Ambassador Wintour? Is Diplomacy a Profession or a Hobby?

Anna Wintour attends the Jason Wu spring 2013 show, Friday, Sept. 7, 2012 in New York. (Photo by Diane Bondareff/Invision/AP
Anna Wintour attends the Jason Wu spring 2013 show, Friday, Sept. 7, 2012 in New York. (Photo by Diane Bondareff/Invision/AP Images)

Why do so many people think that anyone can do diplomacy? Would you trust someone who wasn't trained as a surgeon to perform an operation on you? It's high time we realized that diplomacy, especially in the complex 21st century, is not a hobby, but a difficult and consequential profession.

I don't know how credible recent reports are that President Obama is considering sending longtime Vogue editor Anna Wintour as his ambassador to London. I don't know Wintour, either. She has certainly proven herself an outstanding fashion magazine editor and will, no doubt, have an important place in pop culture history.

But diplomacy today is about much more than just being "the face" of the United States to the host country or about throwing and attending parties. Even with a staunch ally like Britain, Washington has an enormous amount of serious daily business to take care of, and more than a few difficult issues to work through. There is no evidence that Wintour would be good at that. Yes, she would have a staff of professionals, but running an embassy in 2013 and beyond is not quite like running a magazine.

The U.S. is unique in the world in making political, rather than career, appointments to about a third of its ambassadorship posts. I don't subscribe to the opinion that political ambassadors shouldn't exist -- the Foreign Service can use new blood and outside views from time to time, and there have been political ambassadors who put to shame their career colleagues.

The real issue is that those political appointments -- in both Democratic and Republican administrations -- usually have nothing to do with the respective nominees' skills and experience. Those ambassadorships are given away based on how much money a candidate raised during the sitting president's election campaign.

Obama's record so far has been a mixed bag. His ambassador to Paris, Charles Rivkin, has done an excellent job. He owes his appointment largely to having been the California finance co-chair of Obama's 2008 campaign, but he has a family connection to diplomacy -- his late father, William Rivkin, was President John F. Kennedy's non-career ambassador to Luxembourg, and President Lyndon B. Johnson's ambassador to Senegal and Gambia. After his death, his family established an annual award in his name, and it's still given to a career Foreign Service officer for "constructive dissent."

Rivkin, a former top executive at two entertainment companies in Los Angeles, is a political ambassador of the rarest kind. He has a direct line to the White House, he is very well plugged-in when it comes to political and social developments in France, he is highly respected in Paris, he does extensive public and media outreach, he knows how to run an organization with 1,000 employees, who give him high marks -- and he speaks the language of his host country, which many Americans wrongly assume is the case with all ambassadors.

A 2012 report by the State Department's Office of the Inspector-General called Rivkin a "dynamic and visionary" ambassador who "has fostered excellent morale among both American and locally employed staff."

However, most political ambassadors do not speak the language of their host country. Many do not have a direct line to the White House, either, and even if they do, they rarely use it. While those with executive business background are usually good managers, there are academics, lawyers and others who are not.

Cynthia Stroum, a former investor in start-up companies, was one of them. She was forced to resign as ambassador to Luxembourg in early 2011 after just 11 months in the job, following a scathing report of her tenure by the Office of the Inspector-General. "Most employees describe the ambassador as aggressive, bullying, hostile and intimidating, which has resulted in an extremely difficult, unhappy and uncertain work environment," the report said. "The bulk of the mission's internal problems are linked to her leadership deficiencies, the most damaging of which is an abusive management style." Things got so bad that "most of the senior staff, including two deputy chiefs of mission and two section chiefs, have either curtailed or volunteered for service in Kabul and Baghdad."

Many ambassadors indulge in renovations of their residences, but Stroum apparently crossed a line. "Too many of the limited resources of this embassy have been allocated to issues related to her personal support," the report said. In the summer of 2010, several staff members "spent several days locating and purchasing an umbrella" for Stroum's new patio, the document added.

Another 2011 inspector-general report criticized Douglas Kmiec, ambassador to Malta at the time, for neglecting his overall duties and engaging in "outside activities [that] have detracted from his attention to core mission goals." Kmiec, a law professor and former legal adviser in the Reagan White House, spent most of his time promoting his Roman Catholic faith, mainly by writing various articles and speaking about religion, as well as issues such as abortion.

Many people outside the State Department are surprised that new ambassadors -- both career and political -- get only two weeks of training at the Foreign Service Institute, which has no plans to extend the course, said its director, Ruth Whiteside. "The expectation is that they will be doing individual consultations on their particular post, have briefings at various agencies and other preparations," she said.

Rivkin said the formal preparation process was not sufficient for the standards he set himself, and he "interviewed dozens of former ambassadors, took a lot of notes and learned a lot."

Most Foreign Service officers do not question the value of political ambassadors, but they wish that the White House made selections based on nominees' skills and experience, which is in fact required by the Foreign Service Act of 1980.

"The American people wouldn't use a toothpaste that has not been certified by the government or drive over a bridge that wasn't built according to the highest standards," said Ronald Neumann, president of the American Academy of Diplomacy and a retired career ambassador. "Why do people think that anyone can do foreign policy?"