Trump wants to oust Obama's ambassadors: Here's how US envoys are usually selected

Trump wants to oust Obama's ambassadors: Here's how US envoys are usually selected
Source: Getty Images
Source: Getty Images

U.S. ambassadors around the world are scrambling in the wake of President-elect Donald Trump's impending inauguration. According to the New York Times, Trump is forcing Obama-appointed diplomats to vacate their positions by Inauguration Day. 

While U.S. ambassadors, who are nominated by the president under Article II of the U.S. Constitution, are expected to leave their positions with the arrival of a new commander in chief, past incoming presidents have allowed select diplomats to extend their positions for a few weeks or months on a case-by-case basis. This applies particularly to diplomats with school-age children who don't want to disrupt their education in the middle of the school year.

Trump, however, is taking a much stricter approach: His transition team, the Times reported, has issued a "blanket edict" requiring all ambassadors to leave their positions by Inauguration Day "without exceptions."

U.S. Ambassador to Belgium Denise Bauer with then-Belgian P.M. Elio Di Rupo, in 2013.
Source: Benoit Doppagne/Getty Images

"When you have people out there whose only reason for being an ambassador is their political connection to the outgoing president of a different party," Ronald E. Neumann, a former ambassador to Algeria, Bahrain and Afghanistan and president of the American Academy of Diplomacy, told the Times, "it's pretty logical to say they should leave.

"But I don't recollect there was ever a guillotine in January where it was just, 'Everybody out of the pool immediately.'"

The mandate has left many ambassadors having to frantically figure out how to stay in their host countries for the sake of their children's education, according to the Times. But as Trump's appointed ambassadors wait to be confirmed, it also means that many countries, including key allies like Germany and Great Britain, may go months without an official U.S. ambassador in place.

There are currently 188 ambassadorial positions, according to the American Foreign Service Association, and given the strict cutoff for Obama's appointees, Trump will quickly have to decide who he'll be sending to represent the United States around the world. So far, Trump's selections include Iowa Gov. Terry E. Branstad as ambassador to China and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley as ambassador to the United Nations.

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley
Source: Cliff Owen/AP

Though all ambassadors are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate, however, not all are created equally. Ambassadorships fall into two categories: career and political appointees.

Career ambassador appointees

Most U.S. ambassadors — roughly 70% — are diplomatic officials from the United States Foreign Service. In order to join the foreign service, which was established through the Rogers Act of 1924, Americans must go through a strenuous admissions process that includes passing a written and oral exam, along with full medical and security clearance.

Though all ambassadors are ultimately nominated by the president, so-called "career ambassadors" are typically recommended to the president by the Department of State, according to the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training. Career diplomats are also typically assigned to the "toughest" countries, including those in the Middle East. 

The U.S. Embassy in Ankara, Turkey
Source: Adem Altan/Getty Images

These career ambassadors, Politico reported, will not be forced to leave their positions by Inauguration Day under Trump's mandate.

Political ambassador appointments

Though the Foreign Service Act of 1980 stipulates that "positions ... should normally be accorded to career members of the [foreign] service," the remaining 30% of ambassadors are political, or "noncareer," appointees, meaning they are individuals appointed by the president who don't belong to the foreign service — and, in many cases, don't even possess a background in foreign affairs. 

While many political ambassadors are qualified for and excel at their diplomatic positions, political appointments are often criticized as a way for presidents to reward their supporters and friends. This even includes campaign donors, despite the fact the Foreign Service Act specifically notes political campaign contributions "should not be a factor" in an individual's appointment. This method stands in stark contrast to other countries around the world, most of which now rely primarily on civil servants to serve as diplomats.

Obama's ambassadorial appointments, for instance, include Matthew Barzun, the U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom — and a chief donor who raised $700 million for Obama's re-election campaign. President George W. Bush appointed his former college roommate as the ambassador to Belize, while President Ronald Reagan's close friend, actor John Gavin, served as the ambassador to Mexico during Reagan's tenure in the White House. 

Current U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom Matthew Barzun with Prince William and the Dutchess of Cambridge.
Source: WPA Pool/Getty Images

Critics believe these political appointments don't necessarily result in the best people being chosen for the job. In a 2014 interview with PBS NewsHour, foreign services official and former NATO ambassador Nick Burns said:

"We have tremendously qualified people in our country, but we ought to be looking at the skills required to be successful in the job. And that's language and experience and a deep knowledge of history and economics. And that increasingly is not the question that a lot of our presidents are asking."

In response to Obama's first ambassador appointments in 2009, Dave Levinthal of the Center for Responsive Politics told NPR that the ambassadors' donations and connections to the president don't necessarily mean that they're "under qualified$" or not deserving of their diplomatic roles.

"But clearly they do have a relationship with the president that goes beyond just one of merit," Levinthal said. "There is a financial relationship there, and we just want to make sure that people understand that there is."