Ambassador Behaving Badly

July 27, 2020 | By eric.terzuolo | Filed in: Diplomacy, State Department, US Government Operations.

Ambassador behaving badly. Not exactly a new story, but the CBS News item about the current U.S. ambassador to Iceland was particularly juicy. Although serving in one of the safest countries in the world, Ambassador Jeffrey Ross Gunter, wants to carry a gun, wear a “stab-proof vest,” and hire additional full-time local bodyguards. (Host countries like Iceland, let’s be clear, already take very seriously their responsibility for the security of the U.S. ambassador and other diplomats.)

Unjustified fears?

Ambassador Gunter reportedly is also concerned about a threat from within the embassy. He has been through seven deputy chiefs of mission, experienced career diplomats, in a little over a year, amidst accusations that they were undermining him in Washington and complicit with the “deep state.”

Teleworking for ambassadors?

Perhaps the ambassador is behaving badly because he doesn’t actually like the job. After attending a conference in Washington in February, he refused to return to Reykjavik and indicated he would prefer to work remotely from California. He only returned to post in May after a personal phone call from Secretary of State Pompeo.

Trump ambassadors especially problematic?

Is bad behavior more evident than usual among Trump’s ambassadors? Political appointee ambassadors are more prevalent than in past administrations. That much we know. And the U.S. ambassadors to the UK and South Africa, for example, have been in the news, not in good ways. But a solid answer to the question would require a detailed audit, including for example investigations by the State Department Inspector General.

Don’t stereotype political appointees

A stark distinction between “good” career ambassadors and “bad” political appointees in fact does not hold up. We should avoid stereotypes or caricatures. I worked for both types of ambassadors. If I had to pick the best one, it would be a political appointee, admittedly someone with a long record of public service alongside their successful professional practice. And host governments often are glad to have a U.S. ambassador who has a personal relationship with the president. Also, while career diplomats are familiar with the relevant laws, regulations, and practices, like anyone they can make errors of judgment.

But vet everyone carefully

Ambassador Gunter’s bad behavior represents, one hopes, an extreme case, even in the current arguably unusual context. The lesson, I think, is that the US benefits from careful vetting of ambassadorial candidates, whether putative political appointees or career officers. The next U.S. administration, of whatever coloration, should give vetting for such positions of special authority and public trust the priority it deserves.


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One comment on “Ambassador Behaving Badly

  1. John Evans says:

    Excellent commentary, with context drawn from experience. Any responsible President, with the help of his administration, ought to search out the best possible candidates for nomination, not just hacks, fools, and social climbers. They can be career or non-career, but they have to be good.

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