How do you become an ambassador?

In this 2008 photograph, former ambassador to the United Kingdom Robert H Tuttle greets President George W. Bush. Prior to becoming an ambassador, Tuttle was known for his empire of car dealerships. Jason Reed/Reuters

In December 2014 President Barack Obama nominated Colleen Bell – a soap opera producer – as the country’s next ambassador to Hungary. Before Bell’s confirmation vote, Obama’s 2008 Republican rival, Senator John McCain, took to the Senate floor.

“I understand how the game is played,” McCain protested, “but [Hungary] is on the verge of ceding its sovereignty to a neo-fascist dictator getting in bed with Vladimir Putin, and we’re going to send the producer of The Bold and The Beautiful as the ambassador?”

Colleen Bell, producer of the soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful – and ambassador to Hungary. Helga Esteb/Shutterstock

Further underscoring McCain’s point, other Obama nominees have included individuals who either lacked relevant language skills, or failed to have a detailed understanding of the history and politics of the country to which they were assigned.

But criticism of ambassadorial appointments shouldn’t be limited to President Obama. Research by John Bretting, Joseph Stewart and myself has shown that in previous administrations, important ambassadorships have often gone to the most connected – over the most qualified – individuals.

It’s a pattern that could have international repercussions, especially in volatile countries where even the slightest political missteps come with consequences.

Obama takes a page from his predecessors

To serve as ambassador to the Court of St. James, President George W Bush nominated Robert H Tuttle – whose background was in running car dealerships. Bush also appointed his former co-owner of the Texas Rangers to serve as ambassador to France, while rewarding a number of major campaign contributors with appointments to ambassadorial posts in countries like the Bahamas, Belize, Costa Rica, Jamaica, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Tanzania, Singapore, Japan, New Zealand and Australia.

The same tendency to reward contributors is true of Bush’s predecessors Bill Clinton, George H W Bush and Ronald Reagan – and even includes examples like FDR’s 1938 appointment of Joe Kennedy, Sr. as ambassador to the United Kingdom.

The practice of using ambassadorships to reward political supporters stretches back decades. For example, in 1939, Joe Kennedy, Sr was appointed ambassador to the United Kingdom. Wikimedia Commons

Such appointments have contributed to the common perception that presidents only reward contributors, political allies and friends with quality ambassadorial positions. And this, in turn, has created the impression that ambassadors are merely figureheads, fit only for entertaining foreign dignitaries.

Ambassadors do play a critical role

It should be pointed out that the car dealer also happened to be a respected businessman with a Harvard degree. Other appointees who, on the surface, may appear to be no more than beneficiaries of their fundraising prowess, nonetheless have important real world experience that may be useful in an ambassadorial post.

Savvy ambassadors are important to any administration. As Tim Chorda, the President of the Council of American Ambassadors, noted in a 2013 Washington Post article, in trade relations there is

a very heavy emphasis on the ambassador as part of the sales team, in a good sense, for the United States… The strength of the United States derives from its wealth, the same way the strength of Qatar derives from its oil wealth. And the ambassador and the embassy need to be advocates for that – not only advancing opportunity for the sale of products and services, but when a problem arises, going in and solving it, helping the company to solve it and get on with their business.

In the same article, the Washington Post’s Lydia DePillis added that “though the ambassador might not claim credit for completed peace treaties or trade deals, the final version is usually the product of extensive negotiations in which the ambassador is intimately involved.”

In other words, ambassadors do perform important functions; they’re not merely party animals, and their actions can have far-reaching consequences.

For example, in 1990, US ambassador to Iraq April Glaspie – a career diplomat and George H W Bush appointee – did not send a clear enough signal to Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein that his invasion of Kuwait would be met with strong military resistance. Some have argued that – if not for her blunder – the first Gulf War could have been averted.

What about Foreign Service Officers?

Foreign Service Officers are career diplomats who are employed by the US State Department. Many are appointed as ambassadors.

What sort of ambassadorial positions do these highly skilled diplomats receive? Given their language skills and detailed knowledge of specific countries and regions, one might assume that they receive critically important appointments.

Yet a quantitative analysis by John Bretting, Joseph Stewart and myself revealed that Foreign Service Officers often receive appointments to countries that are lower on the UN’s Human Development Index, and are assigned to countries that have less trade with the US.

For the study, we also conducted a survey of State Department employees, and found that career Foreign Service Officers receive appointments to less prominent and desirable countries. Additionally, the more degrees ambassadors possess, the more likely they are to be appointed to less desirable countries.

This occurs regardless of the sitting president’s political affiliation: Presidents George H W Bush and Bill Clinton both displayed similar patterns in making their appointments.

On the other hand, those with political campaign experience, those who previously served as administration officials, and those with personal ties to a president are more likely to receive better ambassadorial assignments. Such findings are consistent with the conventional wisdom that presidents do not reward individuals with high levels of experience to important posts.

While unqualified appointees can certainly be bad for foreign policy, they can also reflect poorly on the sitting president. Last year, President Obama nominated hotel magnate (and campaign bundler) George Tsunis as US ambassador to Norway. After Tsunis botched questions at his confirmation hearing, Norwegian Americans petitioned senators to reject his nomination; Tsunis eventually withdrew his name from consideration.

Despite such examples, there’s little indication that future presidents will promote policy over politics. But instead of pursuing “the bold and the beautiful,” they might want to place greater credence in the savvy and the skilled.