MALCOLM TOON, former US ambassador to the Soviet Union and Israel, once met a US Navy admiral who said that when he retired he wanted to become an ambassador. Mr. Toon shot back that when he retired he would like to command an aircraft carrier. Toon's analogy is apt, particularly in the shifting world of the 1990s - with its challenges created by instant communication, political instability, changing East-West relations, trade wars, and declining American preeminence. America can no longer afford to have second-rate ambassadors - men and women of dubious diplomatic qualifications.
However, the admiral's idea of ambassadorships as cushy, dinner-party jobs for a black-tie set of political appointees is too often the reality. A new Library of Congress study lays out what many already know: Plum jobs in places like Western Europe - nonhardship posts - are given as political spoils to those who have provided significant money or help to the president's election campaign. Not since the Kennedy administration have more noncareer ambassadors been posted. Of the 20 top spots in Europe, 14
are noncareer - as opposed to the 103 hardship posts, in which only one noncareer ambassador (in China) is chief of mission.
Not that all US envoys should be elite foreign-service specialists. Certainly noncareer diplomats can contribute well. Ambassadors such as Arthur Burns, Clare Booth Luce, and Edwin Reischauer have set a standard.
Yet it is a standard few big-dollar campaign contributors meet. Speaking of appointees, former Sen. Rudy Boschwitz says that personal wealth is "a sign of considerable achievement." Perhaps so. But it doesn't necessarily qualify one to represent, advance, and protect the interests of the US in sensitive foreign posts.
Defenders of the current system say political appointees, as friends of the president, have "direct access" to him and that they can carry out the president's policies in a way careerists can't. Yet few ambassadors can actually get through to the Oval Office. History also shows that amateur diplomats, often subject to flattery or lacking in-depth knowledge, are more likely to be manipulated than careerists.
It is time ambassadorships ceased to be political favors. Tougher criteria, those of merit alone, should be applied - perhaps by an advisory panel made up of partisan and nonpartisan members. The Foreign Service Act of 1980 sets standards.
In a changing world, the US shouldn't shortchange itself. The appointment of Raymond Seitz as the first-ever career diplomat to be US ambassador to Britain is promising.