The political determinants of ambassadorial appointments.

Author:Hollibaugh, Gary E., Jr.

During a January 9, 2009, press conference (1) announcing members of his national security team, President-elect Barack Obama responded to this question from Hans Nichols of Bloomberg News: "Will you be appointing big donors in the time-honored tradition to foreign embassies to serve as ambassadorships? Or will you draw solely from the ranks of career foreign service?" He responded as follows: "Are there going to be political appointees to ambassadorships? There probably will be some. ... I think it would be ... disingenuous for me to suggest that there are not going to be some excellent public servants but who haven't come through ... the ranks of the civil service."

While he did not provide a definitive yes or no regarding the prospect of appointing big donors, the president-elect gave strong hints that he would do so, following the well-trod path of other chief executives before him. Indeed, in the ensuing months, when making his nominations to the United Kingdom, France, Japan, and Denmark, he would nominate individuals who had either bundled or donated at least $100,000 to his campaign or inauguration. (2) Additionally, he would nominate former six-term Democratic congressman Timothy Roemer to be his ambassador to India and David Huebner--general counsel for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation--to be his ambassador to New Zealand and Samoa; while neither had contributed significant amounts to President Obama's campaign, they both provided political assistance in other ways. Representative Roemer--who was also a member of the 9/11 Commission---endorsed then candidate Obama during the Democratic primary and was a strong advocate of his foreign policy; the nomination of the openly gay Huebner was perceived as a gesture to shore up support within the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community. (3)

Worrying to many in the media was that none of aforementioned had prior diplomatic experience; indeed, while relatively rare, scandals caused by ambassadors without prior diplomatic experience had been detrimental to American interests in the past. For example, during his tenure as President Richard Nixon's ambassador to Jamaica, Vincent de Roulet--who had no previous diplomatic experience, but donated $75,000 to President Nixon's reelection campaign--publicly referred to Jamaican locals as idiots and children, closed off the American embassy's restrooms to Jamaican visa applicants, offered to improperly support one candidate in a national election in return for a promise to refrain from nationalizing the U.S.-owned bauxite industry, and was eventually declared persona non grata by the Jamaican government and expelled from the country; this move was followed by the tripling of Jamaican taxes and royalties on purchases made by American companies. (4)

Overall, critics at home and abroad lambasted President Obama's decisions as nothing but the perpetuation of the politics of patronage, to the possible detriment of American interests abroad. (5) Indeed, over the course of his first term, approximately one-quarter of all his nominees for ambassadorships and other chiefs of mission to foreign states would begin their tenure without previous Foreign Service experience; four of them--his ambassadors to Malta, Luxembourg, Kenya, and the Bahamas--resigned after the State Department's Office of the Inspector General issued reports alleging neglect and the fostering of dysfunction and low staff morale. (6) However, as Figure (1) illustrates, the proportion of nonprofessional ambassadorial appointments is roughly in line with prior presidents, if not reflective of a larger trend toward a greater emphasis on formal Foreign Service experience. (7)

Nonetheless, despite their prevalence, nonprofessional ambassadors are not uniformly distributed, as certain countries are more attractive postings than others. Figure 2 displays several regional patterns; nonprofessional appointments are common in Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, China, India, Japan, Canada, and the Caribbean. (8) Less common are nonprofessional appointments to Latin America, southeast Africa, and Saudi Arabia; that said, these regions still receive fewer Foreign Service appointments than Central and Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe, the Balkans, the Middle East, and Africa outside the aforementioned southeastern region. However, less clear are the precise factors driving these regional variations. Instead, in place of rigorous scholarly research, media accounts have emphasized the appointments of nonprofessional ambassadors to plum posts, without explicitly stating the latent qualities that make certain postings more attractive than others.

