America’s diplomats are shuddering at the notion that Donald Trump, if elected president, will send unqualified cronies around the world as ambassadors, exporting his bombastic style to sensitive jobs that represent the face of the United States.
As the presidential election draws closer, many career diplomats are uncertain about their future should the Republican presidential nominee and his unorthodox foreign policy positions triumph. And while plenty of them are wary of how Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton — a former secretary of state who will owe a lot of favors — will shape her administration, Trump is by far the bigger unknown.
“He probably has no idea what the foreign service is,” lamented one person with deep knowledge of the U.S. diplomatic corps. “At least with her we know who half the people who will get these jobs will be. With him we have no idea.”
Career foreign service officers have long been skittish about outsiders — so-called political appointees — being given top gigs abroad, especially when those appointees appear to be getting rewarded for campaign donations. The career diplomats argue that foreign service jobs carry special weight among the numerous U.S. government posts because they can directly impact national security. U.S. ambassadors — who serve in virtually every nation from Russia to Suriname — can play critical roles in everything from peace talks to human rights advocacy.
The rise of Trump this year is adding an edge to what otherwise would be routine efforts to get the candidates to pay lip service to the importance of a qualified diplomatic corps.
The American Foreign Service Association, a non-partisan union representing U.S. diplomats, is agonizing over the topic. The group debated sending letters to the Clinton and Trump campaigns urging them to keep political appointments to a minimum, but now plans to wait until the election is over and approach whoever wins. Once the new Congress is sworn in, AFSA also will likely reach out to relevant committee chairmen and ranking members to make its case for giving preference in appointments to career diplomats.
Like some of his predecessors, President Barack Obama has been criticized for handing out plum diplomatic posts to prominent campaign donors. According to one analysis, Obama has named at least 29 campaign bundlers to ambassadorships, many of them in posh Western European nations. They include Matthew Barzun, a business executive named ambassador to the United Kingdom; earlier this year, in a discussion about the U.S.-British relationship, Barzun told the British media that he and his wife were in couples therapy, and suggested there were diplomatic lessons to be learned from the openness and honesty that process requires.
But Barzun was considered relatively qualified — he had served as the U.S. ambassador to Sweden during Obama’s first term. Republicans have mocked some of Obama’s other nominees, such as those for Hungary and Argentina, for stumbling on questions about the countries they were assigned to or for never having been there. The Senate held up numerous ambassadors’ confirmations for months over a variety of objections.
Around 30 percent of Obama’s ambassador appointments have been “political,” according to statistics kept by AFSA. That’s in line with most of Obama’s predecessors dating to the Gerald Ford era. (Ford and Ronald Reagan roughly tie for the highest portion of political appointees to ambassadorships — 38 percent.) The American Academy of Diplomacy has found the trends are more stark in top-ranking State Department jobs that are not ambassadorships. From 1975 to 2014 the number of career foreign service officers in positions ranking from assistant secretary and above fell from around 60 percent to around 30 percent, an academy report found.
Skeptics of political appointees argue that it’s important to look beyond top-line statistics: Countries, such as Sweden, Belgium or Norway, that routinely get political appointees as ambassadors can in the long run feel undervalued as allies. Still, few career diplomats say political appointees should be abolished altogether. The tradition is as old as the republic — Benjamin Franklin, technically speaking, was a political appointee when he served as U.S. ambassador to France.
Some countries may even prefer having a political appointee as the U.S. ambassador because of the belief that person is a heavy-hitter who is more likely to have the president’s ear than a traditional State Department employee. Generally speaking, the tougher, less-glamorous assignments — such as Pakistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, or Yemen — tend to go to career diplomats, statistics show. At the same time, there is a fear among some diplomats that increasingly sensitive posts — in a country such as Hungary, for instance, which is veering toward autocracy — are going to political appointees with little relevant experience.
“You wouldn’t drive on a bridge that wasn’t built by an engineer or brush your teeth with toothpaste that wasn’t certified by a chemist, but Americans believe that anyone can do foreign policy,” quipped Ron Neumann, a longtime career foreign service officer who is now president of the American Academy of Diplomacy.
Trump’s candidacy already has rattled U.S. relationships abroad.
The Republican has insulted several of America’s allies, including Japan and Mexico, over the issue of trade. He’s questioned the basic premise of NATO, while suggesting he wouldn’t mind if more countries obtained nuclear weapons. At the same time, he’s spoken kindly of Russia, a country with which the U.S. is repeatedly at odds.
The real estate mogul has struggled to attract top talent to his campaign staff, leaving diplomats to wonder how he will fill numerous jobs if many people don’t want to work for him. His reputation for vindictiveness also is leading to worries about how he will view certain segments of the government.
Neumann pointed out that dozens of retired diplomats had signed a recent letter denouncing Trump. “When so many career officers — even former officers — speak out against him, it has the downside risk that the Trump administration will say, ‘They’re all disloyal. We’re going to have to appoint nearly all outsiders.'” Neumann said.
Trump “doesn’t know the foreign service community the way most incoming presidents do,” said one recently retired ambassador, who, like several sources interviewed for this story, declined to be named to avoid potential future career peril. “Does that mean we get a lot of New York businessmen in these jobs? Maybe.”
Already, there is speculation that Trump may name former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani as his ambassador to Mexico, the country the Republican insists must pay for a border wall to keep out illegal immigrants.
Trump’s affection for Russia is of special concern for the diplomatic corps. The Manhattan billionaire has had a number of advisers with Russian connections. The Russian government also is widely believed to be using hacking and Kremlin-backed media outlets to skew the U.S. election in Trump’s favor.
“I find disturbing many of the statements that advisers to Donald Trump have made about Russia. I would be worried if one of these advisers became our next U.S. ambassador to Russia,” said Michael McFaul, himself a former U.S. ambassador to Russia (and one of the few who was a political appointee).
The Trump campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Clinton is well-respected in the U.S. diplomatic corps, many of whom served her when she was secretary of state. But she has such a long history in elite U.S. circles, not to mention a ton of campaign donors, that it’s hard to imagine she won’t offer a significant number of them ambassadorships or other important positions. Her campaign declined to comment.
A recently retired foreign service officer said that, no matter who wins November’s election, the American penchant for political appointments is undercutting U.S. anti-corruption initiatives around the world. It’s hard to warn other nations against the dangers of cronyism or selling political office when so many of your ambassadors were campaign bundlers.
“The reality is it gets worse every cycle because of the importance of money in campaigns,” he said.
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