Got $1 Million to Spare? You Can Buy an Ambassadorship

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The donor-diplomat has a long and sordid history in American politics. Joe Biden should finally end it.


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By Mattathias Schwartz

Mr. Schwartz is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine who reports regularly on national security and foreign policy. He is based in Washington.

Dec. 15, 2020

George Harvey, the American ambassador to the United Kingdom, at a ball in London with the Prince of Wales on March 23, 1923.Credit…PA Images, via Getty Images

Who wouldn’t want to be an American ambassador?

Beyond the pomp and social cachet, you get a luxury residence, six-figure salary, and private school tuition for your children — a comfortable diplomatic lifestyle bankrolled by taxpayers. For decades, presidents from both parties have quietly distributed a portion of these cushy posts (often in the touristy capitals of Europe and the Caribbean) to some of their most generous campaign donors. Although the practice is technically prohibited by law, Congress has long acquiesced.

“We’re the only country in the world that does business in this way,” says Dennis Jett, a retired ambassador, career foreign service officer and professor who wrote the book “American Ambassadors.” “Nobody else has an open market on ambassadorships. If we really believed in capitalism, we would list these postings on eBay.”

The problem, as indicated by Gordon Sondland and other donor-ambassadors during the Trump administration, is that the most loyal are often the least competent. But the practice of effectively selling ambassadorships did not start with President Trump. The fact that nearly every modern president has done the same would seem to be the rare piece of evidence in support of Mr. Trump’s claim that he is no more corrupt than the Washington “swamp.” The incoming Biden administration now has a chance to prove him wrong.

The precise origins of ambassadorial graft are obscure, but one of the earliest examples can be found inside the original “smoke-filled room,” a suite at the Blackstone Hotel in Chicago, where Republican power brokers haggled into the early hours of June 12, 1920, trying to choose an agreeable presidential candidate to unite their party’s deadlocked convention. They finally settled on the stately-looking junior senator from Ohio, Warren G. Harding. One of Harding’s powerful backers was George Harvey, publisher and industrialist, who had engineered Woodrow Wilson’s ascent to the White House. After Harding won the election, he made Harvey ambassador to the Court of St. James’s in London.

Ambassador Harvey wasted no time in making a fool of himself. He showed up dressed like a minister from the previous century, in satin knee breeches and silver-buckled slippers. He gave a speech at a London club questioning whether women had souls. In another speech, delivered before the Pilgrims Society, he claimed that the United States had fought in World War I “reluctantly and laggardly” to save its own skin. Almost immediately, Harvey was condemned on both sides of the Atlantic. Harding distanced himself from his ambassador’s views.

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

Mr. Sondland, a hotelier who gave a million dollars to Mr. Trump’s inaugural committee, was made the United States ambassador to the European Union. Unlike Harvey, who had real clout, Mr. Sondland was mainly distinguished by his willingness to give away his own money. (Among his “honors,” according to his official curriculum vitae, was the purchase of a California Hyatt, crowned “transaction of the year” at the American Lodging Investment Summit.)

As ambassador, Mr. Sondland undermined his State Department colleagues by serving as a backchannel during Mr. Trump’s attempted shakedown of the Ukrainian government. He was also overheard conducting a sensitive conversation with the president on his personal cellphone in a Kyiv restaurant, a security breach that a former C.I.A. official called “insane.”

Under Presidents Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, roughly 70 percent of ambassadorial posts went to Foreign Service Officers — professionals who spent years training for such a post. The other 30 percent have been political appointments. Some of those are competent foreign-policy veterans; others have country expertise from working in business or the nonprofit sector; still others are chiefly qualified by their willingness to pour money into their patron’s political campaign. Under Mr. Trump, the number of political appointments rose to 43 percent.

The history of American diplomacy is replete with presidential cronies who get their coveted ambassadorships only to find themselves in over their heads. Franklin Roosevelt sent the Democratic backer Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. as his envoy to the United Kingdom. Like Harvey, Kennedy proved to be a headstrong magnate who couldn’t control his isolationist streak. He predicted that “democracy is finished in England,” after the Battle of Britain and resigned soon after.

Over the following decades, as the costs of campaigning rose, money took the place of back-room influence as the key criterion for would-be ambassadors. Richard Nixon’s lawyer put an explicit price tag on an ambassadorship — $250,000 for Costa Rica — then denied having done so to a grand jury. One of his appointed donors, Vincent de Roulet, called his Jamaican hosts “idiots” and “children.” De Roulet’s attempts to protect American bauxite interests by threatening to interfere in Jamaican elections were not well-received by the host government. In 1973, Jamaica declared him persona non grata; he resigned in disgrace.

President Jimmy Carter attempted to reform the system, promising a merit-based process overseen by a bipartisan screening board, and Congress made another attempt to limit political appointments with the Foreign Service Act of 1980. But the pay-for-play system continued, spurred on by campaign costs and the aspirations of the wealthy.

William A. Wilson, a longtime friend and backer of Ronald Reagan’s, was made the first United States ambassador to the Vatican, a post he held until 1986, when reports surfaced of his unauthorized meeting with the Libyan dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi, which flouted White House policy.

George Tsunis, another wealthy hotelier, raised $1.3 million for Mr. Obama and was his choice to be ambassador to Norway. Mr. Tsunis proved so ignorant of the country in his confirmation hearing that the Senate sat on his nomination for more than a year. Mr. Tsunis eventually gave up. Three other Obama backers who made it through the confirmation process for other assignments resigned in the midst of scathing reports on their management from the State Department’s inspector general.

Under Mr. Trump, the inspector general has reportedly examined allegations of racist and sexist remarks by Woody Johnson, a seven-figure donor who became ambassador to the United Kingdom. Jeffrey Ross Guntner, Mr. Trump’s donor-ambassador to Iceland, reportedly wanted to manage the embassy remotely, from California, through the coronavirus pandemic. Kelly Craft, currently ambassador to the United Nations, spent more than 300 days traveling outside the country during her brief tour as donor-ambassador to Canada.

President-elect Joe Biden, who had a clear view 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 unclear whether he will.

While his primary opponent Sen. Elizabeth Warren vowed that no ambassadorial posts would go to donors or bundlers, Mr. Biden demurred when asked about the issue earlier this month, saying only that he would “appoint the best people possible.” Sen. Tim Kaine, a Democrat from Virginia, has sponsored a bill that would require would-be ambassadors to disclose their country knowledge and language skills in detail, along with any political contributions given or bundled over the previous 10 years.

Ambassadors are responsible for hundreds of government employees and have a hand in most every aspect of American policy within the borders of their host nation. “Would you want a campaign contributor to be the captain of an aircraft carrier?” asked Mr. Jett, the retired foreign service officer and author. “Obviously not. This is a national security issue.”

Beyond the inherent risk of giving such a sensitive job to anyone but the most competent candidate, the practice of nominating donors demoralizes the foreign service, wastes opportunities to develop future leaders, and presents the world with a cynical face. It is an especially dangerous practice when Mr. Trump has been working to reframe foreign policy as a more contingent set of arrangements where there are no permanent bonds, only interests.

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

Mattathias Schwartz (@schwartzesque) is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine. He is also a contributing editor for Rest of World and a former staff writer at The New Yorker, where he won the Livingston Award for international reporting.

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