Some months after the election which resulted in a second term for George W Bush, the British Fulbright Scholars Association in London invited Senator John Kerry to speak.   He entered the packed hall to a hero’s welcome and throughout his talk the audience nodded and smiled,  laughed appreciatively at his jokes and in general seemed to be lost in a reverie of “what ifs.”   He was among friends.   Then someone stood up to ask “why oh why could the United States not send qualified people to the United Kingdom as  ambassadors?”  To be honest it was me.   The question was timely in that the President had not announced his new choice and Senator Kerry was Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee responsible for vetting  the candidates — including the previous ambassador. I was one of the few Americans there and every American I knew (both democrats and republicans) were mightily unimpressed  by President Bush’s appointment in his first term.  In his defense that ambassador had apparently tried to turn the job down and when he got here we all wished he had prevailed. For me the telling moment was after 9/11 following a commemorative service at St Paul’s Cathedral at the bidding of the Queen. I watched on television as the Queen exited the church.  Behind the railings along the steps young Americans were lined up five maybe six rows deep. Many were in tears and through their tears they thanked the Queen for the service, which had been broadcast outside to an enormous crowd.   The Queen in turn  spoke to them, comforting them. It was very touching. 

I was shocked to see the US Ambassador walking stiffly behind her – eyes front – as if in a daze.  He had nearly reached the bottom of the steps before it appeared to dawn on him that greeting distressed young Americans after a national tragedy might be a good thing for the American ambassador to do.  He simply appeared in shock and therefore performed this duty as well as anyone in that condition could be expected to.  His shock I suppose was the discovery that far from being a social position, the United States Ambassador to the Court of St James’s  actually has a job description and it is not an easy one.   Representing the United States in a country like Britain (small geographically but of huge importance by almost any other measure -political, cultural and economic)  is a  job for someone with the energy and interest to do it properly. For the British who have very, very few ambassador appointments outside of the career diplomatic service, it also means a person with foreign policy experience and they had been hungering for such a person.    So my question was like a boxful of straight pins  flying around the lecture hall bursting all of the imaginary champagne bubbles in the air as people pretended Senator Kerry was President Kerry.

The mood change was instant. Suddenly the smiling faces hardened, eyes narrowed and bodies leaned forward.  Supportive applause exploded, punctuated by shouts of  “Hear!!Hear!!”  I had been careful not to say “political appointees” because I knew this would offer the Senator (now visibly shifting  in his stance)  a way out. Unfortunately for me, the Chair of the BFSA interjected “why must we have political appointees!?”  The Senator (no fool he) saw the exit and took it, expounding on eminent political ambassadors like former VP Walter Mondale.   He might have added that our peculiar system has indirectly resulted in progressive appointments such as an African American Minister to Haiti (the US did not use the term ambassador at the time) in 1869  four years after the end of the Civil War.   Britain’s first? Paul Boateng to South Africa in 2005 after being the first black British cabinet minister.   In vain have I tried to explain to British contacts and colleagues that not all political appointees are incompetent and that they have skills to offer, if they are people of real professional stature who have done more than stand on piles of money.  Of course if they insist on condemning political appointees they might reflect on their internal situation. Every country has political appointees somewhere. The question is,  are they in places where they can do actual harm? When all is said and done, incompetent or ineffectual ambassadors may be embarrassing to resident Americans and distressing to host country officials (and sometimes to their own staff) but most people could not care less.

Not so with the ever changing ministers in the UK  who,  in a comparatively centralized system,  have tremendous impact on people’s lives.  These ministers  are double political appointees. They are not members of the career service and they are politicians. This means that while US political appointees in cabinet positions have usually attained the pinacle of their government careers, their British counterparts are still in a  potentially upward trajectory. As a result, they can use their positions  to grind axes and forward personal agendas.  There is, of course a logic that says, “if they need to advance their careers, they will do the job well,  thereby benefitting the public through their ambition.”  There are two problems with this logic. One, politicians need to be seen to do the job well as part of the package.  The result has been plenty of well meant initiatives  with targets attached such that doctors,  nurses, teachers, police  and many other public servants appear to be  in a state of perpetual supressed mutiny. They want to do their jobs but the paperwork keeps getting in the way. The second problem is the promotion cycle for ministerial political appointees  i.e. – there isn’t one.   Civil servants can wake up in the morning and find their old boss is gone and a new one has taken her place. Changes do not  just occur when an election rolls around. A talented boss can be promoted after announcing  a snowstorm of new initiatives.  An excellent but plotting boss can be  taken out and sent to stew in the back benches. The conventional wisdom is therefore that the country is run by the civil servants and of course there is some truth to this.  Every country has a civil service of some kind that keeps the administration going and the ‘Yes Minister’ scenario, ( a justly popular British show from the 80s  in which the bumbling minister is blocked and controlled by the civil servants) provides interesting cultural insights. Not because it offers a true picture of how British ministries function but because it is easy to see the inspiration in the  underlying tension that inevitably arises when a non expert who may be whisked away in months, confronts a civil service that needs to weigh for itself at times what new policies to go along with and what changes should be challenged for the sake of the country (they are public servants after all.)  Many of these issues emanate directly from the cabinet system.

A number of countries in the world adhere to this system, which is theoretically a  government by a committee of elected representatives where the Prime Minister is the first among equals. The US government also has a cabinet,  but the President is not first among equals. He is first.  From this difference flows some of the structure of political appointees.   Powerful politicians in a cabinet system are part of the executive branch and so receive ministerial posts. By contrast  US senators (for example) are bound by the separation of powers and of course can exercise great influence as senators.  For such people, ambassador posts are prestigious but in power terms are not significant, after all,  they are not politicians and they are going overseas. So why not appoint your friends and supporters to plum posts where the culture is not too different?  For the British system the calculation is different. Their politicians would agree that ambassadors are not powerful but they are influenced by an imperial history in which overseas was extremely important  and in which the British diplomatic service was far closer to the politicians than the State Department has been to the White House and Congress – which are on opposite sides of town.   The Foreign Office is an 8 minute walk from Parliament.  Britain has high quality diplomats and the politicians know it.   They have a legacy to maintain.  No one wants to  let the side down. Whereas the US…

Well, let’s just say Americans particularly in those plum posts have been let down many times but so have non Americans like the Fulbright alumni who have come to love the United States and want to be proud of its representation.   That’s why the thunderous applause broke out when I asked my question.   Both Senator Kerry and President Bush must have got the message because a few months later  Ambassador Bob Tuttle arrived. He was a vast improvement but when Barack Obama was elected they hoped once again for a professional – for someone worthy of the superhuman qualities they had assigned to the President. Then he sent them  another political appointee – from Chicago.