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Sen. Kaine wants more career, fewer political-fundraising ambassadors

Have you heard the story about the expensive handbag designer, a member of Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club, who was his ambassador to South Africa? Although born there, Lana Marks had no previous diplomatic experience.

What about Kelly Craft, a Republican donor and Trump’s ambassador to Canada, who reportedly was dubbed an “absent ambassador” because she was so often away from her post?

Or the one about the bipartisan political fundraiser and would-be U.S. ambassador to Norway nominated by President Barack Obama? George Tsunis had never been there and displayed a shocking lack of knowledge about the country during his disastrous Senate confirmation hearing. Afterward, he withdrew his nomination.

It’s examples like these that led Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) to propose legislation designed to strengthen the corps of top-level State Department employees, including ambassadors (also called chiefs of mission) and assistant secretaries. Kaine isn’t opposed to politicos getting high-profile assignments, but he wants to ensure they are competent. Sens. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) are co-sponsors.

Tsunis, by the way, now is President Biden’s ambassador to Greece, where he speaks the language and which is the home of his parents.

Trump’s possible reelection is one reason for the senator’s bill. Kaine opposed a Trump executive order, rescinded by Biden, that would have created Schedule F, a new category of federal employees without the civil service employment protections they now have. It threatened to infuse the federal workforce with more political appointees, while diminishing the nonpartisan staff.

“We saw Donald Trump try it, which makes me believe he would do it again … as he said he would,” Kaine explained during a Tuesday afternoon interview in his Capitol Hill office.

Unlike many countries, the United States does not always send its best abroad, those well-regarded diplomats trained to represent Washington internationally.

“I want to professionalize our Foreign Service to a greater degree and make sure that even political appointees have some bona fides,” Kaine said, “in addition to having been supporters of the president.”

According to a summary of the bill, Kaine’s legislation would:

  • Require at least 75 percent of State’s assistant secretaries come from the Senior Foreign Service or the Senior Executive Service.
  • Call for a president to certify “that competence, rather than contributions to political campaigns, is the primary qualification for the appointment of an individual as a chief of mission.”
  • Ensure that “unvetted and non-Senate confirmed sub-ambassadorial political appointees do not serve in extended and cushy overseas assignments at significant taxpayer expense.”
  • Susan R. Johnson, president of the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training, favors limiting political ambassadorships to no more than 15 percent of the total group. “I regret that these things need to be legislated,” she said, “but it seems that’s where we are.”

Thomas Yazdgerdi, president of the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), would like all ambassadors to be Foreign Service officers, but said the reality is some popular postings “are going to have political ambassadors … that’s not going to change” under either political party.

“I can’t remember the last time, for example, there was a career ambassador to France or the U.K., or Germany or Italy,” he added. “It’s been a long time, if ever.”

Yazdgerdi pointed to U.S. law that says ambassadors “should possess clearly demonstrated competence to perform the duties of a chief of mission,” including, “to the maximum extent practicable,” knowledge of the country’s language, culture, economic and political issues. Furthermore, “positions as chief of mission should normally be accorded to career members of the [Foreign] Service.”

Currently, 62 percent of Biden’s ambassadors are career personnel, while 38 percent are not, according to AFSA’s ambassador tracker. Trump favored more political appointees: 43.5 percent, with 56.5 percent career. During the Obama administration, 70 percent were career employees and 30 percent were political. Kaine favors an ambassador cadre that is 75 percent career diplomats.

“At the senior level, the United States is an extreme outlier among foreign services in the number of political appointees as ambassadors, even in key posts,” according to a 2017 University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin) study. It acknowledges some “highly accomplished political appointees who have been superb ambassadors,” but adds, “there have been many more patronage appointees with no relevant qualifications, having been chosen principally for their support in presidential election campaigns.”

Kaine wants to stop that. Seated across from a Mark Campbell painting of the James River in the senator’s hometown of Richmond, Kaine, a canoe and kayak enthusiast, called for “a good balance” between career and political ambassadors. “I don’t think the State Department needs to be the fully professionalized diplomatic corps that you see in other nations.”

Why not?

Some nations, Kaine answered, appreciate having a U.S. chief of mission who is “a close confidant of the president … they feel like that is a sign of respect.” Career diplomats come with “fantastic track records,” but they’re less likely to have a “really close relationship with the president.”

Yet, ambassadors deployed by other countries “typically speak several languages, are well versed in the country to which they are assigned, and are career professionals with extensive knowledge of their home ministries,” UT Austin reported.

That’s not always the case with ambassadors chosen for political connections.

“It must be underscored that the United States,” the university researchers wrote, “pays a heavy price for being so disadvantaged at the top level of many of their critical missions abroad.”