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.
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."
Charles Rivkin grew up among political royalty. "Bobby Kennedy sent me a telegram when I was born" in 1962, Rivkin told me in Paris in 2012. "And here is a picture of me at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, with Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who wrote a note on a napkin to get me out of school." Humphrey was Rivkin's godfather.
Although the younger Rivkin chose a career in business, rising to the top of two entertainment companies and making powerful friends in Hollywood, he eventually found a professional path to his father's legacy. In 2004, he worked on Secretary of State John Kerry's presidential campaign, and then on Obama's 2008 election. "I joined the campaign before anybody believed that Obama was possible," he said.
Not all political ambassadors are "bundlers" -- there are also academics, former members of Congress and other politicians, as well as people who are friends of the president's. Michael McFaul, a rare political appointee as ambassador to Russia, was the top Russia expert at the National Security Council for most of Obama's first term and used to teach at Stanford University. AFSA maintains a list of all ambassadors and keeps score of career vs. political ones on its website.
Rivkin cited three main areas where political appointees have an advantage over career diplomats. First, "they have a relationship with the White House." Second, they tend to bring innovation and are more willing to challenge the bureaucracy and "fight institutional lethargy," because they are not afraid of wrecking their careers. Third, they usually have extensive management and leadership experience.
That is certainly a description of the perfect political ambassador, and it possibly applies to Rivkin and a few others, such as Clark (Sandy) Randt, President George W. Bush's ambassador to China for whom former Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice had high praise. President "Hu Jintao once told me that Sandy knew more Chinese people than Hu Jintao did," Rice said of Randt, who is a fluent Mandarin speaker.
However, not all political ambassadors have a direct line to the White House, and even if they do, they rarely use it. While those with executive business background are usually good managers, there are others who are not. As for innovation, that depends on the individual. Another common argument in favor of political ambassadorships is that those wealthy Americans can help underfunded embassies by paying for parties and other events, which might not be possible otherwise. That, however, raises the more important question of whether Washington's national security priorities are in the right place if it relies on private citizens to bankroll its diplomacy.
Among the political ambassadors considered successful, though not perfect, in recent years, are Tom Schieffer, whom Bush sent to Australia and then Japan, and Howard Baker, Schieffer's predecessor in Tokyo. Neither of them spoke Japanese. Schieffer had long business and management experience and was a close friend of Bush's. Baker, a former Senate majority leader and chief of staff to President Ronald Reagan, had superb understanding of how Washington works, which is one of the main deficiencies of the Foreign Service, whose work takes place mainly overseas. Other Bush ambassadors, however, "didn't work out, and we had to fire them," Powell told me after leaving office in 2005, without naming names.
Obama's appointments have also been a mixed bag, career diplomats said. Cynthia Stroum, a former investor in start-up companies, was forced to resign as ambassador to Luxembourg in early 2011 after just 11 months in the job, following a scathing report of her tenure by the Office of the Inspector-General. "Most employees describe the ambassador as aggressive, bullying, hostile and intimidating, which has resulted in an extremely difficult, unhappy and uncertain work environment," the report said. "The bulk of the mission's internal problems are linked to her leadership deficiencies, the most damaging of which is an abusive management style." Things got so bad that "most of the senior staff, including two deputy chiefs of mission and two section chiefs, have either curtailed or volunteered for service in Kabul and Baghdad."
Many ambassadors indulge in renovations of their residences, but Stroum apparently crossed a line. "Too many of the limited resources of this embassy have been allocated to issues related to her personal support," the report said. In the summer of 2010, several staff members "spent several days locating and purchasing an umbrella" for Stroum's new patio, the document added.
Another 2011 inspector-general report criticized Douglas Kmiec, ambassador to Malta at the time, for neglecting his overall duties and engaging in "outside activities [that] have detracted from his attention to core mission goals." Kmiec, a law professor and former legal adviser in the Reagan White House, spent most of his time promoting his Roman Catholic faith, mainly by writing various articles and speaking about religion, as well as issues such as abortion.
New ambassadors -- both career and political -- get only two weeks of training at the Foreign Service Institute, the State Department's training facility, which has no plans to extend the course, said its director, Ruth Whiteside. "The expectation is that they will be doing individual consultations on their particular post, have briefings at various agencies and other preparations," she said. "These are appointments made by the president of the United States. There is no higher power. Our job is to give them the maximum chance for success."
Rivkin said the formal preparation process was not sufficient for the standards he set himself, and he "interviewed dozens of former ambassadors, took a lot of notes and learned a lot."
"The day I'm confirmed by the U.S. Senate, it doesn't make a bit of difference whether I'm political or career, Democrat or Republican," Rivkin said. "I have the same responsibilities to the president, the Congress and the American people. This is not a place to have fun and parties, but to get things done with one of our oldest allies. It's not only a duty, it's also a gift."