Professor, retired ambassador, pens book on why U.S. ambassadors still matter

Where do American ambassadors come from? Where do they go? What do they do? Why do they matter? In his new book, "American Ambassadors: The Past, Present and Future of America’s Diplomats," Penn State School of International Affairs Professor Dennis Jett answers these questions and gives suggestions on how the government can improve American diplomacy.

Jett, who spent nearly 30 years in the U.S. Foreign Service and served as U.S. ambassador to Mozambique and Peru, begins by explaining that ambassadors get the title in one of two ways. The career route, which supplies about 70 percent of the ambassadors, requires obtaining entry into the Foreign Service and spending at least 20 years working one’s way up through its ranks. The second way is to have a personal, economic or political relationship with the president.

The first way entails being transferred every few years to places that are often remote, and sometimes dangerous, where diplomatic skills are frequently tested. The other route usually involves a large campaign donation or helping in some other way to get the president elected.

Several factors influence to which country a person named as ambassador goes.

“Gender, race, sexual orientation and, in the case of a political appointee, money, are all determining factors of where a particular ambassador might be posted,” Jett said.

The book discusses the nominations of two political appointees who were confirmed by the Senate last week as the ambassadors to Argentina and Hungary. They were criticized because neither speaks the local language, has been to their country or displayed much evidence in their confirmation hearings that they knew much about it. They also lack what many consider the requisite qualifications for the job, instead having been successful as a public relations consultant and a soap opera producer. They both also bundled large amounts of money for the president's re-election campaign.

 “Being an ambassador isn’t just going to cocktail parties or avoiding paying parking tickets, it’s communicating the American position on a wide range of issues to leaders and the public, and that's hard to do for an ambassador without government experience, management experience or international experience,” Jett said. 

Although Jett is quick to state that some career diplomats don’t always have the necessary skills, he pointed out that the U.S. needs effective ambassadors in today’s globalized world as much as it ever did and perhaps even more. Despite advances in communications technology, Jett asserts that a deep understanding of the country and personal relationships are necessary to advance and protect American interests abroad.

Jett realizes political appointments are neither new nor are they going to cease, but suggests three ways to facilitate improvement in ambassador performance. The first entails more transparency.

“Thanks in part to the Supreme Court, the corrupting influence of money on politics is growing tremendously and that is not going to change,” he said. “But, in a democracy, the voters have every right to know who is attempting to buy the politicians who supposedly represent the public's interest and not simply that of special interests. Much greater transparency and stricter reporting requirements are necessary to achieve that.”

Second, Jett suggests that all ambassadorial nominees should be tested by the Foreign Service Institute in the language of their country and that score should be made public.

Finally, he proposes more accountability, and recommends a process for ensuring it. Currently, embassies are slated for review by the inspector general every five years, however, because of budget and manpower shortages, those reviews actually happen only about every eight years. As ambassadors generally change posts every three years, many ambassadors never have that kind of performance evaluation, which now must be posted on the inspector general's website.

“A system of yearly reviews and reports might make appointees less enthusiastic to buy the title if they were going to be held up to that level of scrutiny,” Jett said. “Four political-appointee ambassadors have resigned in recent years after getting a bad inspection report. Having a way to measure the performance of all ambassadors more frequently is not a complete solution, but it would help.”

Jett joined the Penn State School of International Affairs in 2008 after his career in the U.S. Foreign Service and eight years as the dean of the International Center at the University of Florida. In addition to his time as ambassador in Mozambique and Peru, his experience abroad includes tours in Argentina and Israel, and in Malawi and Liberia as deputy chief of mission. He also served as special assistant to the president and senior director for African Affairs on the National Security Council at the Carter Center in Atlanta. This is his third book published by Palgrave Macmillan.

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Last Updated July 22, 2015