Monocolumn

A daily bulletin of news & opinion

29 July 2013

Last week, Barack Obama nominated a member of American political royalty to the top echelons of US diplomacy. Caroline Kennedy, a lawyer and author with no background in foreign affairs and no experience with Japan, will likely become America’s next ambassador to said country.

The choice brings to the fore America’s bizarre and time-honoured tradition, one in which they are alone among major democratic powers, of routinely giving key diplomatic posts to the president’s political donors, friends and supporters. By all accounts, Ms Kennedy is a kind and competent woman. Yet she was chosen solely because of her role as an early supporter of the current president and her social status as the daughter of a former one – neither of which indicate a promising term as emissary to one of America’s most important allies.

It's precisely this unsavoury I-scratch-your-back status quo that boils the blood of career officers in America's diplomatic corps, the foreign service. Pity the professional diplomat. Imagine a young Army officer instead, highly educated and talented with all of the ambition in the world, climbing slowly up the ranks, manoeuvring the military bureaucracy with skill and finesse over decades, only to be told by superiors near the peak of his or her career: "Well, this certainly is awkward, but I’ve just given US Central Command to my golfing buddy. You know how it is…"

Absurd, of course. A professional class of highly capable individuals exists to fill such roles. And yet this is precisely what happens at the State Department. Why? The skills of diplomacy are no less complex, the daily workload no less demanding, the job no less critical to the nation's wellbeing. For an American president to believe otherwise is a sad commentary on the lack of seriousness with which diplomacy is viewed.

It is a real profession. It is an exceedingly complex art. Scholars have written thick textbooks on the subject. Throughout the ages, highly clever practitioners have prevented wars and forged alliances. To assume that a fundraiser – competency notwithstanding, a de facto "person plucked from the street" vis-à-vis foreign affairs – can simply do diplomacy is shortsighted in the extreme.

Yet in recent years, continuing a tradition that began long ago, the administration has nominated more than 20 ambassadors who have raised at least half a million dollars for the president's political campaigns. Businessman Matthew Barzun was given the keys to the US embassy in Sweden as a reward for raising $700m (€525m) for Obama’s electoral coffers. He’ll now be America’s ambassador to the Court of St James. A television executive will soon oversee American interests in Madrid, a lawyer is looking forward to la dolce vita in Rome, a fund manager will be America's man in Germany and an heiress may soon be off to Paris.

What message does this send out about the US as a meritocracy when the people who represent the country overseas purchased the posts through backslaps and cash? Diplomacy should be a profession, not a reward. That said: if the administration is reading this, I’m ready and able to serve; all enquiries to dg@monocle.com.

Daniel Giacopelli is a producer at Monocle 24.

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