While there exists little research on the determinants of nonprofessional ambassadors per se (but see Fedderke and Jett 2015; also see Flynn 2014 for a discussion of the importance of domestic factors with respect to appointments to the foreign policy bureaucracy more generally), there exists a rather large body of research on the qualifications and backgrounds of executive agency appointees (e.g., Cohen 1998; Edwards 2001; Heclo 1977; Hollibaugh 2015a, 2015b; Hollibaugh, Horton, and Lewis 2014; Krause and O'Connell 2015; Lewis 2008, 2009). Previous research on agency appointments has suggested nonprofessional appointments are most likely when an agency is not a particularly high priority to the president, when an agency's mission is ideologically aligned with the policies of the president, when individual appointments have little influence on agency outcomes, and when the benefits of agency expertise are particularly low (Hollibaugh 2015b; Hollibaugh, Horton, and Lewis 2014; Lewis 2008, 2009). That said, because of their prominence, international character, and frequent use for patronage purposes, it is unknown whether ambassadorial appointments are governed by the same dynamics. However, it is precisely because of their frequent use for patronage purposes and high rates of nonprofessional appointments that the examination of ambassadorial appointments provides an attractive opportunity to determine whether the dynamics that lead to nonprofessional appointees in executive agencies can explain nonprofessional appointments more generally.



In this article, I place ambassadorial appointments in the context of a growing literature on the importance of patronage versus expertise in executive appointments. I then identify key predictions from this literature and show that ambassadorial appointments provide ideal empirical tests. Following this, I draw on a new data set consisting of the backgrounds of all ambassadorial appointees confirmed during the 68th through 112th Congresses. The results provide broad support for my hypotheses, suggesting that a combination of domestic and international factors is of prime importance when making ambassadorial appointments. Domestically, I find presidents are more likely to make nonprofessional appointments when there is less domestic political opposition to them doing so. Internationally, I find that nonprofessional appointments are more likely to be made to easier posts, which are characterized as those having characteristics that previous research suggests correlates with lower risks of conflict with the United States. My results also suggest the existence and importance of demand-side factors as well, as fewer Foreign Service appointees are appointed to arguably more attractive posts with higher qualities of life. I then conclude by discussing how my findings influence our understanding of presidential appointments.

Ambassadors and the Patronage--Expertise Trade-off

Previous studies of executive appointments (e.g., Hollibaugh 2015a, 2015b; Hollibaugh, Horton, and Lewis 2014; Lewis 2007; Lewis 2008; Parsneau 2008) have argued that when making executive appointments, presidents are forced to make trade-offs between policy goals and political goals, a line of thought that extends at least as far back as Wilson's (1887) theory of the politics--administration dichotomy. Indeed, while patronage appointments "provide a means for presidents to hold supporters in line ... and accomplish their policy goals" (Lewis 2008, 208), agencies run by appointees with connections to the president's party or campaign (i.e., those most likely to have been patronage appointees) tend to perform worse than agencies run by other types of appointees, suggesting patronage is one possible method by which bureaucratic incompetence arises (Gallo and Lewis 2012; Hollibaugh 2015b; Lewis 2007). (9) Conceivably, the same dynamic might hold in embassies, if for no other reason than the fact that nonprofessional ambassadors are less likely to have prior diplomatic experience and are likely less familiar with the day-to-day workings of embassies.

However, as Hollibaugh, Horton, and Lewis (2014, 1025) note, "the questions of how, when, and where presidents prioritize patronage considerations over other factors are relatively understudied ones within the field of American politics (Bearfield 2009; Souraf 1960; but see Lewis 2009; Lewis and Waterman 2013; Tolchin and Tolchin 1971; Tolchin and Tolchin 2010). One reason for the scarcity is that it is hard to identify when an appointment has been made for patronage reasons as opposed to--or even in addition to--what [Alexander Hamilton called] 'intrinsic merit."' While Hollibaugh, Horton, and Lewis (2014) collect an impressive data set with which they can test their hypotheses, their analysis is inherently limited due to the fact that (1) they are only able to collect data on appointments through the first six months of the Obama administration and (2) their conceptions of expertise and patronage require them to use several different measures in their analysis, with varying degrees of success. Using ambassadors as a way to examine expertise allows for a way around this, as whether or not ambassadors were drawn from the ranks of...

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