What Does It Take to Become an Ambassador?

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Photo credit: Hearst Made
Photo credit: Hearst Made

On July 9, President Biden announced his intent to nominate a slate of appointments for some of the world's most coveted positions. He proposed Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti as the United States ambassador to India, diplomat Denise Campbell Bauer as ambassador to the France and Monaco, career Foreign Service officer Peter D. Haas as ambassador to Bangladesh, and former Obama Foundation executive Bernadette M. Meehan as ambassador to Chile. Biden's appointments have been anticipated by the diplomatic community for months, but as the appointments were announced, it raised the question, what does it mean to be named an ambassador?

Photo credit: Gary Coronado - Getty Images
Photo credit: Gary Coronado - Getty Images

When Pamela Digby Churchill Harriman died in 1997, after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage during a swim in the pool at the Paris Ritz, an obituary in the New York Times called her “one of the most vivacious women on the international scene.”

At her funeral, held in Washington, D.C.’s National Cathedral, speakers included President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore. Later, France’s then-president Jacques Chirac honored her with a posthumous Legion of Honor medal. Still, that Times obituary continued, “however great her accomplishments, [Harriman] could never put to rest the legend of the captivating woman who snared some of the world's richest and most attractive men on two continents, marrying three of them.”

Photo credit: Images Press - Getty Images
Photo credit: Images Press - Getty Images

Indeed, Harriman—a British-born aristocrat turned Democratic fundraising powerhouse—who has been described as “the greatest courtesan of this century” had no diplomatic training. She was a poor student in her native England, described by some as what the English call “thick.” As an adult, however she found herself firmly installed at the intersection of society, power, and politics—dating Gianni Angelli and Edward R. Murrow; marrying Randolph Churchill, Leland Heyward, and W. Averill Harriman; palling around with Katharine Graham and Truman Capote. Harriman became a U.S. citizen in 1971 and went on to raise vast sums for Clinton—often through a political action committee nicknamed PamPAC—which was why her appointment as Ambassador to France in 1993 was not entirely surprising. In fact, she joined a venerable cadre of U.S. diplomats who had very little, in some cases no, experience in diplomacy when they received their posting.

Since the 1950s, presidents have consistently allocated roughly 30 percent of ambassadorial appointments to individuals who are not career diplomats—a practice known as patronage. Many of them have no background in international work at all, they’re simply rich and willing to open their wallets.

Photo credit: WILFREDO LEE - Getty Images
Photo credit: WILFREDO LEE - Getty Images

France is the oldest U.S. ally, and relations stretched back 225 years. It was a gamble putting Harriman, a former lover of Gianni Agnelli and Stavros Niarchos among others, in the position of being the highest-ranking envoy to the country. She was renowned for her parties and art collection, but not interest in trade relations. “Mrs. Harriman will never be seen as a great figure in the world of diplomacy,” Maureen Dowd wrote after Harriman’s death. “But she will be seen as a great figure in the world of salons—present at virtually every important juncture in the history of her time.”

Most of Harriman’s time at the Embassy on Avenue Gabriel—a sprawling building near Place de la Concorde where an annual July 4th celebration is one of the most coveted invitations in France—was spent hosting parties. She left the hard work of diplomacy to a respected State Department advisor, Avis Bohlen. Ambassadors always have staff, but Harriman, being a diva, became a slave-driver to her number two—probably not the only ambassador to do so.

Photo credit: WPA Pool - Getty Images
Photo credit: WPA Pool - Getty Images

Yet despite the concerns when Harriman moved in and started re-decorating, she won over some observers—and not everyone shared Dowd’s opinion. “She made herself the most successful American political ambassador of the decade,” William Pfaff wrote in the International Herald Tribune.” During her time, the Dayton Peace Accords, which ended the bloody war in Bosnia, were signed in 1995. Richard Holbrooke, the legendary diplomat who served as U.S. Ambassador to Germany and the United Nations, was one of her fans. So was the French intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy.

