Do you have a million dollars left? In the US you can buy an ambassador title

Gordon Sondland, former ambassador to the EU (Reuters)
Gordon Sondland, former ambassador to the EU (Reuters)

Who wouldn’t want to be an American ambassador?

Besides splendor and social prestige, they give you a luxury home, a six-figure salary, and they pay private school fees for your children; a comfortable, taxpayer-funded diplomatic lifestyle. For decades, the presidents of both parties have quietly distributed some of these comfy stalls (often in the tourist capitals of Europe and the Caribbean) to some of their most generous donors. While the practice should be prohibited by law, Congress has long agreed to it.

“We are the only country in the world to do business this way,” said Dennis Jett, retired ambassador, foreign service diplomat, professor and author of the book “American Ambassadors.” “No one else has an open embassy market. If we really believed in capitalism, we would list these stalls for sale on eBay”.

The problem, As Gordon Sondland and other donor ambassadors have shown during the Trump administration, the most loyal are often the least competent. However, the practice of selling embassies didn’t start with President Trump. The fact that nearly all modern presidents have done the same seems to be the rare evidence to support Trump’s claim that he is no more corrupt than Washington’s “swamp.” Joe Biden’s incoming government now has a chance to prove him wrong.

The exact origins of the ambassador nomination in exchange for donations is unclear, but one of the earliest examples can be found in the original ‘smoke-filled room’, a suite at Chicago’s Blackstone Hotel where Republican power brokers negotiated. in the early morning of June 12, 1920, to try to select an acceptable presidential candidate to unite his party’s convention, which had stalled. In the end, they chose the young Ohio senator, Warren G. Harding. One of Harding’s powerful financiers was George Harvey, publisher and industrial entrepreneur., who had manipulated Woodrow Wilson’s rise to the White House. After Harding won the election, he became Harvey Ambassador to the Court of St. James in London.

He Ambassador Harvey was quick to embarrass himself. He appeared dressed as a last century preacher, in knee-length satin pants and slippers with a silver buckle.. He gave a speech at a London club in which he wondered whether women had souls. In another address to the Pilgrim Society, he claimed that the United States had “reluctantly and late” fought in World War I to save its own hideout. Almost immediately, Harvey faced criticism from both sides of the Atlantic. Harding distanced himself from his ambassador’s views.

George Brinton McClellan Harvey (Photo: US Library of Congress)
George Brinton McClellan Harvey (Photo: US Library of Congress)

In 1924, Congress passed the Rogers Act, an effort to create a professional corps of career diplomats. However, the temptation to reward political allies with embassies has only grown.

Sondland, a hotelier who donated $ 1 million to the committee that organized Trump’s inauguration, has been named US Ambassador to the European Union. Unlike Harvey, who had real influence, Sondland was mainly distinguished by his willingness to give away his money (According to his resume, one of his “tributes” was the purchase of a California Hyatt, named “deal of the year” at the American Lodging Investment Summit).

As an ambassador Sondland hurt his colleagues in the State Department by serving as a secondary channel during Trump’s attempt to extort money from the Ukrainian government.. He had also heard that he had a sensitive conversation with the president on his personal cell phone at a restaurant in Kiev, a security breach that a former CIA official called “bizarre.”

Gordon Sondland had to testify before Congress for his role in the scandal with Ukraine (Reuters)
Gordon Sondland had to testify before Congress for his role in the scandal with Ukraine (Reuters)

During the presidencies of Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, George HW Bush and George W. Bush, About 70 percent of the ambassador positions were for foreign service officers, professionals who have trained for that position for years. The other 30 percent were political appointments. Some of them are skilled foreign policy veterans; Others have experience in the country having worked in the corporate or non-profit sector; others are primarily qualified by their willingness to invest money in the political campaign of their sponsors. Under Trump, the number of political appointments rose to 43 percent.

The history of American diplomacy is full of presidential cronies confiscating their coveted embassies only to be outnumbered. Franklin Roosevelt sent Democratic sponsor Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. as his envoy to the United Kingdom. Like Harvey, Kennedy turned out to be a wayward mogul who couldn’t control his isolationist streak. He predicted that “democracy in England is over” after the Battle of Britain and resigned shortly afterwards.

In the decades that followed, as campaign costs soared, money took the place of behind-the-scenes influence and became the main criteria for aspiring ambassadors. Richard Nixon’s attorney posted a label with an explicit price for an embassy, ​​$ 250,000 for Costa Rica and subsequently denied having done so before a grand jury. One of his designated donors, Vincent de Roulet, called his Jamaican hosts “idiots” and “kids.” De Roulet’s attempts to protect American interests in the use of bauxite by threatening to interfere in the Jamaican elections were not well received by the host government. In 1973 Jamaica declared him persona non grata; he resigned dishonorably.

President Jimmy Carter tried to reform the system and promised to set up a merit-based process overseen by a two-party selection council, and Congress made another attempt to restrict political appointments with the Foreign Service Act of 1980. However, the payment system for an embassy continued, stimulated by the cost of election campaigns and the aspirations of the wealthy.

William A. Wilson, a longtime friend and patron of Ronald Reagan, became the first U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, a position he held until 1986, when reports of his illicit meeting with Libyan dictator Muammar came to light. Gaddafi, who mocks White House policies.

George Tsunis, another wealthy hotelier, raised $ 1.3 million for the Obama campaign and nominated him as Norwegian ambassador.. Tsunis showed so little knowledge of the country at his hearing that the senate set aside for more than a year to announce whether he would confirm him for the job. Tsunis eventually surrendered. Three other Obama donors who have passed the confirmation process for other appointments have resigned amid scathing reports of their performance from the State Department Inspector General.

During Trump’s presidency, the inspector general reported on allegations of Racist and sexist comments from Woody Johnson, a million dollar donor who became an ambassador to the UK. As known, Jeffrey Ross Guntner, the donor turned Trump ambassador to Iceland, wanted to manage the embassy remotely, from California, during the coronavirus pandemic. Kelly Craft, the current ambassador to the United Nations, spent more than 300 days abroad during her short tour of Canada as a donor turned ambassador.

President-elect Joe Biden, who has a clear vision of this system as the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for many years, now has a chance to reform it. It is not clear whether this will happen.

While his main opponent, Senator Elizabeth Warren, vowed that no ambassador position would go to donors or fundraisers for election campaigns, Biden was reluctant when asked about the matter earlier this month. and He just said he would name “the best people possible.” Virginia Democratic Senator Tim Kaine backed a bill that would require aspiring ambassadors to disclose their knowledge of the country and their language skills in detail, along with any individual or collective political contributions made during the 10 years prior to the appointment done.

Ambassadors are in charge of hundreds of government officials and participate in almost every aspect of US politics within the borders of their host countries. “Would you like an employee of the campaign to be the captain of an aircraft carrier?Asked Jett, a writer and retired US foreign service officer. “Obviously not. It’s a matter of national security”.

Aside from the inherent risk of putting anyone other than the most skilled candidate in such a delicate job, the practice of donor nomination demoralizes foreign service, wastes opportunities to develop future leaders, and gives the world a cynical face. It is a particularly dangerous practice when, for example, in Trump’s case, it serves to reform foreign policy as a more conditional set of agreements in which there are no permanent ties, only interests.

Perhaps there was a time when American alliances were strong enough to support a few Sondlands, but that’s much less true today than it was four years ago. If Biden is serious about restoring America’s position in the world, he should entrust it to professionals.

© The New York Times 2020