Politically Appointed Ambassadors May Not Be As Effective

Now that President Obama's second term is under way, there is news of new ambassador postings that include a number of high-profile donors such as Caroline Kennedy, who's expected to be named the next U.S. ambassador to Japan. Robert Siegel talks with Susan R. Johnson, president of the American Foreign Service Association, about political ambassadorships and what opportunities and pitfalls they present.

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President Obama is reported to be considering Caroline Kennedy for ambassador to Japan. She would succeed a political appointee in Tokyo, a Silicon Valley lawyer and donor to the Obama campaign. For Britain, Bloomberg News and others report that the Obama campaign finance chair, Matthew Barzun, is the leading candidate. A hedge fund manager, evidently, has the inside track on France. This is an old tradition of generous donors getting plum embassy assignments. And we wondered how it looks these days to career diplomats.

Well, Susan Rockwell Johnson is president of the American Foreign Service Association. She is a career foreign service officer who has served in Bosnia, Cuba, Baghdad, Romania, Mauritius and Russia, among other assignments. Welcome.

SUSAN ROCKWELL JOHNSON: Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: In the never-ending competition over ambassadorships that go to career diplomats and those that go to political appointees, how do the Obama appointees generally shape up?

JOHNSON: Well, pretty much the same as appointees by other presidents, to be fair. He is at the 30-plus percent and it remains to be seen what he'll do in his second term. We certainly hope that he will keep in mind the negative impact that we believe this has had on the institution and on the State Department. It's weakening us a cadre.

SIEGEL: What about the argument that some countries, some governments are flattered by the star power of the ambassador who's sent, or say, Caroline Kennedy? And there's always the deputy chief admission, there's always the number two who is the career diplomat.

JOHNSON: Well, let me start with there's always the number two having been a DCM to political ambassadors as well as career. It's a fallacy to think that the DCM can play the role of the ambassador. No ambassador is going to like that or tolerate it.

Secondly, it detracts from the overall strength of your embassy. I don't know if we can afford to have sort of extra people if you go on that theory that the political appointee ambassador doesn't have to really be anything except a representative figurehead or something. That's not what a really excellent ambassador can do for the United States.

But to the other question, some appointments obviously bring professional qualifications and knowledge that is appropriate, and who, by virtue of their outstanding qualities as people, can bring a contribution to diplomacy, to the mission that they're heading, to the State Department. And I think we recognize that. But those should be occasional, and that does not typify the whole range of political ambassadorships.

SIEGEL: I mean, are there simply some places that we know are going to go to career diplomats and some places that are going to go to big donors?

JOHNSON: Well, I think the statistics show you that, you know, since 1980, for example, in the G8 countries - France, Italy, Japan, U.K., Canada, Germany, even Russia - you'll see Russia has a low of about 30 percent political appointees. France has a high of 100 percent. Japan comes in there at 85.7 percent of the time is a political appointee. So I think, yes, if you're a betting person, you're...

SIEGEL: So we found a true metric for how difficult our relations are with foreign countries. How common is it that we send a career diplomat there to be ambassador?

JOHNSON: Well, to the countries I mentioned, very rarely. But, I mean, China is an important country. We have important relationships with them, and we have had political ambassadors there. But usually, they have been people who are knowledgeable about China, who speak Mandarin, who are really bringing something to the equation. That has to be differentiated from a campaign contributor who perhaps has less to offer in terms of experience.

SIEGEL: Susan Rockwell Johnson, thanks for talking with us.

JOHNSON: Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: Susan Johnson is president of the American Foreign Service Association which speaks for America's career foreign service officers.

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