Political appointees as U.S ambassadors: a recipe for failure

President Trump clearly doesn’t believe the European Union  and its 28 member countries are important enough to have a trained career diplomat serve as the U.S. Ambassador to the large and complex organization.

Instead, Trump’s man in Brussels is Portland businessman Gordon Sondland, the Founder and CEO of Portland-based Provenance Hotels, which owns and/or operates 19 hotels in seven U.S. states and has another six hotels currently under development.

sondland

Hotelier turned ambassador, Gordon Sondland

According to OpenSecrets, which tracks money in politics, Sondland is a major Republican donor and bundler. He has given more than $446,000 to federal candidates and groups, 94 percent of which went to Republican causes. After Trump won, he funneled $1 million into Trump’s inaugural committee through four different LLCs.

The U.S. Department off State doesn’t even bother to emphasize Sondland’s experience in international diplomacy in his biography, choosing, instead, to start off with a description of his background that reads more like a promotional brochure for Provenance Hotels:

Ambassador Sondland is the Founder and CEO of Provenance Hotels, a national owner and operator of full-service boutique “lifestyle” hotels.  Provenance and its affiliates (founded in 1985), currently own and/or operate 19 hotels in seven states and have another six hotels currently under development.  Provenance creates unique, independent full-service, urban hotels, each with their own design, story and closely associated art collection.  The Company employs over 1,000 associates between its hotels and its Portland headquarters.  The Company has received critical acclaim for its hotels from such varied publications as The New York Times, Conde Nast, Travel and Leisure, and many other national and international publications.

You almost expect the bio to end with a link to Sondland’s hotels so you can book a room.

I spent part of my professional career working with the talented people of the U.S. Department of State on international treaties. I assure you there is no substitute for education and training in international affairs and diplomacy. Just as it is a mistake to believe that a businessperson is most qualified to be president because “the country should be run like a business,”  businesspeople are not necessarily naturals in the world of diplomacy.

Sondland’s involvement in sensitive discussions with Ukraine and the chaos that has ensued illustrates the point.

As Edward L. Peck, a former Foreign Service Officer with the U.S. Department oi State, wrote in The Foreign Service Journal.,“Without a doubt, the ability to raise millions of dollars for a presidential campaign is a valuable skill. But rewarding a fundraiser or “bundler” with the job of heading a U.S. embassy reveals total ignorance of what the job entails. Almost unknown outside diplomatic circles, an ambassador’s responsibilities are numerous, complex and important—sometimes critical. And, as with any and all top management positions, they cannot be effectively carried out by beginner.”

But that is who President Trump has been appointing ambassadors in far too many cases – diplomatic beginners.

As of Sept. 26, 2019, there had been 166 ambassadorial appointments under President Trump. Of those, 92 (55.4%) were career and 74 (44.6%) were political appointees. Among Trump’s political appointees are:

  • Jamie D. McCourt, Ambassador to the French Republic and Principality of Monaco: A former Owner, President, and CEO of the Los Angeles Dodgers
mccourt

Jamie D. McCourt (center) being sworn in on November 2, 2017, as the U.S. Ambassador to the French Republic and Principality of Monaco.

  • Robert Wood Johnson, Ambassador to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland/Court of St. James’s: Chairman and CEO of The Johnson Company, New York, NY, a private asset management firm, and Chairman and CEO of the New York Jets football team;
  • Sharon Day, Ambassador to Costa Rica: Worked for more than 20 years for the Republican Party at the local, state, and national level, and most recently in leadership roles as Co-Chair of the Republican National Committee (RNC) and RNC Secretary.
  • Ronald J. Gidwitz, Ambassador to Belgium: Former President and CEO of Helene Curtis, a toiletry and cosmetic manufacturer and marketer.

Many of the political appointees may be accomplished people, but that does not always translate into diplomatic skill.

“The United States has enjoyed a position of unprecedented global leadership in our lifetimes,“ said Barbara J. Stephenson, former President of The American Foreign Service Association. “This leadership was built on a foundation of military might, economic primacy, good governance, tremendous cultural appeal–and diplomatic prowess to channel all that power, hard and soft, into global leadership that has kept us safe and prosperous at home.”

Going forward, the interests of the United States in our troubled world will be best served by ambassadors with diplomatic prowess instead of political connections.

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