- Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images
- President Barack Obama appointed Rufus Gifford to be the US ambassador to Denmark; he served from 2013 to 2017.
- There’s been a critical rethinking of the role of politically important ambassadors.
- President Donald Trump’s ambassadors have been consistently inadequate, Gifford says, including his own successor.
- Gifford says it’s time to ask ourselves the question that if the system can allow for people to be confirmed to a position where they are so clearly putting ideology and political party over Constitution and country.
- Rufus Gifford was part of the senior leadership of Obama’s presidential campaigns and a former candidate for US Congress in Massachusetts’ 3rd District.
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There have been so many headlines decrying the quality of politically appointed ambassadors. The New Republic declared “Mega-Donor Ambassadors Are Corrupting Americans Diplomacy.” The Atlantic: “As the Rich Get Richer, the Ambassadors Get Worse.”
Even Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren took aim at the idea of politically appointed ambassadors.
“The practice of auctioning off American diplomacy to the highest bidder must end,” Warren said.
These headlines have drawn my attention because I was a politically appointed ambassador.
While I was a staffer – not a “mega-donor” before I was appointed – I have been growing defensive about these headlines over the past three years because each of the authors is in some sense talking about me.
While these pieces and political critiques paint with a broad brush, I must say my experience was different. Had it not been for the American system of appointing political ambassadors, I would never have had gone to Denmark. There, I had an experience that not only changed my life but, more important, left the relationship between the US and Denmark stronger.
I could give you many examples of other ambassadors – including many “mega-donors” – who through love of country, dedication to service, and a unique perspective left their embassies and their bilateral relations in far better shape than they found them.
While I do know firsthand that there are real and true advantages to appointing people close to the president, I won’t defend the practice right now, and I want to explain to you why.
Republican Sen. Arthur Vandenberg famously said “politics stops at the water’s edge” in describing his relationship with Democratic President Harry Truman. “Soft power,” defined as the ability to “attract and co-op, rather than coerce,” was the currency. With unprecedented success and unbridled patriotism, these principles have governed American foreign policy regardless of political party since the end of World War Two.
That is, until now.
As I was training to be ambassador by some of the best and brightest in the American Foreign Service, it was made very clear to me that I was no longer a Democrat. I was an American. Every word that came out of my mouth, my pen, my keyboard was an official American position and anything deemed overly political would be cause for condemnation and removal.
I was happy to hang up my partisan hat for a few years, doing all I could to open myself up to ideas.
But President Donald Trump looks at his ambassadors the way that he looks at Rudy Giuliani – they’re his bulldogs. He has appointed them to these enviable positions of unique influence and he expects them to “do him a favor” back, to fight for his politics and fall squarely in line.
The sad part is, without exception, they are doing just that – waging war on the “deep state” and “fake news.”
I want to start by saying that most of these people are routinely criticized and mocked based on their lack of experience and political contributions, but I think those are distractions. I choose to focus on what they actually do when they assume the post.
- Pete Hoekstra, the ambassador to the Netherlands, described his own words as “fake news” until he was called out by a Dutch journalist.
- Woody Johnson, the ambassador to the UK, fired his deputy chief of mission because he spoke positively about President Barack Obama during a speech at a university.
- Richard Grenell, the ambassador to Germany, is the best example of a Trump ambassador. He was even praised on Twitter by Donald Trump Jr. for taking more partisan positions, unlike former Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch. Grenell has also angered the Germans so much that many have called for his removal after an interview with Breitbart in which he talked about wanting to empower far-right parties across Europe.
We have witnessed example after example of Trump dissembling or fully ignoring precedent. And while that is devastating domestically, it is also terrible when you are dealing with decades or centuries-old alliances that thrive off those rules and that precedent.
My successor is the perfect example of a Trump ambassador
I’ll start by saying that before I arrived in Denmark, I shared meals with my three predecessors – two Republican appointees and one Democrat. All three continue to be my friends, regardless of our political differences. I asked questions. I took notes. I had to learn and grow. Anyone willing to help me along the way I would welcome.
My successor is a woman named Carla Sands. I have never met her.
Several days before she first arrived in Copenhagen, an embassy meeting was called and the embassy staff were told that “there are two words never to be uttered in this embassy: Rufus and Gifford.” Why? I had only offered to be helpful to her. To me the answer was clear: I was Obama’s ambassador.
Upon hearing this story, and despite the sadness that befell me, I shrugged and moved on, and never imagined I would write these words. To criticize your successor is a massive diplomatic faux pas, but at some point you need to get beyond diplomatic formality when you see the damage done every day by both words and deeds.
For instance, Sands told a group of college students that climate change is a “good thing” because it would be “good for business.”
In a Trumpian manner, Sands mangled a debate about defense spending to the point that an op-ed in one of the leading Danish newspapers titled “Go home, Ambassador Sands!” featured civil servants and politicians alike claiming they “don’t like her style” and she is “not acceptable.”
And then there is the latest controversy: her personal veto of an American speaker at a NATO anniversary conference because the speaker had been critical of Trump on social media, a decision unprecedented and unacceptable.
The future of ambassadors
An ambassador raises his or her right hand and pledges – just like every member of Congress and the president does. I keep my oath framed right above my desk. We pledge no allegiance to an ideology, a political party, or even any president, but rather to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
It’s time to ask ourselves the question that if the system can allow for people to be confirmed to a position where they are so clearly putting ideology and political party over Constitution and country, in roles that truly define the American brand in the capitals of some of our greatest allies, is that system sustainable?
Despite my own profoundly positive experience and my exceptionally mixed emotions as I write this piece, I don’t know anymore. The Trump administration, in thumbing its nose at institution and precedent, has proved that politics will extend beyond the water’s edge, dousing our foreign policy with division and corruption. And that is tragic.
Rufus Gifford is a former US ambassador, the finance director for President Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign, and a former candidate for US Congress in Massachusetts’ 3rd District.