level fun that a campaign bundler gets it.
You have to wonder if some number of really talented diplomats, who in a universe without campaign bundlers would get sent to Austria or Italy, are instead getting sent to countries like Malaysia or Peru. Countries they would otherwise be too experienced or talented to be sent to. And maybe, as a result, the United States has unusually good diplomatic representation in a lot of the blue countries in this map. That could maybe have helped a little bit in sub-Saharan Africa, where, as G. Pascal Zachary argued in The Atlantic, the United States has seen significant diplomatic gains.
4) Countries don't always act in their own self-interest.
This is an abstract point, but the fact that the United States is sending badly inexperienced campaign bundlers to represent its interests in lots of important countries is a reminder that even very powerful nations like the United States sometimes sabotage their own national interests. It's just baked into our political processes, by virtue of both the importance of campaign contributions for winning elections and the fact that the Senate will allow them to be confirmed. That's true of plenty other countries, perhaps all of them, and worth keeping in mind when foreign states do things that seem at odds with their own interests.
5) It's possible that ambassadors don't matter very much.
When the White House announced it would appoint Baucus as ambassador to China, colleague Lydia Depillis questioned the backlash by asking if ambassadors actually make much difference. "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," Tim Chorba, president of the Council of American Ambassadors, told her.
You should read her post. Still, it's at least possible that ambassadors matter for shaping U.S. relations with foreign countries, and these 23 U.S. relationships certainly matter (the United Kingdom!), so it's at least worth taking them seriously.