The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion America’s ambassadorships are sold to the highest bidder. Elizabeth Warren has a plan for that.

Robert "Woody" Johnson, center, U.S. ambassador to Britain, watches a tennis match at the ATP Fever-Tree Championships tournament at Queen's Club in west London on June 23. (Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images)

This week Sir Kim Darroch, British ambassador to the United States, resigned, shortly after President Trump called him “wacky,” “very stupid” and a “pompous fool.” Trump’s public comments followed a leak of Darroch’s private assessment (which is widely shared among diplomats in Washington) of the Trump administration as insecure, dysfunctional, inept, and “diplomatically clumsy.”

Trump’s thin-skinned and reckless overreaction to the leaked cables confirmed Darroch’s assessment. But what the incident also highlighted is the striking differences between Britain’s diplomatic corps — which consists of highly trained, career ambassadors — and America’s, which frequently consists of wealthy donors who pay for their posts despite having no relevant qualifications for the job.

It’s legalized political corruption — and it’s long past time to end it.

Darroch joined Britain’s foreign office in 1976. Since then, he served across the globe, from Tokyo to Brussels. He spent four years as Britain’s envoy to the European Union and served for nearly four years as the United Kingdom’s national security adviser before being appointed as the British ambassador to the United Sates in early 2016. In short, his career was devoted to diplomacy; he had exactly 40 years of foreign affairs experience before becoming ambassador to Britain’s most important ally.

The U.S. ambassador in London couldn’t be more different. Robert “Woody” Johnson is a billionaire who inherited his wealth as the heir to the Johnson & Johnson empire. He owns the New York Jets. Johnson has precisely one relevant qualification for the job: his wallet. Johnson donated $100,000 to Trump’s victory fund in June 2016. Weeks later, in August 2016, he became a crucial Trump “bundler,” wrapping up donations from rich friends with a fundraiser that cost $10,000 and $25,000 per ticket. Five more fundraisers followed. In total, Johnson donated $280,000 to pro-Trump funds.

When Trump won, Johnson donated $1 million to Trump’s inaugural fund. The day before the inauguration, Trump announced that he was planning to nominate Johnson for the cushy posting.

Johnson’s path from donor to ambassador is hardly unique. Trump’s unconfirmed nominee for ambassador to the Bahamas, Doug Manchester, is a hotelier who, together with his wife, gave nearly $1 million to groups that supported Trump’s campaign. Trump’s unconfirmed nominee to Barbados, who has a long history of spreading fringe conspiracy theories on Twitter, pledged a large sum of money to underwrite a gala at Mar-a-Lago. Ronald Gidwitz, who has been accused of overseeing slumlike conditions in his housing projects, donated roughly $700,000 to Trump and other Republican funds before being nominated and confirmed as ambassador to Belgium.

Can you hear that sound of Trump “draining the swamp?” Ka-ching!

One could argue that Trump is merely following a long-established tradition. Barack Obama nominated dozens of “bundlers” for diplomatic posts. He picked Colleen Bell, a former soap opera producer, as ambassador to Hungary. George W. Bush was guilty of it, too, including nominating five Major League Baseball owners as ambassadors. They donated, on average, $250,000 to Republican causes in 2000.

Still, it has gotten worse under Trump. Less than a third of all ambassadors were political appointees under George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. In Trump’s first two years, that number rose to 42 percent, according to groundbreaking research by Ryan Scoville of Marquette University.

Most political appointees have paid for the privilege. Since 1980, 73 percent of political appointees to ambassadorships donated to the president who appointed them or affiliated entities, with each giving an average of $85,000. The average donation has risen under Trump, too. The average donor-turned-ambassador gave $42,117 to Obama. That figure has more than quadrupled to $189,448 under Trump.

That quid pro quo is not just corrupt but also has reduced the quality of the United States’ diplomatic corps. The overwhelming majority of career diplomats who rise through the State Department have experience in the region of their posting. For political appointees, that figure is just 15 percent. And about 6 in 10 career diplomats have relevant language expertise in their host country, compared with about 3 in 10 for political appointees.

That’s why it’s particularly welcome news that, yes, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has a plan to fix that. Her ambitious proposal to reinvigorate American diplomacy has received high praise, including some from experts who have historically backed Republican foreign policy. And, crucially, in her plan, Warren pledges that “I won’t give ambassadorial posts to wealthy donors or bundlers — period.” She also called on all other Democratic candidates to follow suit.

In just over two weeks, the Democratic candidates will again square off in two nights of debates. Each of the candidates should be asked, on the record and in front of a televised audience, whether they will commit to Warren’s courageous pledge.

The United States is the most powerful country on the planet. But it is weaker than it should be because its envoys abroad are too often charlatans and cranks rather than dedicated diplomats. It’s long past time to award ambassadorships to those with deep knowledge or deep experience rather than deep pockets.