The American tradition of citizen diplomacy began in the 18th century when the Second Continental Congress appointed Benjamin Franklin as Minister Plenipotentiary to the Court of France.


Following in Dr. Franklin’s footsteps, Americans, including Washington Irving, James Longstreet, Ellsworth Bunker, John Sherman Cooper, C. Douglas Dillon, Michael J. Mansfield, George H. W. Bush, Paul H. Nitze and hundreds of others, have left the private sector or other governmental (non-diplomatic) responsibilities at the President’s call to serve in a diplomatic capacity on behalf of the United States.


These citizen diplomats bring to their ambassadorial assignments important knowledge and experience accumulated from successful careers in academia, business, the law, the arts, the military and political and public life.

In 1983, a group of former citizen or non-career Ambassadors met to organize the Council in an effort to support and encourage the Foreign Service, enhance the image of the State Department in the nation and in the Congress, and to recognize the achievements and contributions of non-career diplomats in the conduct of America’s foreign policy.

Kenneth Rush, former Deputy Secretary of State and Ambassador to Germany, and William J. vanden Heuvel, former Ambassador to the United Nations, served as founding Co-Chairmen. Marvin Warner, former Ambassador to Switzerland, was the founding President and Milton Wolf, former Ambassador to Austria, was Vice Chairman. Angier Biddle Duke, Averell Harriman, John Sherman Cooper and Ellsworth Bunker were there at the beginning.

Today, the Council has over 200 members, both retired and on active duty, whose service collectively extends over five decades and ten US Presidents. The Council thus represents an important and current resource whose members bridge both political parties and many Administrations and link the private and public sectors. 


Founding citizen diplomacy


America’s Founding Fathers recognized the central importance of the conduct of foreign policy and diplomacy to the new nation.  The provisions of the Constitution reflect this.  The Constitution grants Congress the power to declare war and prohibits the States from entering into “any Treaty, Alliance or Confederation.”  It gives the President the power to make treaties, “by and with the consent of the Senate,” and to “nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls…”


For almost a century and a half after the adoption of our Constitution, America’s diplomats abroad were citizens chosen and appointed for these assignments by the President through this simple, Constitutionally-prescribed process. John Jay, co-author of The Federalist Papers and later Chief Justice, served as U.S. Minister to Spain. So did Charles Pinckney, signer of the Constitution and three-time Governor of South Carolina. So, later, did famous American novelist Washington Irving – and, later still, ‘the great compromiser’, Kentucky statesman Henry Clay.


Continuing the tradition of sending prominent Americans abroad for diplomatic assignments into the 19th century, Albert Galatin, the fourth U.S. Treasury Secretary, went on to serve as U.S. Minister to France and, later, to Britain.  In much the same way, William Pinkney, the seventh U.S. Attorney General, went on to serve as Minister to Russia and, later, to Great Britain. 


Developing the modern U.S. Foreign Service


Obviously, not every American appointed for diplomatic service over such a long period enjoyed equally prominent or heroic backgrounds.  But just as obviously, over time, the same names began to turn up in successive assignments to different countries, particularly among the Latin American republics and among Europe’s kingdoms, but occasionally even transferring between European capitals and China.  Inevitably, ‘experienced hands’ and knowledgeable individuals – William Short, Richard Henry Bayard, Cassius Marcellus Clay, Thomas Cleland Dawson, Horace Greeley Knowles, William Worthington Russell -- would be reappointed or transferred from one overseas posting to another.


With the emergence of the United States as a world power in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War, the world voyage of the Great White Fleet, and the United States entry into World War I, the evident need to regularize the appointment process and assure a well-prepared diplomatic corps led to enactment of the Rogers Act of 1924.  This Act, in effect, created the modern U.S. Foreign Service, merging the diplomatic and consular services and establishing the Board of the Foreign Service to administer a competitive examination.  Almost immediately after passage of the Rogers Act, the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) was formed by reconstituting an earlier consular association, creating a professional association for ‘fostering an esprit de corps’ among the Foreign Service that promptly voted to also become a labor union.


