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Would You Like to Buy an Ambassadorship?

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Ryan McFarland
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In 2014, a number of President Obama’s US ambassador appointees were confirmed by the Senate, despite their lack of diplomacy experience. Appointees such as Noah Bryson Mamet, the new ambassador of Argentina, have never visited the country where they will be stationed.

While a president naming political appointees as ambassadors is not new, international policy experts such as Penn State International Affairs professor and retired U.S. Ambassador Dennis Jett are concerned.

In his new book “American Ambassadors: The Past, Present, and Future of America’s Diplomats,” he looks at the various paths to becoming a diplomat.

Jett joins Dan Simpson, another former ambassador and a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist, to discuss the role of ambassadors in this ever more globalized world.

Jett emphasizes that appointing ambassadors for political reasons is not an “Obama problem,” explaining that the practice has been entrenched for decades and was actually much worse in the past.

Today, Jett says, about 70% are career appointees -- that is, professional bureaucrats with an extensive set of qualifications -- while around 30% of ambassadors are political appointees, whose appointments typically follow election contributions.

Diplomats don’t necessarily need to be fluent in their nations’ languages or have an extensive travel resume, Jett explains, but to be an effective diplomat, an appointee should have strong interpersonal skills and some knowledge of the nation in question.

Simpson describes the quid-pro-quo of diplomatic appointments in exchange for political contributions as “selling jobs.” On top of that, they tend to be pleasant jobs, Simpson notes, observing that such appointments rarely involve nations that might be considered undesirable places to live. The problem, in Simpson’s view, is that when diplomatic appointments are made without solid qualifications, the public isn’t getting its money’s worth.

Although, as Jett says, politically driven ambassador appointments have been around for decades, the issue has produced more criticism and concern in recent years as nations have become more closely linked as a result of globalization. A globalized world calls for skillful, thoughtful diplomacy, which, Jett and Simpson conclude, may be beyond the capabilities of some political appointees.

In December, Jon Stewart poked fun at the political nature of ambassador appointments on "The Daily Show":

 

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