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It’s Wild You Can Still Just Buy an Ambassadorship

The U.S. is basically the only country that works this way. Nice.

The U.S. ambassador's residence in Ottawa.
Ross Dunn

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Today the Washington Post reported that Joe Biden is expected to announce his first slate of picks for high-profile ambassadorships. Like nearly every president before him, Biden is expected to give choice foreign assignments to long-time political allies, wealthy donors, and personal friends.

From the Post (emphasis mine):

The list of potential diplomats includes Cindy McCain, the widow of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), for envoy to the World Food Program, a United Nations body, and former Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel for ambassador to Japan, said people familiar with the White House plans who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the nominations are pending.

David Cohen, a Comcast executive who hosted Biden’s first official 2020 presidential fundraising event, probably will be nominated as U.S. ambassador to Canada; former interior secretary Ken Salazar is in line to be the next ambassador to Mexico.

Denise Bauer, who led a women’s support network for Biden, is expected to be nominated for the plum posting in France, those people said.

Additional boldface nominations are expected over the next month or more, potentially including former Democratic senator Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, a longtime friend of Biden, and former Republican senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, a Republican and Trump critic who endorsed Biden.

The Post adds this:

The process has been complicated by sensitivity to naming candidates other than the coterie of well-connected White people, most of them men, who have been the mainstay of Biden’s political circle. The selection process has taken longer than it has for Biden’s predecessors because of that issue and because Biden “knows too many people and he has too many friends,” said one person close to the process.

This is, to put it mildly, incredibly embarrassing! And yet the White House does not think it is.

In some ways, I’m grateful that this process still exists, as it allows an unvarnished and seemingly unabashed look into how the political sausage gets made. Favor-trading is the bread and butter of politics, something that everyone who isn’t a complete rube should know. But I’d argue that there’s almost no place where this is as cut and dry as the selection of ambassadors. It’s the simplest thing in the world to imagine Jeff Flake, before one of his carefully calculated acts of “resistance,” giving Biden a quick call and asking what he had for him. For his service, Flake will probably receive a posting to a country important enough to keep him involved in the political dialogue but not controversial enough to actually require any work. That’s basically how ambassadorships work! The Comcast exec David Cohen gets to live in a mansion just outside downtown Ottawa, and girlboss Denise Bauer is headed off to Paree for some nice soirées with the Macron government, unless of course he gets beaten by Marine Le Pen and she has to elbow-rub with actual fascists. What a nice little system!

According to the Post, there are around 50 ambassadorships that are “typically” reserved for the president’s friends and allies. Presidents often hedge these vanity posts by appointing people with actual experience and or diplomatic expertise to big ambassadorships that matter, like China or Russia or Israel. These guys are usually weird combinations of merit and nepotism, and sort of end up getting shuffled around countries and administrations, usually after coming up through a smaller ambassadorship earlier in their career. (One example: Jon Huntsman was George W. Bush’s ambassador to Singapore, then Deputy Trade Representative, then Governor of Utah, then Barack Obama’s ambassador to China, then Donald Trump’s ambassador to Russia. He’s also a former Mormon missionary to Taiwan, is fluent in Mandarin, and has a billionaire dad.)

The fact that a guy who happens to have hung around the State Department for enough years is basically the best you can hope for in a high-profile ambassadorship is a pretty damning indictment of our country’s foreign policy.

As the Post also notes:

The United States is unusual among major democracies in naming a president’s friends or supporters as ambassadors. Most of the closest U.S. allies, from Canada to Britain to Japan, rely on career diplomats and bureaucrats for even the most high-profile postings.

The only bright side to all of this is that for a few blessed years, Rahm Emanuel will be about as far from the United States as you can get. All of our condolences to Japan.