A Diplomatic Affair
In the wake of the turbulence caused by September 11 and the invasion of Iraq, the role of the American ambassador has never been more critical. Our ambassadors represent America’s human face, and, as the personal representatives of the President, establish meaningful direct contacts with leaders, opinion makers and the public of their host countries.
Although the President and Secretary of State frequently speak directly with their counterparts in some capitals, in the great majority of cases, the United States (US) and host country dialogues take place in face-to-face meetings between ambassadors and foreign government officials. E-mails and faxes are no substitute for sitting down across a table. Public diplomacy, in which the ambassador is the key player, has become even more essential when so many abroad question US policies. Fortunately, we can take pride in the excellent job the great majority of our emissaries are doing in serving US interests.
We also can take comfort that past criticism of our tradition of appointing non-career ambassadors to about one-third of our posts has largely been muted. Career Foreign Service officers, legislators and the media now acknowledge that political appointees add value. They can be highly effective through their access to the President, the skills they have acquired in the private sector and their willingness to rock the boat without fear of career consequences.
However, some political appointees fall short in meeting their responsibilities as personal representatives of the President of the United States by their failure to serve a full term. A recent survey conducted by the Council of American Ambassadors, a nonpartisan organization of present and former non-career diplomats, reveals that too many non-career appointees resign in 24 months or less—not because of health, or other emergency contingencies or a change in administration, but for less praiseworthy reasons. Some ambassadors have sought appointment largely for reasons of prestige, while others find the work more onerous than they had expected.
To draw attention to this problem, the Council is urging the Director-General of the Foreign Service and the White House Director of Personnel to help ensure that a commitment to a full term is a prerequisite for ambassadorial nomination.
Both career and non-career ambassadors acknowledge that no matter how well they prepare for their assignments, a new post requires a minimum of six months, and more often, one year at post is needed for them to perform with maximum effectiveness. The newly appointed ambassador must establish a strong bond based upon mutual trust and respect with the Embassy staff. Relationships must be formed with host country officials, other Embassies, business and nongovernmental organization leaders and local media. And no amount of advance preparation can substitute for the ambassador getting out of the Embassy and experiencing the host country—close-up and first hand. This takes time.
When an ambassador leaves his or her post before serving a full term, a vacancy is created which usually cannot be filled in less than three or four months. While deputy chiefs of mission fill in ably during these periods, the host country inevitably views the absence of a confirmed ambassador as somehow demeaning; the United States is not taking the host country seriously. These misunderstandings can be avoided if the ambassador serves the full term for which he or she was appointed, giving the State Department the ability to plan more efficiently for the next rotation.
Avoiding truncated ambassadorial tenure by political appointees also helps build respect from our excellent career Foreign Service officers, who come up through the ranks. For them, ambassadorships are often the culminating goal of their careers. Career diplomats cannot be pleased to see a position, for which they strive so hard to achieve, casually denigrated by the premature departure of a non-career head of mission.
And not least, consideration should be given to the US taxpayer. The lengthy confirmation process, the transport of families and personal effects to and from overseas posts and the refurbishing of the ambassador’s residence are expensive. Rotating ambassadors every three years, not every 20 months, creates real savings.
The solution to the problem caused by non-career ambassadors failing to serve their full term lies both within the White House and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as well as the Foreign Service. Non-career nominees should be asked to state explicitly that barring unforeseen emergencies, if confirmed, they will justify the President’s full trust and confidence by serving a full term abroad. Those unwilling to make this commitment should be removed from consideration. Non-career ambassadors must be held to the highest professional standards of the Foreign Service. The honor they receive as personal representatives of the President should be based upon their obligation to take their appointment and service with the utmost seriousness.*
* Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in The Washington Times of December 30, 2003. It is reprinted by permission.
United States Ambassador to Hungary, 1994-1998