America has an ambassador problem, complains Mattathias Schwartz in an op-ed at the New York Times. He's referring to the long-standing practice of presidents awarding plum posts to big campaign donors who are utterly unqualified to be diplomats. As an example, Schwartz calls attention to former EU ambassador Gordon Sondland, a hotelier whose main qualification seemed to be his $1 million donation to President Trump's inaugural committee. In the eyes of Schwartz, Sondland was a disaster as he got caught up in the Ukraine controversy, but the op-ed makes clear this is not a Trump-only practice. Presidents as far back as Warren Harding have routinely awarded ambassadorships to generous donors. Under the presidencies of Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, and both George Bushes, such political appointments made up about 30% of ambassador posts.
Trump has increased that figure to 43%, but both figures are too high, argues Schwartz. Various attempts at reform have come and gone over the years, and while he hopes Joe Biden can bring change, he's not optimistic. We need seasoned diplomats, or at the very least candidates who display basic proficiency (such as language skills for the country in question) before being confirmed, Schwartz writes. "Perhaps there was once a time when American alliances were strong enough to withstand a few Sondlands, but that is far less true today than it was four years ago," he writes. "If Mr. Biden is serious about restoring America's standing in the world, he should entrust that task to professionals." (Read the full column.)