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Column: Key Diplomatic Posts Are No Places for Amateurs

The United States has lofty global ambitions, and its leaders still like to describe the country as the “leader of the free world,” the “indispensable nation,” and various other self-congratulatory labels. Yet it doesn’t always marry these ambitions to a set of practices that would help it achieve them.

Case in point: the well-sourced rumor that the Obama administration is about to appoint Caroline Kennedy to serve as our next ambassador to Japan. The obvious question: Is this an appointment that demonstrates a serious engagement with the complex problems the United States is now facing in Asia?

My concerns have nothing to do with Kennedy herself, of course. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting her on several occasions and thought she was smart, well-informed, and engaging. But she’s neither a diplomat nor an experienced politician, and she’s certainly not an expert on East Asia. Unless I’ve missed something, she doesn’t speak Japanese and has no academic or professional background in foreign affairs. Compared with some other former U.S. ambassadors to Japan (e.g., Mike Mansfield, Walter Mondale, Michael Armacost or Tom Foley), she’s a political neophyte.

True, she comes from a prominent political dynasty, and she was an early and enthusiastic supporter of President Barack Obama. So one might argue that she’ll have a direct line to the White House and that her appointment is a way to signal to Japan that the U.S. is taking the relationship seriously.

It would be nice to think so, but what does that matter if she doesn’t have the background necessary to give the White House or State Department independent advice or the experience necessary to persuade Japanese officials to follow the U.S. lead? In case you hadn’t noticed, politics in Asia are becoming more and more important, and managing our Asian alliances is going to be very tricky in the years ahead. Countries such as South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia and others are looking for clear signs of U.S. leadership, which means we need the most qualified and skilled people we can find in key diplomatic positions. We don’t want ambassadors who are just reciting talking points prepared by others; we need ambassadors throughout Asia who have extensive knowledge of the region’s history and the complicated economic and security landscape there. And, yes, it would be nice if they could read and speak the language.

Assuming the rumors are true, this case is just the most recent manifestation of America’s overreliance on political appointments throughout our foreign policy system, and especially the diplomatic service. In fact, the United States is the only major power that routinely appoints amateurs to ambassadorial rank, even though the Foreign Service Act of 1980 explicitly recommends against this practice.

Yet roughly 30 percent of all U.S. ambassadors are political appointees rather than trained professional diplomats. This practice is completely bipartisan, by the way, and it’s one of the many reasons why U.S. diplomacy is often ineffective.

The bottom line: International politics is a highly competitive enterprise, and if you want to succeed at it, you need to be ruthless about picking the best people to do the job. The New York Yankees don’t put someone in centerfield just because he purchased a lot of advertising from the team’s owners or has been renting a luxury box at Yankee Stadium, and the U.S. government shouldn’t appoint amateurs — no matter how smart, likeable, public-minded and well-connected they are — to key diplomatic posts either.

Stephen M. Walt is a professor of international relations at Harvard University.