Analysis & Comment

Opinion | The Wealth of Ambassadors: Does It Matter?

To the Editor:

Re “Stop Letting Rich People Buy Ambassadorships,” by Michelle Cottle (Opinion, March 22):

There are certainly some entrenched Washington traditions that should be abandoned — for instance, the White House Thanksgiving turkey pardon. But abolishing the American system of appointing political ambassadors is not one of them.

Political appointees are vital to our effective system of diplomacy. They come with business and managerial skills, a sense of urgency and connections that can make a big impact abroad. While career bureaucrats work to perpetuate the system, political ambassadors question and improve it.

And that’s a good thing. Picking successful people from outside the sclerotic and cloistered pipeline of professional diplomats gives rise to fresh ideas, new tactics and forward movement in the staid world of international diplomacy.

Critics feature me as the poster child for ambassadorial incompetence, arguing that my only qualification was my ability to “write a big check,” but that narrative is belied by the fact that I accomplished a great deal for the United States in a short time, as most of other political appointees do.

Gordon Sondland
The writer was ambassador to the European Union from 2018 to 2020.

To the Editor:

Michelle Cottle’s article is important. But there is another aspect to the problem. Only rich people can afford to provide the official representation that ambassadors need in certain high-profile and expensive countries. Take, for example, the case of an ambassador who was asked to provide extra funding for July 4 celebrations.

Two decades ago, an American ambassador to a country somewhat important to the United States said he had to spend $10,000 of his salary on official representation. Although he could deduct this from his income tax, it was obviously inappropriate.

So Congress needs to consider proper levels of representational support for selected embassies, and then encourage career Foreign Service officers, academics and people with linguistic and specialized knowledge skills appropriate for that country to apply to some of these posts.

Money should not be the reason for such an assignment if the United States is to be properly represented abroad. If money is the essential reason for the appointment, then the prestige of the United States will suffer.

David I. Steinberg
Bethesda, Md.
The writer worked for the Asia Foundation and the U.S. Agency for International Development and is a retired professor of Asian studies at Georgetown University.

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