I’ve written on this subject before, but I could not resist putting pen to paper once again after reading the headline “Barack Obama insults Britain again with a shameless nomination of top donor as US Ambassador to London.” The article by journalist Nile Gardner appeared recently in The Telegraph, a conservative British newspaper. Gardner did not pull any punches: he begins pugnaciously by stating “Whats the going rate for the US ambassadorship to London? Apparently around $2.3 million judging by President Obama’s latest appointment to the Court of St. James.” According to Gardner, that was the amount personally raised by Matthew Barzun, the chief fundraiser for President Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign, which realized $730 million in total. Barzun, an Internet businessman is not a career diplomat. He was earlier rewarded with the ambassadorship to Sweden for raising substantial money for Obama’s successful 2008 campaign. Evidently, Barzun has developed a taste for the trappings of diplomatic life. Louis Susman, his predecessor in London, had, according to Gardner, raised $300,000 for Obama. Susman’s main qualification reportedly was that he was a friend of Obama and could speak English!
Gardner hits the nail on the head when he suggests that in “many Western countries, this kind of appointment would be viewed as an unacceptable form of corruption, a dangerous linkage between political patronage and political fundraising”. Gardner also refers to an Obama speech soon after becoming President for the first time, wherein he had declaimed: “It’s time to fundamentally change the way we do business in Washington…we need to reform our government so that it is more efficient, more transparent, and more creative”. Barzun’s appointment implies that Obama has failed to live up to his rhetoric. According to another report in The London Guardian around nine sought after postings in Europe, the Caribbean, or Asia have been given to major donors in recent weeks with a further three in France, Switzerland, and Hungary, earmarked to other “bundlers” (fundraisers) or cronies.
This is a glaring misuse of diplomacy, an element of power which other nations utilize in the furtherance of their national objectives. They do this through a professional cadre of able career diplomats and not by relying upon political appointees, who would have little idea about their function and role. It takes decades of going up the career ladder to become an ambassador. Heading a diplomatic mission represents the zenith of a diplomat’s career. It is akin to becoming the CEO of a corporation, without the fabulous salary of course, that goes with the latter position. One can only sympathize with the anguish and chagrin, which dedicated and smart American career diplomats must be feeling at being denied assignments which is their due after long years of competent and loyal service to their country. The US government and people also lose out by not utilizing their best career diplomats in its important embassies abroad. Diplomacy has long been recognized as a country’s first line of defense. Finally the host country often feels humiliated at receiving an amateur as the American ambassador. The country interprets the appointment as a snub or a message that it is not important in the eyes of Washington.
The United States should join other advanced countries in utilizing diplomacy as an integral element of power. Countries which have followed the “warrior” concept of diplomacy, usually came to grief eventually. The Romans, Greeks, Persians etc. and in their modern incarnations, the Nazis, the Japanese and the Italians, were all destroyed in part through their disdain for diplomacy. Their empires came crashing down. Hitler called his diplomats and his foreign ministry “an intellectual garbage dump”. Developed countries cherish and nurture their career diplomats and recognize their contributions. James Callaghan, a former British Prime Minister, made a serious mistake in the 1970s in appointing his journalist son-in-law,Peter Jay, as Ambassador to Washington. Callaghan was roundly criticized for this brazen act of nepotism and consequently lost an enormous amount of political capital. Jay was not reportedly much of a success in his relatively short tenure. Obama should follow the precedent adopted by the developed countries. He should give up the diplomatic spoils system. Fundraisers and cronies can be accommodated in the US, or if they insist on diplomatic assignments, can be sent to smaller posts where their presence cannot do much harm.
If the US had listened to its career diplomats in the State Department and its ambassadors abroad, we could perhaps have avoided or at least mitigated the debacles in Afghanistan and Iraq, which have vitiated America’s standing in the greater Middle East. After the trillions of dollars spent in these countries on what virtually amounted to a fool’s errand, are we any wiser? Let me recall here the sage words of Albert Einstein when he said, “Insanity means doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”.