FEWER than 200 of the 3,000 appointments President Clinton will be making in the next few weeks will go to ambassadors. But those will be important choices. Ambassadors can and do make a difference, often a critical difference.
Preoccupied though he may be with compelling domestic considerations, the new president is already finding himself immersed in a wide range of foreign-policy problems. In his relationships with some 180 countries and numerous international organizations, he will need the best on-the-spot agents he can get if he is to maintain the kind of American leadership we will need in an increasingly complex world.
The myth persists that instant communications have made ambassadors superfluous and that the president and secretary of state can handle matters directly. This ignores the critical analysis and on-the-scene participation in policy implementation that only an ambassador can provide. Robert Strauss in Moscow and Robert Oakley in Somalia are only the most recent examples. At a time of spreading ethnic disputes, regional wars, arms proliferation, and a host of transnational issues like migration and the envi ronment, there is no substitute for a competent ambassador.
Most developed countries select their ambassadors from their professional diplomatic corps. The practice in the United States is different. Our career in Foreign Service offers a large and proven reservoir of talent, but it is not the only source. Typically, from 25 percent to 35 percent of our ambassadors are drawn from outside the career service.
Many ambassadors have been persons of exceptional breadth and stature - David Bruce, Henry Cabot Lodge, Averell Harriman, Ellsworth Bunker, and Arthur Burns, to mention only a few no longer on the scene. Those men were selected not because of particular political loyalties but on the basis of their performance and track records - their judgment, intellect, and capacity to function effectively in a foreign culture.
Any impression that an ambassadorial nomination has been made in return for financial contributions to the party in power corrodes public trust and our relationship with the country concerned. The bottom line must always be whether nominees, be they career or non-career, bring the requisite credentials to the task.
Recent presidents have sought to achieve that objective in different ways. We suggest that Mr. Clinton consider a technique used by President Carter, who put in place an advisory screening board that met in private to review lists of ambassadorial candidates, both career and non-career, proposed for individual posts. It then agreed on slates of three to five people for the president's consideration for each ambassadorial opening.
The board's membership included not only people with distinguished foreign affairs records, such as Mr. Harriman and Dean Rusk, but also leading academicians, writers, and representatives of minority, labor, and business groups. The board was chaired by former Gov. Reubin Askew of Florida and later by Clark Clifford.
O one was nominated who had not been screened and approved by the board, although in some cases a person on an approved list was later sent to a country other than the one initially suggested.
Such a system would serve many purposes. It could help eliminate patently unqualified contenders. It would protect the president and the secretary of state from undue political pressure. It would also help the president select the right kind of person, career or non-career, for the right place at the right time.
We have no doubt that Mr. Clinton wants the best possible representation abroad. The resignation of every currently serving ambassador was on his desk on Inauguration Day. So were many overtures from those seeking positions. An advisory board would help ensure that qualified appointments will be made in an orderly and constructive way. The country deserves no less.