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Blow Up the Donor-to-Ambassador Pipeline

Joe Biden has the chance to curtail a corrupt practice that official Washington has long ignored.

Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Would you like to become a U.S. ambassador to a foreign country? You have two options. You can join the State Department as a career officer in the Foreign Service and spend a couple of decades rising through the ranks as a diplomat. If you’re competent enough, a future president might nominate you for a Senate-confirmed ambassadorial posting. It will likely be somewhere that’s not in Europe or North America, but that doesn’t make it any less important. You may get posted somewhere dangerous or unstable, which would make your work all the more critical. In terms of perks, however, at least you get to be called “Ambassador So-and-So” for the rest of your life.

Alternatively, you can be really good friends with a president. Maybe you’re an elected official with a familiarity with a certain country’s policies and a willingness to burnish your foreign policy credentials. Maybe you’re a policy expert of some kind, perhaps from a previous administration. Or, more often than not, you just gave a lot of money to the president’s campaign or his party for totally unrelated reasons. You’ll sail through the Senate confirmation process and get posted somewhere nice—maybe London, or Ottawa, or Rome—for the next few years. Oh, and you will also get to be called “Ambassador So-and-So” for the rest of your life.

Handing out ambassadorships to favored campaign donors is a sordid bipartisan tradition in Washington. Presidents from both parties have typically reserved about a third of the top diplomatic postings for political appointees. While this can include qualified nominees, it all too often trends toward the wealthy and well connected. Unsurprisingly, Donald Trump took it to new heights over the past four years by setting aside almost half of all ambassadorships for political appointees. Now President Joe Biden has a chance to make a sharp break from this unseemly past.

The American Foreign Service Association, which tracks ambassadorial nominations, reported that 43.5 percent of Trump’s choices were political appointees, compared to 30 percent for Barack Obama, 31 percent for George W. Bush, and 28 percent for Bill Clinton. As I noted in 2019, more than a few of Trump’s first wave of diplomats had donated large sums of money prior to their nomination, as well. The ambassadorships to Canada and the European Union went to people who donated at least $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee. Jamie McCourt, a former owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, got the most from her money: a four-year stint in Paris for just $50,000.

If there’s another democratic country that sends its leaders’ campaign donors to foreign capitals, I’m not aware of it. It’s all but unique within the U.S. government, as well. Presidents do not routinely nominate their top campaign donors to serve as federal judges, Cabinet secretaries, U.S. attorneys, Federal Reserve board members, or any other substantive government position. (The Kennedy Center does not count.) Perhaps it’s because ambassadors aren’t quite as vital as they used to be, in an era when two heads of state can simply pick up a phone to discuss foreign policy. Perhaps it’s because they can also lean on the civil servants at each embassy to do the day-to-day work. Perhaps it’s because donors wouldn’t want those other roles, anyway. U.S. attorneys don’t get to live rent-free in European capitals for a few years, after all.

Even the non-donor political appointees have a mixed record. In a 2014 confirmation hearing, a Republican senator asked Max Baucus, a former Montana senator tapped by Obama to be the ambassador to China, about Beijing’s decision to expand its air defense perimeter to cover a group of islands that are part of a territorial dispute with Japan. “I’m no real expert on China,” Baucus replied. (He was confirmed anyway.) Trump, by comparison, chose former Iowa Governor Terry Branstad for the Beijing post because of his personal relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping and decades of experience with the country. But Branstad’s tenure was overshadowed by Trump’s own bombastic approach to relations with the Chinese government.

At times, the result can be a clash between foreign policy and personal interest. Trump named Woody Johnson, the owner of the New York Jets and a prominent GOP donor, to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom. According to The New York Times, he then asked Johnson to campaign for the British Open, a lucrative golf tournament, to be played at Trump’s Turnberry resort in Scotland. It would have been a boon for the president’s family business, and especially for the resort itself, which regularly hemorrhages cash. Johnson reportedly raised the matter with Britain’s minister for Scottish affairs without any luck. The episode still highlights how donor-ambassadors can be more susceptible to a president’s corrupt whims than a career civil servant might be.

Criticism of the donors-to-diplomats pipeline is also nothing new. Presidents appoint new batches of them every four years; journalists then write new broadsides against the practice. “Beyond the inherent risk of giving such a sensitive job to anyone but the most competent candidate, the practice of nominating donors demoralizes the Foreign Service, wastes opportunities to develop future leaders, and presents the world with a cynical face,” The New York Times Magazine’s Mattathias Schwartz wrote in December. “It is an especially dangerous practice when Mr. Trump has been working to reframe foreign policy as a more contingent set of arrangements where there are no permanent bonds, only interests.”

So why is there some hope this time? The Biden White House, according to Axios, is “tempering the ambassadorial expectations of his big-dollar donors” and quietly warning those expecting posts that he will appoint fewer of them than Trump, Obama, Bush, or Clinton. Axios attributed the shift to pressure from lawmakers on Capitol Hill. The problem is not necessarily the prospects’ experience or qualifications but the diversity of the potential selections. Drawing so heavily from wealthy Democratic donors would produce a similarly disproportionate diplomatic corps. It would also continue a troubling trend that was particularly acute under Biden’s predecessor.

Ensuring that America’s ambassadors—our symbolic and often substantive face to the rest of the world—actually look like America is a worthwhile goal. If it helps set a precedent that removes the appearance or reality of corruption from the State Department, that’s all the better. Biden likely hasn’t settled on how many political appointees he should send to U.S. embassies around the world. It should be as close to zero as possible.