In general, do political appointees or career diplomats make the best ambassadors?

Career – 50%
Political – 17%
Depends on person 33%

After every US Presidential election Potomac Fever sweeps through Washington as officials and loyal campaign donors jostle for the largesse of the President-elect.

Speculation in London now fixes on the would-be occupants of Winfield House. Will Oprah Winfrey bring star wattage to the post, or will Caroline Kennedy, the only surviving child of JFK, follow in the footsteps of her grandfather, Joe Kennedy, (who served as Ambassador to London) or will the job of Senator for New York prove too tempting for her?

It’s impossible to predict, but whoever gets the job, they are likely to have deep pockets. Ambassador Tuttle is thought to have donated $100,000 to George W Bush’s election campaign and William Farish before him apparently forked out $140,000 to the Bush coffers.

But the Obama campaign is notable for its small donations – so perhaps the new president will surprise us and pick a career diplomat, as George Bush Snr did when he appointed Ray Seitz, the only professional ever to occupy the post.

Since World War II, around 30% of US ambassadors have been presidential appointments, according to a study by the American Foreign Service Association.

The US Foreign Service Act of 1980 was brought in to stamp out abuse of the system, calling for appointees to show demonstrable ability. But while presidential nominees are scrutinised by the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, that has not stopped large campaign donors being tapped for plumb diplomatic postings.

During this year’s election campaign, the prestigious American Academy of Diplomacy challenged both candidates to cap their political appointments to 10%. Whether Obama will heed those calls remains to be seen.

By comparison, most West European services employ a handful of political appointees and other services attempt to cap appointees at around 20%.

But the question remains: who makes the best ambassadors: career diplomats or political appointees?

In this month’s Embassy Barometer, 50% of respondents said professionals generally make better ambassadors. A further 33% said effectiveness largely depended on the individual, while 17% said political appointees were preferable.

In the case of the US Ambassador to London, Embassy readers said no matter who got the job, the appointment would make little difference to US-UK relations since Downing Street and the White House were in regular, close contact.

One European diplomat pointed out that a professional deputy was on hand, as a shadow ambassador – but having “two number ones” is a luxury most other foreign ministries could not afford.

Even as a figurehead, an ill-informed ambassador can be a public relations liability, envoys warned. A poor political appointee, or a politician regarded as “damaged goods” could be detrimental to relations. And even a talented appointee can be tainted by politics back home.

On the other hand, a political appointee held in high esteem, with close ties to the head of state generally has better political access than a career diplomat and can prove very effective, provided they have a good grasp of key issues.

But for bilateral posts where complex issues require specialist knowledge and an understanding of diplomatic nuances, most thought career diplomats were preferable. They also agreed that professionals had the edge in multilateral diplomacy.

Those in favour of career diplomats also said appointing professionals to top posts was important for morale and career progression in foreign services.

However, one Ambassador, who is a career diplomat but has served as an appointee, warned that professionals had a tendency to be risk-averse, avoiding difficult decisions that might damage their career prospects.

Because an appointee’s post is limited, they are more willing to engage in bold diplomacy. Thus political appointees are useful for “special projects” or during times of rapid political change, he said.

Most diplomats concluded that there is no “one-size-fits-all” system. An ideal ambassador – professional or political – has leadership; a blend of a modern executive, and someone skilled in statecraft. The type of ambassador chosen for a post also depends on the nature of diplomatic relations between the two states – are they ticking over nicely or are bold initiatives required?

Equally important is the team of diplomats supporting an ambassador.

“Even the most able professional Head of Mission with a failing staff will have a miserable experience,” said one deputy.

Another deputy concurred: “A good political appointee that is open to suggestion, supported by a good team can together work miracles.”