It’s a pretty safe assumption that subscribers to fashion news sources aren’t signed up in order to be kept abreast of the latest developments in American foreign policy. So, last week, when the word “ambassador” was thrown into the same sentence as the name Anna Wintour, style disciples were likely as confused by the idea as many political pundits.
The rumour of the appointment of the both admired and feared editor-in-chief of American Vogue to the post of US Ambassador to the Court of St James is not a new one. The same idea was floated when President Obama was elected to his first term in 2008. And there seems little evidence to suggest that the selection of Wintour for the role is any more likely now than it was then. But the White House is yet to deny it and while choosing a high profile fashion editor with no diplomatic experience for a prestigious foreign service position would be frowned upon in many countries, it’s not a novel idea in the United States.
Although the bulk of US diplomats endure rigorous testing before they can begin working their way up the career ladder, the State Department often awards the top jobs to individuals who have contributed more to campaign coffers than American soft power. From telecoms executive and current ambassador to South Africa, Donald H Gips to Florida real estate developer and ambassador to Luxembourg, Robert A Mandell, US embassies around the world are no strangers to having a successful fundraiser at the helm. Having bundled over $500,000 for Obama’s 2012 campaign alone, Wintour is certainly up there with some high profile donors. But do her credentials of mixing celebrity culture with fashion publishing or helping young designers with their careers really qualify her for life at Winfield House?
The role of US Ambassador to the UK has changed considerably since the first diplomatic envoy in the 19th century – future president John Adams – abandoned his post to the court of the very country he had just helped lead a revolution against. Still held together by the invisible string of Churchill’s special relationship, the negotiations between the US and the UK are rarely contentious. And from Franklin D Roosevelt’s appointment of Joe Kennedy, to Eisenhower’s choice of JH Whitney, donors with prominent names have often been rewarded with a diplomatic stint in London. But what does this do for the impression of America’s soft power? While the potential ambassador Wintour might know how to entertain, her editorial decision to publish a profile of Asma al-Assad just as the Arab Spring was springing last year wasn’t a move of great diplomatic prowess. And with both the US and UK economies balancing their budgets on a knife edge, perhaps a more seasoned statesman will be needed next year as Prime Minister Cameron and President Obama continue to politely disagree on the role of government spending.
The Obama administration should look back to the resignation of Cynthia Stroum last year. The ambassador to Luxembourg had been an important donor to the 2008 campaign and had been known as a business leader with a fierce management style (sound familiar?), Stroum assumed the role in 2009. Less than two years later, she resigned following reports that her hostile and bullying style had pushed some career staffers to consider transferring to Iraq and Afghanistan. While there is no such evidence that Wintour would have the same effect, perhaps the State Department should refocus on appointing ambassadors who have carved out careers in diplomacy rather than developed a reputation for an aggressive approach to management.
Aisha Speirs is New York bureau chief for Monocle.