Richter: We can't trust our foreign policy to amateurs

For much of the country’s first 150 years, ambassadorships were distributed almost entirely to the rich and well-connected. But by the end of World War I, the public had seen enough to conclude this practice was putting some of the United States’ most crucial jobs in the hands of incompetents. It demanded action, and in 1924, Congress launched reforms that gave most ambassadorial posts to members of a newly created professional diplomatic corps.

The nearly century-old laws are overdue for an upgrade. The Ukraine scandal, and other Trump administration actions, have revealed that increasing reliance on unqualified campaign donors is threatening bilateral relationships and national security. We cannot trust our foreign policy to amateurs.

Near the center of the unfolding Ukraine scandal is Gordon Sondland, an Oregon hotelier who gave $1 million to President Donald Trump’s inaugural committee and was rewarded with the ambassadorship to the European Union. He set out to refocus the post from workaday trade issues to his president’s personal priorities. Sondland, who lacked many of the basics of diplomacy, sidestepped regular State Department channels to help Trump squeeze Ukrainian officials for assistance against his Democratic rivals. As evidence in the impeachment inquiry has mounted, Sondland has begun insisting that he failed to understand what Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani was after.

The Trump administration has been more willing than most to give ambassadorships to political appointees rather than career diplomats: More than 40 percent of its envoys are political appointees, compared with the customary 30 percent. Kelly Knight Craft, a longtime donor and the wife of a Kentucky coal magnate, was absent from her post for half the time she served as U.S. ambassador to Canada. Nevertheless, she was confirmed in July as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Of course, other administrations, Democratic and Republican, have awarded ambassadorships to unqualified financial supporters. George Tsunis, a Long Island hotelier and bundler, had to withdraw as President Barack Obama’s nominee for ambassador to Norway in 2014 after he said in a confirmation hearing that Norway had a presidency, which it does not, and misidentified a mainstream Norwegian political party as a fringe group.

Two other Obama bundlers also fumbled their hearings badly, but were confirmed anyway as ambassadors to Hungary and Argentina.

In recent years, as their needs for campaign contributions have grown, presidents have relied more heavily on donors and bundlers to serve in top posts overseas. Senators, who are supposed to reject unqualified nominees, have often approved the nominations, partly out of deference to presidents — and also because the donors are often contributors to their own campaigns.

Ryan Scoville, a Marquette University law professor, concluded after studying newly released government documents on more than 1,900 ambassadorial appointments since 1980 that the quality of political appointees has been in decades-long decline. Reagan’s political appointees were more likely than appointees of the five presidencies that followed to have foreign policy experience, language skills and familiarity with running large organizations. The average political appointee is contributing far more money — 1,400 percent more, on average, even after inflation is considered — than in the Reagan era, Scoville calculated.

Most other major powers — France, Japan, the United Kingdom — restrict their important ambassadorships to seasoned career diplomats. And the Russian leadership that Trump so admires excludes amateurs and relies entirely on professionals, such as Sergey Kislyak, who in his nine years as ambassador to Washington became legendary for his ability to reach deep into the U.S. hierarchy to extract information and make deals. Especially now, at a time when U.S. leverage in the world is declining, the United States needs the best trained envoys.

Congress should scale back the share of ambassadors who are political appointees, capping their number at no more than 10 percent of the 189 U.S. ambassadors. That would still leave room for presidents to pick accomplished businesspeople, politicians and others who are not career diplomats but have skills that would allow them to contribute as the nation’s overseas representatives.

Lawmakers should add new disclosure requirements to make clear, while nominations are under consideration, how much diplomatic nominees owe to their political donations. The State Department already posts on its website, state.gov, a rundown of nominees’ credentials; it should also post the nominees’ donations to both campaigns and related purposes, such as inaugural events.

Presidents have come to rely on sale of these posts because they are the rewards the donors and bundlers covet most. But the costs have become too high and the practice needs to stop.

— Paul Richter is author of the forthcoming book “The Ambassadors: America’s Diplomats on the Front Lines.”

Today's Bible verse

“Let us come before him with thanksgiving and extol him with music and song. For the Lord is the great God, the great King above all gods.”

— Psalm 95:2-3

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