REVIEW: Article

The Right Salespeople: Choosing United States Ambassadors

Much has been written lately about political appointee ambassadors. The lore inside the State Department is that two out of three political appointee ambassadors fail—and that one out of three career appointees fails too. It is not completely clear what “succeed” or “fail” means for an ambassador, not least because the job changes so dramatically depending on United States interests and our relationship with the country of assignment at the time. But it is clear the professionals of the State Department recognize that some political appointees do succeed—and that some professionals fail.

One consequence of the high number of politically appointed ambassadors—“high” in comparison to most other developed states—is that more of our ambassadors are doing the job for the first time. So there is probably a higher failure rate than necessary for both political and career ambassadors. Political appointees over­whelm­ingly get only one embassy assignment, usually for three or four years. As a result, they have no opportunity to learn and then transfer that learning to a next assignment. Similarly, because so many embassies are allocated to political appointees, overwhelmingly career appointees get only one embassy. With comparatively few embassies available for career officers, the system cannot afford to give embassies to repeat ambassadors very often: it would stifle the through-put of the system. Too few professionals would get embassies to provide a meaningful job incentive.

The United States is one of the few developed countries without a “corps of ambassadors,” in which ambassadors start at smaller missions, then go to larger ones, and then to the biggest jobs. My first embassy was Colombia, by some measures our largest in the world at the time. I think I did a good job, but it was risky sending a first-timer. And I made mistakes that I might have avoided if I had had more experience as an ambassador.

Political appointees may complicate the lines of civilian chain of command. By law and by presidential decision, ambassadors are responsible to direct the activities of all civilian and military Executive Branch employees in their country of assignment, except those on the staff of an international organization or reporting directly to a military regional combatant commander. Combatant commanders and ambassadors are required to keep each other fully informed and must refer any disagreements that they can’t iron out to the Secretaries of State and Defense for resolution. There is no cut-out for intelligence, law enforcement, or financial officials, no matter how sensitive the issue, absent an expressed and specific decision in Washington.

But can we count on our spies, law enforcement agents, or financial officials to keep the ambassador fully briefed on their activities, and to accept him or her as their operational boss? Do we even want them responding to ambassadors who lack public policy and senior administrative experience? Or do we need someone with enough experience to manage these sometimes unilateral players, who owe their perspective, position, promotions, and budgets to their home agencies? In my experience, ambassadors need to know what questions to ask and how to make their formal authority operational. Again in the lore of the State Department, the first job of every station chief in the world, where there is one, is to “recruit” the new ambassador. Law enforcement officials focus on “the case,” not relations with the foreign country. Financial officials are very reserved about information that could move markets. This issue of command over all civilian agencies is relevant to our “cushy” embassies as well as our other embassies: running a branch office of the United States government in a developed, complex, important country is no joke.

Modern diplomacy imposes additional complications. The revolu­tion over the last decades in transpor­tation and communication enables officials from Washington to conduct more of the nation’s diplomacy directly—by phone or visit, or at the dozens of encounters made possible by top-level international assemblies and conferences. In many cases, Washington seems to view diplomacy as something that can be done around the ambassador rather than through him. Certainly in my two embassies there was no shortage of high-level visitors, some of whom even resisted inclusion of an embassy representative in their meetings with foreign leaders. Not only is the sometimes minutely instructed ambassador less “extraordinary and plenipotentiary” than before, in the view of some he can be cut out altogether, at least on the “big” issues.

But other changes in the conduct of diplomacy reinforce the central role of the ambassador. 

The first change relates to democracy, even where it is only a social phenomenon rather than a full institutional structure. Diplomacy no longer is merely a privileged, confidential channel between sovereign national decision-makers. Because so many voices shape modern policy decisions in almost every country, the ambassador must serve as go-between not just between national leaders, but between societies. The ambassador must use his constant contacts with diverse factions of the national government and with leaders of local government, interest groups, the media, political parties, economic groups, and the populace at large to shape the context so that decisions by the foreign leadership are more likely to be favorable. The ambassador is not only a representative, but also an advocate, a lobbyist, and a publicist. Based on his or her extensive contacts, the ambassador should also be the most nuanced adviser to the President and Washington foreign policymakers about the foreign reality they wish to influence.

The second change is in the breadth of engagement. Today’s diplomacy encom­passes an extraordinary range of issues, including health regulations, trade and investment issues, advice to local American companies on security precautions, human rights and rule of law—indeed, advocating United States positions on almost every public policy subject around the world. The transportation and communication revolutions that have eroded the importance of ambassadors for purely bilateral relations have made many formerly bilateral issues into multi-country issues, often also involving international organizations or alliances. As a result, details, linkages, and trade-offs are multiplied across many more diplomatic relationships, beyond the scope of Washington policymakers, who have time only to focus on the bottom-line of a few top-level concerns. More things are being done in more countries by more people across national boundaries than ever before, and the ambassador must be his nation’s voice in almost all of it. In that sense, this is the golden age of diplomacy.

The third change is in the way we engage other countries. It has become far more complex. Diplomacy is no longer just a matter of finding and sharpening agreement (or disagreement) on policy approaches with other governments. Now it involves extensive programmatic, legal, budgetary, public affairs, and operational imple­menta­tion, country-by-country. Economic assistance, security assistance, humanitarian support, institution-building, promotion of values, strengthening the rule of law, military cooperation, strategic trade controls, sanctions, counter-narcotics, multilateral coordina­tion, and education are just a few of the programs. Although they are launched in Washington, they must be implemented in foreign countries, with attention to the political personality, capabilities, and needs of our partners. Diplomacy is no longer a matter just of strategy, but also of operations. It needs ambassadors who can successfully oversee those operations. Among the most frequent complaints from political appointee ambassadors is how difficult it is to get things done, even with their political connections. It takes an experienced international manager and a skilled international bureaucrat, as well as a political operator.

None of this implies that only professional foreign service officers should serve as ambassadors. Able men and women with experience advocating, managing, lobbying, and publiciz­ing a broad range of programs and positions across borders can do the job. The question is not whether an appointee is “political” or “career.” The question is, “Can he or she cut it?”

Finally, on a personal note—because diplomacy is a personal profession—there is no better job in the world than being the United States ambassador in a foreign country. Because of the power the United States wields and the respect in which the United States is held, in most countries the ambassador has virtually automatic access to the key leaders and decision-makers of every segment of the society. So he has a chance of having an impact, even though his interlocutors are subtle, and accomplished, and hard-nosed about their own interests and those of their country. 

The ambassador is assisted by the unique authority with which he or she speaks. The letter of credence, signed by the President, is the same for all United States ambassadors. Its acceptance by the foreign leader marks the actual beginning of the ambassador’s diplomatic authority in the foreign country. Ambassadors are not only sent; they must also be received. In the letter, the President entrusts him to the foreign leader’s confidence and asks the foreign leader to “give full credence to what he shall say on the part of the United States.” 

Ambassadors basically have a sales job. And what a product they have to sell: the American vision of peace, prosperity, and decency in the world, as defined by the laws and values of our country and the President’s foreign policy agenda. We should make sure we have the right salespeople.

Issue Date


United States Ambassador to Afghanistan, 2007-2009
United States Ambassador to Colombia, 2003-2007