Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | February 15, 2014

The Ambassadors

Hans Holbein the Younger - The Ambassadors - Google Art Project

NPR had a segment the other day about the Obama Administration’s appointments of ambassadors:

President Obama used to say that he wanted to rely more on career diplomats to serve as U.S. ambassadors. But the State Department’s professional association, the American Foreign Service Association or AFSA, says that he has named a higher percentage of political appointees than his predecessors. He’s given plum assignments to political donors such as [Colleen] Bell [the new ambassador to Hungary], who have made headlines recently with embarrassing gaffes at their confirmation hearings.

(I assume that the American Foreign Service Association, like any professional association or guild, has its own interests and its own biases, so I would not want to lean too heavily on their reading of the situation. That said, the numbers are what they are.)

I saw a story a few months ago that Caroline Kennedy has been appointed (and confirmed by the Senate) as U.S. Ambassador to Japan, and at the time I thought the appointment was odd, because, as this HuffPo article puts it, “Kennedy, 55, doesn’t have…any obvious ties to Japan,” and I don’t think that she speaks Japanese.

Then, a few weeks later, the White House announced that Sen. Max Baucus of Montana would be the next ambassador to China, and even as some praised the nomination (I seem to recall a number of pundits on talk shows go on about how Baucus would bring gravitas to the post and how the appointment of such a senior politician would show the Chinese that President Obama considered Sino-American relations “important” — as though the CCP leadership was likely to think otherwise), I remember thinking, “What exactly is there is Baucus’s background that makes him a good fit for the China post?” This CNN article noted “his relative lack of China experience,” and Max Fisher wrote in the Washington Post that “there’s little on his resume that screams ‘China,’ which is unusual both in that there are lots of more obviously qualified candidates and that most U.S. ambassadors to Beijing have had significant ties to the country.” See also this piece in the Christian Science Monitor:

Baucus has already established solid credentials with the Chinese on the economic front – and, in particular, in the trade arena. In the 1990s, he was a crucial proponent of China’s entry into the World Trade Organization, and he pressed to extend to China special US trade status known as Permanent Normal Trade Relations.

The Montana lawmaker would bring less expertise to the regional-security portfolio, some China experts say – even as they underscore that it could be the area with the highest potential for tension-raising confrontations. (China’s recent decision to expand its air defense zone over an area of the East China Sea and a near collision between US and Chinese naval vessels in the South China Sea are examples of the kinds of crises Baucus can expect to confront.)

None of this stopped the Senate from confirming Baucus 96-0. (As a rule, the clubby senators do not vote against one of their own.)

I’m sure it doesn’t hurt that sending Baucus to China allows for some tactical reshuffling in the Senate. (“Baucus’s move overseas creates a vacancy on the highly sought-after Finance Committee, allowing Ron Wyden of Oregon to assume the chairmanship of the powerful panel. Wyden, in turn, would give up his current slot as chairman of the Energy Committee, which would most likely go to Mary Landrieu, a move thought to bolster the vulnerable incumbent’s reelection prospects in Louisiana this year.”) Baucus stepping down before the next election also allows the Democratic governor of Montana to appoint a successor to serve the next few months and go into November’s race technically as an incumbent.

But it is not unusual or unexpected for the President to have multiple motives or objectives with any given action or nomination.

I suppose we shouldn’t make too much of this. Arguably, in-country ambassadors are far less important now than they were 100 or even 60 years ago. Especially with G20 states like China and Japan, really important negotiations are handled by direct talks between the US Secretary of State and his counterparts, or by direct talks between our Treasury Secretary and their Treasury people, or our Secretary of Defense and their Defense Ministers. The US Trade Representative may have more practical impact on most countries than the US ambassador assigned directly to that country. And I am sure has its own problems, so I’m not arguing that every ambassador needs to be a career Foreign Service officer. I believe John Kenneth Galbraith was an effective ambassador to India.

Still, is it unreasonable to hope that the ambassador to a country should speak the principal language of that country?* (Baucus does not speak Mandarin; apparently, the office of US Ambassador to China “has been held by fluent Chinese speakers 24 out of the past 32 years.” John Huntsman, whatever his other strengths and weaknesses as a diplomat, by all accounts did speak fluent Mandarin. FWIW, Huntsman has praised Baucus’s nomination for the post.)

But then, American schools and American society do not do a great job of encouraging people to learn a second language, so…

* Or one of the languages, in the case of states like Switzerland?

Image Credit: Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors, 1533. Currently hanging in the National Gallery, London. Source: Wikimedia Commons.


  1. Re Caroline Kennedy to Japan: not too surprising nor such a break, I think, with precedent. She is, besides being an Obama supporter, a U.S. public figure (albeit sometimes a low-profile one) in her own right. That, plus her last name, means that she is the kind of VIP whose appt as amb. the Japanese, I think, take as a sign that they are being treated w due respect as an important ally. My main point of ref here is former Senate maj. leader Mike Mansfield, whose time as amb. to Japan was, afaik, quite successful, notwithstanding the fact that he prob. didn’t have too many more ‘Japan credentials’ at time of appt than Caroline Kennedy does.

    • Oh, I’m sure there’s plenty of precedent for Kennedy’s appointment.

      “the kind of VIP whose appt as amb. the Japanese, I think, take as a sign that they are being treated w due respect as an important ally”

      Indeed. The ambassador as symbol, not agent. Email, phone and fax mean that having an agent on the scene is less crucial. For all really important negotiations, John Kerry or the Treasury Secretary is just a plane ride away.

      I hope and expect that Amb. Kennedy has excellent vice consuls and senior Foreign Service officers around her. Japan may be one of the more sought-after postings in the Foreign Service, I would think.

  2. I liked the comment at LGM by the Finnish reader who reported that, when the U.S. actually sent an ambassador versed in the ways of Finns, some in the country were made anxious by this seeming increase of American attention.

    • On the other hand, the CIA Head of Station in Helsinki presumably must learn Finnish. I know this from Gust Avrakotos’s first diatribe in Charlie Wilson’s War. (RIP, PSH.)

    • That’s because he has an actual job to do.

  3. “I know this from Gust Avrakotos’s first diatribe in Charlie Wilson’s War. (RIP, PSH.)”

    I do recall (through a slight wine haze) more or less what ‘Charlie Wilson’s War’ is about (though I haven’t read it or seen the movie), but if you’re so inclined a brief unpacking of this wd be appreciated — I assume heroin comes into the picture? (Well, it’s about Afghanistan, so duh.) I need to look up George Crile; I know he had something to do w this but forget exactly what — did he write the book? (guess that must be it).

    Oh, and re Caroline Kennedy: Walter Russell Mead and Nicholas Burns were on the NewsHour just now talking about the ambassador thing and one thing they agreed on was that she is a good appt — ambassador as symbol, as you put it. (I’m sure she’ll be surrounded by Japan experts.)

    • In a scene towards the beginning of Charlie Wilson’s War, CIA Agent Gust (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) goes into his superior’s office to complain about being passed over for promotion to the post of station chief at Helsinki. Among other things, he says, “I’ve spent the past three years learning Finnish, which should come in handy here in Virginia!”

      (Strong language, NSFW)

  4. Now I get it. Thks.

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