Here’s a dirty little secret about American diplomacy — presidents sell ambassadorships. To an extent unrivaled among other major countries, U.S. presidents unabashedly gift plum ambassadorships to generous contributors. Currently, 42 percent of ambassadors are political appointees, a figure substantially higher than that of previous administrations. Meanwhile, career Foreign Service Officers with decades of experience, language expertise and an understanding of foreign cultures are often passed over.
The U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom, whose diplomatic qualifications included owning the New York Jets, living in Trump Tower International and being an heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune, donated over $1 million to Republican campaigns. President Donald Trump’s first ambassador to Canada was a business consultant from Kentucky. She and her husband, a billionaire coal executive, donated $2 million to the Trump campaign. The U.S. ambassador to France and Monaco, another Trump political appointee, previously owned the Los Angeles Dodgers and has written a cookbook. She donated more than $400,000 to the Trump Victory fund, $50,800 to the Trump inauguration, and more than $170,000 to the Republican National Committee.
While the Trump administration is worse than most, the Obama administration was only a little better. Cynthia Stroum, a venture capitalist, donated more than $500,000 to the Obama campaign and gave $300,000 for his inauguration ceremonies before being named ambassador to Luxembourg. As ambassador, her management style was characterized by the State Department’s Office of the Inspector General as “aggressive, bullying, hostile, and intimidating.” The OIG also reported on her questionable expenditures on travel, wine, and liquor. Diplomats serving in her embassy asked to be transferred to Iraq or Afghanistan.
We’ve recently seen several ambassadors testify in the impeachment inquiries. Political appointee Gordon Sondland, a multimillionaire West Coast hotelier, directed his companies to donate around $1 million to the Trump coffers before being nominated as ambassador to the European Union. He worked with Rudy Giuliani to foster the president’s objectives in Ukraine, despite the fact Ukraine is not in the European Union. Career ambassadors with decades of diplomatic experience also testified, including Marie Yovanovitch, David Hale, and Michael McKinley. I entered the Foreign Service in the same orientation class as McKinley and we learned the ropes of our new profession side by side. He went on to serve with distinction as U.S. ambassador to Peru, Colombia, Brazil, and Afghanistan. He resigned in disgust at the way the Trump administration is treating career diplomats.
Doling out ambassadorships to rich donors is a legacy of the spoils system, but we Iowans have the opportunity to help curtail this corrupt practice. How? We can use the frenzied focus on Iowa caucus-goers to elicit a public pledge from each of the presidential candidates and their campaigns to limit political appointees to no more than 10 percent of ambassadorships. America, and the other countries of the world, would thank us.
Ron McMullen, a former career diplomat and ambassador to Eritrea, teaches at the University of Iowa.