In 1995, I wrote an op-ed published in the International Herald Tribute entitled “No More Embassies for Sale, Please.” I argued for an end to the long-standing, bipartisan practice of appointing wealthy donors with limited foreign policy knowledge from the Presidential victor’s camp to plum ambassadorships, usually numbering 30 to 40% of the total. In the 20 years since, we have gone through five presidential election cycles and, therefore, five cycles of political appointments with, I would maintain, no abatement of the practice.
But with the election of Donald Trump, we are at a unique juncture. There is an opportunity now to break away from this custom. No President-elect in the modern era has arrived at inauguration with as few debts to large campaign contributors. President-elect Trump ran a highly unconventional campaign, largely on his own nickel. He was outspent by a huge margin–and won. No President-elect arrives less beholden to big contributors.
He has few debts as well to media and entrenched elites. Pundits and talking heads of the big networks, the editorial boards of major newspapers and think tanks, the circle of Washington insiders, all preponderantly were consistently critical or actively hostile. Viewing current coverage, they will be unlikely in my estimation in coming months to extend the incoming President even the ordinary benefit of doubt accorded other new Presidents.
President-elect Trump’s electoral debts are owed only to millions of everyday Americans who are counting on him to bypass the big donor class and leapfrog the media and the establishment to speak to and for them and to listen to their voice. They are counting on him to (borrowing from Frank Sinatra) do it his way, that is, the way he promised them. And his way includes getting things done efficiently and effectively (think of the bang-for-the-buck ratio that the Trump campaign achieved!) and with a laser focus on what’s best for America.
What’s best for America in foreign policy, I would maintain now as I did in 1995, is to staff embassies with citizen-ambassadors who first and foremost share the President’s vision and values and are knowledgeable about international affairs, willing to immerse themselves in learning about the countries to which they will be posted, and equipped with the particular qualities that will enable them to be eloquent, persuasive representatives.
An ambassador is the President’s personal representative to a foreign country–his eyes, ears, and spokesperson on the ground. The prerequisite for nomination to this critical position is the recognition that foreign policy is, indeed, a federal responsibility and that Americans elect a President to define and articulate their values and priorities in terms of a viable and coherent foreign policy. Our senior diplomat in a foreign country must be in tune with those values and priorities as the President sees them.
The antidote to the habit of rewarding donors isn’t the appointment of more career diplomats to ambassadorships. We depend on such technicians for their skills and knowledge–their expertise–but it is, ultimately, the American people who choose our foreign policy values and priorities when they elect a President. Career service officers, while valuable, hold no monopoly on diplomatic skills and, unfortunately, too often bring their own baggage in the form of prejudices against the elected President and their own career objectives. Uppermost, the senior representative of the President in a foreign country needs to understand and share wholeheartedly the President’s policy goals and vision.
There are many Americans among Trump supporters–in business, academia, and other sectors–who have the requisite knowledge and skills to make great citizen-ambassadors and who, because of their accomplishments in the private sector, could take on the responsibilities of representing America in the mold and spirit of a Benjamin Franklin or John Jay (among our first citizen-ambassadors), that is to say, as an act of selfless national service.
At this critical point, we need such citizen-ambassadors more than ever. Providentially, we have the opportunity because of the unique, paradigm-shattering circumstances of Donald Trump’s election to see them appointed in significant, game-changing numbers.
Ambassador Faith Whittlesey served as U.S. Ambassador to Switzerland from 1981 to 1983, and again from 1985 to 1988. Between her terms as Ambassador, she served as a Member of the White House Senior Staff for President Ronald Reagan.