Charles Rivkin is an American ambassador of a peculiar kind. He is not a career diplomat but a political appointee, with no previous professional experience in international relations. However, unlike most of his current and former non-career colleagues, he speaks fluently the language of the county he is posted to -- France -- and is very well plugged-in when it comes to political and social developments there. He has received rave reviews for his performance in Paris both in official State Department audits and from his embassy's employees.
But it wasn't Rivkin's diplomatic skills that landed him the coveted political ambassadorship. Rather, it was his skillful fundraising for President Obama during his 2008 election campaign.
"Why is ours the only profession where it's considered acceptable to appoint someone without any experience?"
As Obama prepares to make his second-term ambassadorial appointments, America's professional diplomats are asking a familiar, even if futile, question: Will the White House finally consider candidates' actual qualifications when rewarding them with the plushest posts in the world? Or will the amount of money they raised for the winning presidential candidate determine who goes where?
Obama seems to have lucked out with Rivkin. As his 2008 campaign's California finance co-chair, Rivkin was one of his top fundraisers, also known as "bundlers." Along with Rivkin's fellow political ambassadors considered successful during Obama's first term, such as John Roos in Japan, there have been those who were fired or forced to resign -- a familiar occurrence in both Democratic and Republican administrations. Both Rivkin and Roos are expected to leave their posts soon.
Caroline Kennedy was reported by Bloomerg News to be Roos' likely replacement. For Paris, the leading candidate is said to be Marc Lasry, CEO of a global investment firm. After considering Vogue editor Anna Wintour for London, the White House has apparently decided on Matthew Barzun, another business executive and Obama's ambassador to Sweden from 2009 until 2011. In a recent Pennsylvania State University study on the cost of political ambassadorships, the post in France came out on top in terms of "bundled contributions," with $4.4 million, while London requires $640,000. Bundled contributions are generally considered more important than personal ones.
Interviews with hundreds of career diplomats and dozens of political appointees for my recently published book, America's Other Army, revealed that many political ambassadors have no realistic concept about what diplomacy is in the 21st century or what it takes to lead a U.S. embassy today.
That doesn't mean that all political ambassadors are bad or that they shouldn't exist -- in fact, some of them put to shame career diplomats. The Foreign Service sees clear benefits to having them because of their personal relationships with the president and the need for an outside perspective in any government bureaucracy. The problem with political ambassadors is that there are too many -- about 30 percent on average -- and that their lack of at least some skills and background needed for the job is apparently no barrier to an appointment. After all, most don't even speak the language of their host country.
"Why is ours the only profession where it's considered acceptable to appoint someone without any experience?" said Steven Kashkett, a Foreign Service officer and former vice president of the American Foreign Service Association, a union of diplomats. "Would you appoint someone to head a hospital without medical experience?" Other career diplomats went as far as to suggest that ambassadorships should be treated like top military appointments, saying the president would never make a "bundler" a general -- and both the Armed Forces and the Foreign Service are in the business of national security, they said
Public perceptions about what an ambassador does are grossly inaccurate or outdated, which most political appointees learn the hard way. Gone are the days when an ambassador was just "the face" of the United States in a foreign country. In the complex international relations of the 21st century, being at the helm of a U.S. embassy that houses many government agencies -- sometimes with competing interests -- is no easy job.
An ambassador can certainly delegate the post's day-to-day management to his or her career deputy. But at the end of the day, it's the ambassador who sets the tone and often the priorities in both how the embassy functions and the daily relationship with the host country. Even in the age of email and smart phones, a good ambassador doesn't just carry out instructions from Washington, and personal relationships and one-on-one interactions make a big difference in diplomacy. The ambassadors who succeed have solid knowledge and understanding of how the host government works, know its main personalities, as well as its history, politics and culture.
There is a reason Rivkin takes his position in Paris very seriously. His father, William Rivkin, who passed away when Charles was a 5-year-old boy, was a three-time political ambassador -- President John F. Kennedy sent him to Luxembourg, and President Lyndon B. Johnson dispatched him to Senegal and Gambia.
A lawyer who befriended Kennedy while working on his 1960 election campaign, William Rivkin was eager to take on assignments not only in plush European posts but also in poverty-stricken Africa. In fact, the Foreign Service thinks of him almost as one of its own to this day. A year after his death in 1967, his family established an annual award in his name. It is still given by AFSA to a career diplomat for "constructive dissent" -- the State Department has a "dissent channel" that goes to the secretary of state's staff. A 2012 report by the State Department's Office of the Inspector-General called Rivkin a "dynamic and visionary" ambassador who "has fostered excellent morale among both American and locally employed staff."