Ancestral ambassadors?

SEVERAL of the current presidential candidates have been telling audiences that they would use more ethnic Americans as ambassadors to these Americans' countries of ancestry. Asian-Americans would be sent to Asia, Hispanic-Americans to Latin America, and so forth. The assumption seems to be that an American ambassador will do a better job for Uncle Sam in the country of origin of his or her immigrant forebears. There are at least three reasons that this is a bad idea.

The suggestion has racist overtones. Why, for example, aren't qualified Asian-Americans good enough to be ambassadors in London or Paris, not just Asia? There was a time, not long ago, when black Americans were sent as ambassadors only to black Africa and Haiti. Black Americans quite rightly came to look on that process as racist. In more recent years highly professional black American diplomats have been serving as ambassadors in every part of the world. The same should apply to all Americans of whatever race or ancestry.

The idea either demeans or shows no understanding of the need for objective qualifications for diplomatic practitioners. American ambassadors represent US interests in the country to which they are assigned. They must report objectively on the policies and policy trends in that country and advance US interests by negotiation and representation.

The US has a professional Foreign Service trained to accomplish these tasks. While that service has been diluted by political appointees, many of whom have proved unqualified, presidents have generally sought career and noncareer ambassadors who have the requisite skills. Those professional qualifications have nothing to do with ancestry, race, or religion. In fact the case can be made that a noncareer ambassador posted to the land of his or her ancestors will be a less resolute defender of US interests. And the latter can learn the language just as well as the former.

The proposal overlooks the fact that the Foreign Service has been making a great and reasonably successful effort in the last 20 or more years to recruit officers from minority groups. This is the way to create more professional diplomats from a pool of Americans, regardless of ethnic origin. Entry into diplomacy and ambassadorial rank through objective qualifications gives more pride and pleasure by being part of the professional US diplomatic corps than if political preference were given on the basis of irrelevant considerations of ancestry.

Watching his inaugural parade on Jan. 20, 1961, President John Kennedy noticed that there were no blacks in the US Coast Guard contingent that marched by. He passed a note in the reviewing stand to Douglas Dillon, his new secretary of the Treasury, who then had jurisdiction over the Coast Guard. As Mr. Dillon's assistant, I had that note on my desk the next morning, and we went to work with the Coast Guard to see how we could attract more blacks to its ranks.

Presidents should handle the question of bringing more minority and ethnic Americans into US ambassadorial ranks by following President Kennedy's example. Let us start by helping the Foreign Service become ever more representative at entering, as well as ambassadorial, levels. Such a policy will be better politics and will lead to better diplomacy and more objective representation abroad.

Theodore L. Eliot Jr. was formerly US ambassador to Afghanistan and dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

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