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Bought and Sold Foreign Policy

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New York Jets owner Woody Johnson speaks during a press conference in April at the team’s practice facility in New Jersey

One of the many ways the strongest nation in the world is also the most embarrassing–we just send rich dudes to represent us to other nations instead of people who have half a clue what they are doing.

So you want to be a U.S. ambassador? Broadly speaking, there are two ways to do that.

The first is to make a career in policy or diplomacy and gain lots and lots of experience related to foreign affairs. The second is to have money. Lots and lots of money.

Running for president is really expensive, and presidential candidates in both parties require massive fundraising machines to bankroll campaigns that are becoming all the more so. A pattern has emerged under modern Republican and Democratic administrations alike where presidents will tap deep-pocket campaign donors or “bundlers” who directly donate or help raise hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars for the winning presidential candidate for plum ambassador posts.

Successive administrations argue that these donor ambassadors have the requisite skills and experience—even if outside the realm of foreign policy—through their work in philanthropy, finance, business, politics, or other career paths.

Critics of the practice, including former senior career diplomats, say it’s a form of “thinly veiled” corruption.

U.S. President Joe Biden has continued the trend of tapping mega-political donors for ambassador posts, albeit to a lesser extent than former U.S. President Donald Trump did—despite a push by at least one Democratic presidential hopeful in the 2020 campaign cycle to ban the practice altogether.

Around 44 percent of Trump’s ambassadors were political appointees, many of whom were deep-pocketed campaign donors, compared to around 31 percent under former U.S. President Barack Obama and 32 percent under former U.S. President George W. Bush. Biden has said he will keep the number of political appointee ambassadors at around 30 percent of the total. The practice is often a source of friction and anger within the U.S. State Department, where career diplomats who spent decades working on foreign policy are passed over for important ambassador assignments to make way for a handbag entrepreneur, a soap opera producer, a car dealership owner, or a consultant who happens to be married to an ultra-wealthy campaign donor.

There’s no clear-cut answer on whether donor ambassadors or career ambassadors are better at their jobs, as even the most disgruntled career diplomat would tell you. Some political donor ambassadors end up being highly effective and are even sought after from foreign governments for their close ties to the White House and political connections that few career State Department ambassadors can offer. Some career diplomats, by comparison, flounder in ambassador posts despite their decades of experience building up to the most sought-after senior assignment.

But granting ambassador posts to mega-campaign donors is a practice that no other Western government has—and one that has come under increased scrutiny as the United States slips in its role as the undisputed global leader with the rise of China on the world stage. Donors typically get high-profile and plum ambassador assignments for countries in Western Europe, South America, and Caribbean nations, whereas career diplomats often get the less-than-plum assignments in sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, or Central Asia.

Washington’s closest allies offer a stark foil to this story. London’s ambassador to Washington, one of its most important diplomatic postings, Karen Pierce, has spent over four decades in the United Kingdom’s diplomatic service and previously served as the U.K.’s ambassador to the United Nations and envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. The United States’ ambassador post to the United Kingdom has been filled by investment bankers, oil company executives, former admirals, car dealership owners, presidential confidantes, billionaire heirs, and more. The United States has only ever had one career diplomat serve as a full-fledged ambassador to the United Kingdom: Raymond Seitz, who served in the post from 1991 to 1994.

Yep, we’ve gone from John Quincy Adams to Jets owner Woody Johnson. And who is more qualified to represent a nation than someone who runs a quality franchise like the Jets!

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