So far, only one ambassadorial nomination has been confirmed by the Trump team: South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who has been tapped to become U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. The U.N. position has gone to a number of rising political stars in the past, but Haley, a rising Republican with experience working on trade and labor issues, has little foreign-policy experience.
A president picking someone with little or no foreign or diplomatic experience to be an ambassador is not unusual, though. In fact, it’s a largely accepted norm in the United States — although few other countries follow suit.
Over the past few decades, about 30 percent of all ambassadors have been “political” nominees, according to information from the American Foreign Service Association. The other 70 percent were career diplomats who worked their way up through the Foreign Service.
Although many political appointees may be chosen because of their suitability for the job, there is also a questionable but long-standing tradition of awarding ambassadorships to campaign donors or bundlers, too. President Richard M. Nixon can be heard telling his White House chief of staff, in a 1971 recording released decades later as part of the “Nixon Tapes,” that “anybody who wants to be an ambassador must at least give $250,000.”
Sometimes these appointees do not necessarily seem qualified for the job. When President Obama nominated hotel magnate and campaign bundler George Tsunis to become U.S. ambassador to Norway in 2014, Tsunis was publicly grilled about his knowledge, or lack thereof, of the nation by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). His response, one Norwegian outlet said, was “faltering, incoherent.”
Tsunis’s bid to become ambassador to Norway eventually failed, but most political nominees make it through. Many perform without incident during their few years in the job, but some do not. Cynthia Stroum, who served as the ambassador to Luxembourg between 2009 and 2011 after being a major Obama donor, was later accused by officials from the State Department’s Inspector General’s Office of bringing “major elements of Embassy Luxembourg to a state of dysfunction” with her confrontational management style, among other problems.
Supporters of the system suggest that political appointees may have close ties to the president, gaining them stature with their hosts, or they may simply be particularly competent. Investment banker Felix Rohatyn was named ambassador to France by President Bill Clinton in 1997. By the time he left in 2000, he had an enviable reputation as an expert in French politics and was a valuable asset for Washington. “He probably knew as many people in Paris as he did in New York,” Henri Barkey, a former State Department official, later wrote for The Washington Post.
What’s certainly true is that political appointees tend to be sent to the more comfortable postings — Western or Northern Europe, for example, or the Caribbean. Career diplomats, on the other hand, often end up in more obscure places. No political appointee has ever been nominated to a position in Central Asia, perhaps unsurprisingly.
While the State Department has a process for choosing its own career diplomats to take up ambassador spots, critics contend that the process for political appointees is opaque.
There are some constraints on political nominations to ambassadorships. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee can refuse to confirm a nominee, or the recipient country can reject the person, but such actions are rare. In theory, at least, career diplomats working under a politically appointed ambassador might constrain any inappropriate behavior.
Still, many in the foreign-policy community are dismayed by political appointments to these top diplomatic postings. Some say the practice is simply out of date. “What we have is a new spoils system,” Ted Bromund of the Heritage Foundation wrote in 2013. The term was coined by Sen. William Marcy of New York in 1828, and derived from the phrase “to the victor belong the spoils.” And the practice is virtually unheard of in most other developed democracies, although Canada and Britain use political appointees to a lesser extent. The vast majority of foreign ambassadors posted to Washington are career diplomats, and most of those who are not are at the least former senior government officials.
When Obama headed to the White House in 2009, he pledged that he would “change the ways of Washington,” but he has stuck to tradition when it comes to ambassadors: The AFSA’s records suggest he almost exactly matched the 30-70 split between political appointees and career diplomats set by previous presidents. Trump has pledged to “drain the swamp,” but his policy on ambassadors remains in the making.
There is some good news for Ivana, though. There hasn’t been a career diplomat appointed as U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic since 1995. And she may get a warm welcome. “They could not send a better U.S. ambassador to Prague,” Czech President Milos Zeman told her in a statement last week, according to Zeman’s office.