From the emergence of the United States as an independent country, the spoils system has been prominent in how major ambassadorial appointments are made. The Financial Times in a recent article brought out some interesting facts from the 18th century to present times. Nathanial Hawthorne was appointed consul in Liverpool when his friend Franklin Pierce was President. In recent memory President Clinton awarded the Paris embassy to British- born Pamela Harrison the widow of American statesman Averell Harriman who was a major fundraiser for Clinton.
Now the article informs us that the 63-year-old Editor of Vogue magazine, Anna Wintour, is in the running to be appointed by Obama as ambassador to the UK. Apparently a major qualification of the candidate is achievement in raising substantial funds for Obama’s successful run to earn a second term. This practice is called bundling i.e. raising cash for presidential candidates. US career diplomats dislike this practice because it awards plum and important assignments not on the basis of perceived merit, but on the basis of fund raising ability! This goes against the practice of countries such as Britain, France, Germany, Turkey and India and others, where ambassadorial appointments are awarded to senior career diplomats on the basis of seniority and merit. No wonder the foreign policy of these countries is entrusted to persons who have spent years in the diplomatic profession. For the US not to follow suit is to denigrate the important role of diplomacy in safeguarding and promoting the country’s national interests. After all, a US president would not dream of appointing a bundler to a senior position in the military. The Pentagon would just not stand for this kind of patronage. But just because the career Foreign Service does not wield the same clout as the military brass, their senior echelons are often bypassed by the appointed bundlers. Many times these bundlers turn out to be bunglers and when this happens, it can cost the US. This practice works against the diplomatic standing of the US. The argument that the bundlers have the ear of the president is essentially a weak one. It does not matter how close or otherwise an ambassador is to the president. What matters much more is his or her diplomatic experience, knowledge and above all preparedness for the job. No matter how good a bundler has been in their previous pursuits, this does not qualify them to head an embassy and offer correct advice to the State Department and the president. The US should follow the established practice in appointing its ambassadors-ability, experience and merit- or risk shortchanging its global diplomatic efforts. Regrettably there are many instances of such occurrences in recent times. Bundlers can be accommodated elsewhere for their services.