In the course of the next nine decades, the Foreign Service Acts of 1946 and of 1980 re-organized, streamlined and modernized the administration of the Foreign Service.  The 1946 Act, for instance, codified previous Congressional actions that incorporated the Department of Agriculture’s attachés and the Department of Commerce’s commercial officers into the State Department.  By contrast, the 1980 Act, sorted out the consequences of Congressional actions that, in the meanwhile, had restored to the Agriculture and Commerce Departments their overseas personnel and responsibilities.  The 1980 Act furthered an important goal of AFSA with the inclusion of provisions relating to ‘Chief of Mission’ (Ambassadorial) appointments:


“… positions as chief of mission should normally be accorded to career members of the Service, though circumstances will warrant appointments from time to time of qualified individuals who are not career members of the Service.”




“Contributions to political campaigns should not be a factor in the appointment of an individual as a chief of mission.”


Balancing controversy


Both before and since the passage of the Foreign Service Act of 1980, controversy has erupted periodically – usually in the early stages of each successive President’s administration – over whether there are ‘too many’ non-career (i.e., ‘political’) Ambassadors.  The centrality of this concern to AFSA is reflected in their careful accounting of the percentage of career versus non-career Ambassadorial appointments by every U.S. President since Gerald Ford, reported on AFSA’s website. 
The latest eruption of this controversy was signaled by an April 11, 2013 Washington Post commentary (“Presidents Are Breaking the U.S. Foreign Service”) by then-AFSA President Susan Johnson, Ambassadors Ronald Neumann and Thomas Pickering, respectively President and Chairman of the American Academy of Diplomacy.  In response, AFSA produced a 2014 white paper, “Guidelines for Successful Performance as a Chief of Mission” (which the Council of American Ambassadors broadly endorsed) and the American Academy of Diplomacy issued an April, 2015 report entitled, American Diplomacy at Risk
The level and persistence of this angst over President Obama’s Ambassadorial appointments seems paradoxical, since they are almost exactly on par with the appointments of Presidents George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush.  But a closer reading of American Diplomacy at Risk reveals an anxiety deeper than Ambassadorial nominations: non-career/’political’/civil service appointments in the managerial ranks of the State Department hierarchy have recently been reaching unprecedented breadth and depth.  
These perennial, predictable battles should not obscure three fundamental and important points.


  • First, it is the President’s Constitutional prerogative to nominate those candidates to represent the United States abroad whom he/she deems most suitable – subject, of course, to the ‘advice and consent’ of the Senate.  Legislation, guidelines, white papers, reports of the State Department’s Inspector General, the Government Accountability Office, or outside expert groups can inform, influence or guide a President’s choices – but his/her Constitutional nomination authority is clear.
  • Second, who, besides the U.S. Senate, is properly in a position to tell a President that he/she cannot nominate, say, a venerable elder statesman like Senator Mike Mansfield, long-time Senate Democratic Majority Leader, as Ambassador to Japan – a nation where age and eminence are venerated and such high-level political connectedness makes an unmistakable statement about the bilateral relationship?  Who is in a position to tell a President that he must choose a career Foreign Service Officer over, say, Robert Strauss, long-time Chairman of the Democratic Party and Washington political eminence, as Ambassador to Moscow, or over former Michigan Governor Jim Blanchard as envoy to his neighbor, Canada? 
  • Third, it is obviously imperative that all U.S. Ambassadors need to be highly qualified and as thoroughly prepared as possible for these unique and often daunting assignments – whether they are career members of the U.S. Foreign Service or are recruited from private life.  As the 1980 Foreign Service Act puts it, Ambassadorial nominees must “possess clearly demonstrated competence to perform the duties of a chief of mission, including, to the maximum extent practicable, a useful knowledge of the principal language or dialect of the country in which the individual is to serve, and knowledge and understanding of the history, the culture, the economic and political institutions, and the interests of that country and its people.” 
To this end, the Council of American Ambassadors supports and encourages initiatives to make mid-career training as readily accessible and as career-enhancing – and not career-penalizing – for career Foreign Service Officers as it is for officers of the military services. 


The Council applauds the recent initiatives of the Foreign Service Institute to strengthen and deepen the preparation offered in the Ambassadorial seminar for Chief of Mission nominees – including preparation specifically tailored to those non-career nominees coming to these roles from private life – and encourages continuing effort to ensure that Ambassadorial appointees are well and fully trained for their assignments.