Under Presidents Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, roughly 70 percent of ambassadorial posts went to Foreign Service Officers — professionals who spent years training for such a post. The other 30 percent have been political appointments. Some of those are competent foreign-policy veterans; others have country expertise from working in business or the nonprofit sector; still others are chiefly qualified by their willingness to pour money into their patron’s political campaign. Under Mr. Trump, the number of political appointments rose to 43 percent.
The history of American diplomacy is replete with presidential cronies who get their coveted ambassadorships only to find themselves in over their heads. Franklin Roosevelt sent the Democratic backer Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. as his envoy to the United Kingdom. Like Harvey, Kennedy proved to be a headstrong magnate who couldn’t control his isolationist streak. He predicted that “democracy is finished in England,” after the Battle of Britain and resigned soon after.
Over the following decades, as the costs of campaigning rose, money took the place of back-room influence as the key criterion for would-be ambassadors. Richard Nixon’s lawyer put an explicit price tag on an ambassadorship — $250,000 for Costa Rica — then denied having done so to a grand jury. One of his appointed donors, Vincent de Roulet, called his Jamaican hosts “idiots” and “children.” De Roulet’s attempts to protect American bauxite interests by threatening to interfere in Jamaican elections were not well-received by the host government. In 1973, Jamaica declared him persona non grata; he resigned in disgrace.
President Jimmy Carter attempted to reform the system, promising a merit-based process overseen by a bipartisan screening board, and Congress made another attempt to limit political appointments with the Foreign Service Act of 1980. But the pay-for-play system continued, spurred on by campaign costs and the aspirations of the wealthy.
William A. Wilson, a longtime friend and backer of Ronald Reagan’s, was made the first United States ambassador to the Vatican, a post he held until 1986, when reports surfaced of his unauthorized meeting with the Libyan dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi, which flouted White House policy.
George Tsunis, another wealthy hotelier, raised $1.3 million for Mr. Obama and was his choice to be ambassador to Norway. Mr. Tsunis proved so ignorant of the country in his confirmation hearing that the Senate sat on his nomination for more than a year. Mr. Tsunis eventually gave up. Three other Obama backers who made it through the confirmation process for other assignments resigned in the midst of scathing reports on their management from the State Department’s inspector general.
Under Mr. Trump, the inspector general has reportedly examined allegations of racist and sexist remarks by Woody Johnson, a seven-figure donor who became ambassador to the United Kingdom. Jeffrey Ross Guntner, Mr. Trump’s donor-ambassador to Iceland, reportedly wanted to manage the embassy remotely, from California, through the coronavirus pandemic. Kelly Craft, currently ambassador to the United Nations, spent more than 300 days traveling outside the country during her brief tour as donor-ambassador to Canada.