The Foreign Service Journal, November 2006

P olitical-appointee ambassadors constitute a perennial source of amazement, frustration, anger and sometimes even inspiration among career diplomats and observers of American diplomacy. A June 15 International Herald Tribune column by Thomas Raleigh called for an end to, or sharp restriction of, the number of “amateur (i.e., political appointee) ambassadors.” Raleigh focuses on the general failure of such appointees to meet the standards of the Foreign Service Act of 1980, both in terms of the skills and experience necessary to do the job, and the fact that they tend to be major political donors, not for- eign policy experts. He’s correct, to be sure, as far as he goes. But there are additional rea- sons why many, perhaps most, non- career ambassadors are profoundly handicapped in fulfilling their new duties, regardless of how successful they may have been in other fields. It isn’t that the people nominated are incompetent. Rather, few people can make the shifts needed to be effec- tive in their new settings in the time they have available. First, most non-career appointees have rich political experience — but it’s in domestic politics, not interna- tional affairs. Perhaps always, but certainly in the current political cli- mate, such expertise focuses on ener- gizing the base and boxing in the opposition. The goal is to win the next election, so slogans that sepa- rate, that divide — that stress ‘you’re for us or against us’ — are most effec- tive. (Whether you like that style of politics is a different matter.) It doesn’t work that way overseas. A foreigner can like American music, complain about our fast food (while eating at McDonald’s) and enjoy a winter vacation in Florida — and still oppose our presence in Iraq, our trade policy or, simply, our promi- nence. Foreign populations don’t have to be with or against America. They can ponder choices, offer alter- natives, make distinctions. So when talking points arrive at post from the White House or the Bureau of Public Diplomacy in the State Department, written by domes- tic political experts and sounding like they were prepared for a campaign speech, they don’t merely fall on deaf ears — they tend to alienate their recipients. Instead of engaging the overseas public in order to explain our position and the reasons for it, they try to tell it what to think. Understandably, this does not work. Yet political-appointee ambassadors tend to believe such talking points are great, precisely because they sound like speeches they have heard or given before back home. No mat- ter how well they may understand how to talk to Americans of their own political party, they have trouble with the need to switch mental gears once they arrive at post. Culture and Other Shocks Second, most political appointees face massive culture shock when they enter government and arrive at an embassy. Some insist this is the fault of an entrenched career bureaucracy fighting against reasonable policy guidance from the president’s repre- sentatives. But I’ve read the business pages long enough to have seen many an article on chief executive officers who failed because they couldn’t make the adjustment from one com- pany or sector’s business culture to another’s. If that’s true within the pri- vate sector, why shouldn’t it be true in the world of diplomacy, an admitted- ly quirky corner of government? Make no mistake: the public sector is different. In government, there’s no clear, numeric bottom line by which to measure success. There’s constant oversight by both Congress and the public, which has led to all sorts of regulations and procedures alien to the private sector. Diplomacy has a special incentive to avoid unintended 14 F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L / N O V E M B E R 2 0 0 6 Political Appointees: A Cost-Benefit Analysis B Y W ILLIAM F. D AVNIE S PEAKING O UT Most political appointees face massive culture shock when they enter government and arrive at an embassy.