The Trump administration awarded more than 40 percent of appointments to individuals who were supporters but not foreign service officers. Robert Wood Johnson IV, heir to the Johnson and Johnson fortune and co-owner of the New York Jets, got the coveted Court of St. James in England; Carla Sands, a chiropractor, was named Ambassador to Denmark; David Friedman, a bankruptcy lawyer who represented Trump, snagged Ambassador to Israel, a crucial post; the handbag designer Lana Marks was dispatched as Ambassador to South Africa; Callista Gingrich, the author wife of Newt—a jet-set plus-one who New York said had “the cushiest gig in Europe”—was the Ambassador to the Holy See.

Trump used the political appointees more than many presidents, but one of the most disputed appointments in recent memory took place during the Obama administration. Colleen Bradley Bell, best known for producing the soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful, was appointed Ambassador to Hungary. The Washington Post said Bell came to “symbolize the problems with giving plum overseas diplomatic assignments to big political donors.” Ouch.

Photo credit: SAUL LOEB - Getty Images
Photo credit: SAUL LOEB - Getty Images

Her strongest critic was the late Senator John McCain who gutted Bell's lack of diplomatic experience and basic knowledge of Hungary, and pointed out that she had contributed $800,000 to Obama and bundled more than $2.1 million for his re-election.

"We're about to vote on a totally unqualified individual to be ambassador to a nation which is very important to our national security interest," McCain said during her hearings. “I am not against political appointees... I understand how the game is played, but… I urge my colleagues to put a stop to this foolishness.” James Bruno, a respected diplomat, later wrote that Bell, "could not answer questions about the United States' strategic interests in Hungary." None of this mattered. Bell went blithely to Budapest.

“I have always thought the American system of rewarding embassies to big donors has a lot of weakness to it especially when compared to other countries,” Jim Bittermann, CNN's Senior Correspondent based in Paris, says, “Something I have said repeatedly is that one of the better investments in America [would be to donate] $200,000 to each of the two presidential candidates” You’d lose one of the wagers, he explains, but would probably be named ambassador to a medium-sized country.

Photo credit: Bertrand Rindoff Petroff - Getty Images
Photo credit: Bertrand Rindoff Petroff - Getty Images

Ambassadors in these coveted positions get a salary, which pays back their wager, along with staff and cocktail parties for four years “if you play your cards right,” Bittermann adds. “And who knows what that Ambassador title might be worth thereafter.” Board positions, think tank positions, and consultancies are among the usual spoils.

Bittermann is not entirely against the system. He points out there have been appointees who did well in France: Felix Rohatyn, a former managing director of the investment bank Lazard Frères and the man credited with saving New York City from bankruptcy in the 1970s; as well as Craig Stapleton, a former owner of the Texas Rangers, and Charles Rivkin, an entertainment executive and current president of the Motion Picture Association. Each had their own skills and qualifications, none were career diplomats.

Across the English Channel, “the Court of St. James has always had attracted prominent businessmen and often significant donors to the election campaigns of those Presidents under whom they have served,” says the historian Christopher Silvester. “One would have to go back to Ray Seitz in the early 1990s to find an ambassador who had previously been a career diplomat and then back even further to 1976 to find another career diplomat in Anne Armstrong, the first and only woman to date who has been U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom, though she only lasted for a year.”

Photo credit: Keystone - Getty Images
Photo credit: Keystone - Getty Images

Silvester reels off a stream of former ambassadors: Armstrong’s successor, Kingman Brewster, had been president of Yale for over a decade, while Admiral William J. Crowe, who served under President Clinton in the mid-1990s, had previously been Chief of the General Staff under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Elliot Richardson, a former U.S. Attorney General who stood up to President Nixon over Watergate, was Ambassador under Gerald Ford. “Before him there was a long string of rich businessmen, including Andrew Mellon, then Joseph P. Kennedy, Pamela Harriman’s last husband, Averell Harriman, and John Hay Whitney.”

Going further back in time, both Charles G. Dawes (1929-1931) and Frank B. Kellogg (1856-1937) were recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize (for separate reasons) and both of them had held high office back home, Kellogg as Secretary of States and Dawes as Vice President. Back in the 19th century both John Quincy Adams and Martin Van Buren had moved in the opposite direction, having served as Ministers Plenipotentiary to Great Britain (since in those days only monarchs or emperors sent ambassadors to London) before becoming U.S. Presidents.

Silvester sees no reason why the practice wouldn’t continue under President Biden. “If I were a career diplomat who played by the rules and abided bureaucracy,” he says, “it would be maddening.”

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