American ambassadors should be competent
Erik Larsen’s book, “In the Garden of Beasts,” is a compelling read as it highlights the life of William E. Dodd, Ph.D., the American ambassador to Germany from 1933-1937. While the book shows us the scandalous behaviors of the ambassador’s daughter, it also provides an eerie view into the rise of Nazism in Germany.
But even more than that, the book shows us how important ambassadors can and should be in representing our nation and understanding the country to which they are posted. In light of some recent ambassadorial appointments, it reinforces the concept that our nation’s ambassadors should be competent.
The president has the final say in the selection of an individual to fill an ambassadorial slot. Traditionally, 70 percent of those chosen are career government and or Foreign Service personnel. Thesearepeople who know and understand the country to which they will be sent. Often, these individuals speak the language of the nation reasonably well. These are the people who are sent to the problematic countries.
The other 30 or more percent are typically “big givers” to the party in power. Some folks say such an arrangement isn’t so bad, because some nations to which this type of appointee is sent recognizes that this individual has a close link to our nation’s most powerful person.
The newly appointed ambassador to Norway, a delightful country I have visited a few times, leaves much to be desired. It’s understandable that the new envoy doesn’t speak Norwegian, which is a difficult and limited-use language outside of that country.
But more troubling are many news’ reports that Mr. George Tsunis, our new ambassador to this Nordic nation, didn’t understand that Norway does not have a president. In public statements, his ignorance became more visible, as he referred to the main political coalition as “some fringe elements that have a microphone and spew their h at red .” Last year I visited Argentina briefly. Yet, in that time period my husband and I couldn’t avoid seeing the crumbling infrastructure. For example, in Buenos Aires, the capital with a population of over 3 million in the city itself, people must look down when walking because the sidewalks are in such bad condition. Air-conditioning, even in quality hotels, is often on a rolling blackout because of energy problems and the president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who succeeded her husband into office, is following a path reminiscent of Eva Peron. So to this major South American nation we are sending Noah Bryson Mamet, a super fundraiser, who indicated he’s been to many places in the world, but hasn’t “had the opportunity yet to be there.” OMG. Presidents of both parties have made politically expedient appointments and rewarded major contributors for ages. But why is President Obama sending a man who’s never set foot in Argentina to represent us in this troubled country? There’s no word on whether this appointee speaks Spanish, but with all the negative publicity, if he did this likely would have been publicized.
The idea of rewarding people with money and power with ambassadorships is a time-honored tradition. Some well-off people do have knowledge of and interest in the places they are posted, but obviously others do not.
When new ambassadors are named, we should not have to find out that they don’t know the basics of the country to which they’ll be posted or have never visited there. It seems like so little to ask, but American ambassadors should be competent .
Diane W. Mufson is a retired psychologist. She is a former citizen member of The Herald-Dispatch editorial board and a regular contributor to The Herald-Dispatch editorial page. Her email is dwmufson@ comcast.net.
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