Felix Salmon

The Muppets take Paris

By Felix Salmon
August 17, 2009

Earlier this month, 34 of Barack Obama’s first 60 ambassadorial appointments were political appointees rather than career diplomats — an astonishingly high percentage for a man who said when he took office that his “general inclination is to have civil service wherever possible serve in these posts”. Today, that ratio has gone up: it’s now 38 of the first 65, which means that four of the last five ambassadorial appointments have been political: plums given out to major fund-raisers.

The new ambassador to Paris is Charles Rivkin, whose history in the entertainment industry has him being forced to defend “the Dogg-frog flap” to the NYT:

“It’s a natural segue,” he said, referring not just to the Dogg-frog flap but to his broader background in children’s television. From the brilliant Mr. Henson, Mr. Rivkin said, he learned powerful lessons about communicating, and his background in children’s entertainment “prepared me well to engage Europe’s young generation of first-time voters”.

I’m sure the French are suitably impressed. Or not.

Matthew Yglesias attempts a partial defense of this practice, before giving up:

It’s simply in the nature of things that Spain’s ambassador in Washington will be a more senior figure in Spanish policy circles than America’s ambassador in Spain is in American policy circles. Which is to say that whether or not we appoint career professionals, government-to-government contacts that need to be run through an embassy will almost certainly be run through embassies located in Washington, where most countries are represented by very senior officials…

At the same time, for American foreign service officers heavy reliance on political appointees is extremely demoralizing.

To be fair to Mr Rivkin, Paris is something of a special case, although I’m not entirely sure why. When Obama said that “it would be disingenuous for me to suggest that there are not going to be some excellent public servants but who haven’t come through the ranks of the civil service,” I, for one, thought to myself “OK, he’s going to do Paris and maybe a couple of others”. But thirty-eight of these appointments is far too many.

Besides, I’m not at all sure that Yglesias is right that when a foreign government wants to go through an embassy it will go through its own embassy in Washington rather than through the US embassy in its own country. That might be true some of the time, for some governments. But it’s not a reliable general rule which the State Department can count on. America’s ambassadors are important — and when they’re famous mostly for their connection with the Muppets, that devalues the seriousness with which the US views the rest of the world.

7 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

….however, a Muppet version of “The Ugly American”, set (this time) in France could be a really, really funny movie. Call this “extended location scouting” and you’re good!

Posted by Mark Beauchamp | Report as abusive

Well, I suppose we out here in Paris ought to be thankful : after all, He could have sent us Bo.

Posted by Henri Tournyol du Clos | Report as abusive

How about some comparisons with other administrations.

Without this your numbers are useless.

Posted by spencer | Report as abusive

How many total ambassadorships are there?


Posted by Sean Broom | Report as abusive

Spencer, I think the number by other adminstrations are irrelavant. The quote from Obama at the start of the article is definate: career diplomats whenever possible. No comparison to previous presidents will erase most of his nominations being politically motivated.


One reason Paris could be a special case is that the residence is an incredibly posh “hotel particulier” down the Champs Elysees. The perfect treat for an major fund raiser.

Posted by Jean | Report as abusive

While there are some rather comical appointments, diplomacy just isn’t as big a deal as it used to be. Foreign ministers can call up (or fly to) Foggy Bottom/White House when they need to, instead of calling the ambassador.

Ambassadors liaise with the establishment of the country – something that a very rich political appointee can do much easier than an ill paid career FSO. Thomas Schieffer was ambassador to Australia and then Japan and won raves for his handling of both postings. He’s running in the Dem primary for Governor of Texas, was part of W’s Rangers investor group (and President of the Rangers), and ran a number of firms after a decent legal career. An Ambassador of that level can entertain, open doors, and make connections far better than an FSO.

FSOs are generally alienated from America and especially its politics (not as badly as their children, but substantially). It’s just the nature of the work – living abroad for years makes it far harder to keep up with how American life is lived and the key politics. They are thus not the right people to be the most senior representatives – they will struggle to understand and convey the needs and desires of the American people and of the President. They’re also of questionable loyalty, as their ultimate prosperity relies so heavily on the contacts that they have made in their years abroad. US ambassadors to Saudi Arabia are the most notorious for post career rewards, but it applies broadly to all career FSOs. Again its the nature of their careers rather than a personal aspersion and is something that simply needs to be managed – FSO’s interests simply are not aligned with the job of Ambassador to many countries.

Posted by Bulging Bracket | Report as abusive

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