Take a quick peek at President Trump's ambassador appointments. Most are pretty ordinary by American standards, a mix of big-time Republican donors (many with at least a little foreign policy experience) and GOP politicians like former senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (Tex.) and Jon Huntsman Jr., an experienced ambassador and former Utah governor.
There's one name that is causing a stir, however: Pete Hoekstra.
Hoekstra was tapped to serve in the Netherlands, where he lived until he was 3. The eight-term congressman from Michigan (Fun fact: His district, home to Holland, Mich., has one of the highest concentrations of Dutch people in the country) established the Dutch Congressional Caucus in the House. “His personal memories of the Netherlands are minimal, but he feels the cultural connection with our country really strongly,” journalist Wouter Zwart told the Netherland Times. He “combines rich political experience in America with a lifelong love for the Netherlands, because that is where his roots are.”
So far, so good. But some of his positions put him deeply at odds with the Dutch.
Hoekstra is one of the founders of the tea party movement. He is also a fervent opponent of same-sex marriage and abortion rights. While in office, he co-sponsored nine anti-LGBT bills, including the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act. He has also backed efforts to restrict same-sex adoption and refused to adopt a nondiscrimination policy against LGBTQ people in his own office.
He's a strong advocate of the death penalty and an immigration hard-liner. He has spoken at meetings of the anti-Islam American Freedom Alliance (so has Dutch far-right politician Geert Wilders) and once blamed a “secret jihad” for the “chaos” in the Netherlands, saying, “Cars are being set on fire. Politicians are being set on fire … yes, there are no-go zones in the Netherlands.”
That doesn't sit well with the Dutch, who see their country as one of the most progressive in the world. The Netherlands was the first country to approve same-sex marriage, and it boasts a fairly open immigration policy.
The Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant took aim at Hoekstra, observing that Trump “put a Dutchman in the Netherlands — but it is a Dutchman from the Netherlands of the '50s.” Of the appointment, liberal politician Sophie in ‘t Veld said, “We are looking forward with interest to cooperating with Mr. Hoekstra. We will certainly remind him his roots lie in a country that values tolerance, equality and inclusion … we expect the representative of our friend and ally the United States to fully and wholly respect our values and to show that respect in all his acts and words.”
And, experts say, it's fairly unusual to appoint someone so at odds with a country's politics, particularly when it's an ally. “Generally speaking, presidents do not consciously nominate people who would tend to raise hackles within the host country,” said Stewart M. Patrick, a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations.
Usually, presidents only do that when they're trying to make a point to a problematic regime. He pointed to Smith Hempstone, a journalist who served as ambassador to Kenya between 1989 and 1993. Hempstone was an “effective, aggressively undiplomatic critic of the country's ruler, Daniel arap Moi.” He was credited with helping shepherd Kenya toward multiparty elections.
Patrick said, though, that presidents generally appoint people whose political views line up with their own. He suspects Hoekstra will not struggle to build bridges with the Dutch government, particularly if he avoids lighting-rod social issues. (Hoekstra, for his part, suggested in a 2006 interview that he'll do just that. “It is clear that the Netherlands has made a different choice in a number of areas than the USA,” he said. “You must respect that as a foreign politician, even though you have a different opinion.")
Patrick noted that Hoekstra has a strong policy background and familiarity with national security issues, “even if some of his prescriptions are different than those that the Dutch government itself would be leaning toward.”
“It's not as if in this case the president is appointing someone who doesn't know where the country is,” Patrick said.
That is, more often than not, the problem with political ambassador appointees. About a third of all American ambassadorships go to political appointees, a highly unusual system that allows presidents of both parties to reward political allies with cushy assignments in glitzy capitals or glamorous locations. (The rest are career Foreign Service officers, steeped in regional knowledge and trained in the art of tough negotiation.) That has led to some embarrassing confirmation hearings.
President Barack Obama's appointee to Norway, hotel magnate George Tsunis, was slammed for displaying a “total ignorance of Norway,” in his confirmation hearing. In one flub, he categorized one of the nation's ruling parties as extremist. Obama's nominee to Argentina, Noah Bryson Mamet, had never been to the country and was not fluent in Spanish.