THE issue of ambassadorial appointments is once more in the news. Nominations by the Bush administration of major campaign contributors without conspicuous international experience to some of the key posts in Europe have led at least one senator, Paul Sarbanes of Maryland, to challenge their appointments. Because of a deep tradition of political patronage in diplomatic appointments and the reluctance of other senators - even when in opposition - to oppose presidential wishes, Senator Sarbanes's efforts have not yet been successful. Nominations he opposed were voted out of committee and will be considered on the floor after Labor Day.
No major nation pays such little attention to the qualifications of its ambassadors. European countries, including the Soviet Union, turn either to professional diplomats or to individuals of national stature with experience in foreign affairs. Only smaller nations, some of which use ambassadorial appointments to exile political opponents, are as capricious in this field as the United States.
I have been asked several times recently whether ambassadorial appointments really are important in a day of rapid communications. I believe they are as important as ever - perhaps more so.
In the two or three decades after World War II when the United States was the undisputed economic and military power, nations deferred to US representatives because they represented this nation's power. That is no longer the case. US representatives abroad must advance their country's interest through an understanding of a foreign environment, a sound grasp of US policies and interests, and their personal standing.
Furthermore, in today's world where political change - especially in Eastern Europe, Latin America, and Asia - can have an effect on the success of US policies, the ability of an embassy to detect currents within another political system becomes highly important. The high priority attached by Washington to human rights questions adds an even more sensitive dimension to today's diplomacy. These objectives require an ability to establish rapport with many segments of a foreign population and, at the same time, to maintain access to government leaders. This is as true in major European countries where some of our less qualified ambassadors are sent as in more critical third-world areas. An inexperienced ambassador may not make serious mistakes, but what opportunities might have been opened by one with a more extensive diplomatic background?
Those who argue that qualifications make little difference point out that each chief of mission has experienced foreign service officers to provide the expertise. No substitute exists, however, for the ability of an ambassador to work effectively at the top levels; leaders in another country do not want to deal with Number Two. In a day when public appearances - including TV and the press - are a significant part of diplomacy, the capacity of an ambassador to sense the risks and nuances of public expression in another society also becomes important. This role cannot easily be delegated.
The issue has been muddied by arguments over whether career or non-career persons should be selected as ambassadors. Obviously, to create a strong foreign service, officers must see the opportunity to advance to the top. The key question is the individual's qualification for a position, not the professional cadre from which he or she comes. Many non-career persons have been highly effective ambassadors.
Those who wish to see a more responsible approach to ambassadorial nominations have an uphill battle. The tradition of using such appointments to reward campaign contributions and political service is deeply rooted. Even in our democratic society, the promise of an ambassadorial title appears to be one of the strongest lures to the potential donor. The American public appears indifferent to the embarrassment of gaffes made by insensitive US envoys that are extensively reported and occasionally ridiculed in the foreign press. Presidents, secretaries of state, and senators have higher priorities than fighting against a questionable appointee pushed forward by political supporters.
One hopes that eventually men and women in both the executive and the Senate will mount effective opposition to what appears today to be the sale of ambassadorships to political bidders. Until then the leadership of the nation will probably continue with its capricious approach to significant overseas appointments while, at the same time, wondering why the US is not more respected or more effective in its international relations.