If you’ve ever had a nightmare where you were speaking in public or gave a bad presentation, you can sympathize with George Tsunis. The New York businessman went through a deeply awkward ordeal when he appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in January 2014. The Obama administration had recently nominated Tsunis to serve as the U.S. ambassador to Norway.
Things didn’t go well. During the hearing, Tsunis told the gathered senators that Norway has a president, not a king; that one of the country’s major political parties—and a member of its government coalition at the time—was a fringe extremist faction; and that he neither spoke Norwegian nor had ever visited the country. These lapses in knowledge and experience are unremarkable for most Americans, but they are fairly striking for someone who wants to represent the United States in that country.
I take no joy in rehashing what must have been one of the lowest points in Tsunis’s professional life. It is only relevant now because the Biden administration nominated him for another ambassadorship, this time to Greece. In fairness to Tsunis, the Hellenic Republic appears to be a better destination for him than Norway was eight years ago: The Biden administration told Reuters in October that Tsunis fluently speaks Greek and often works with Greek-American organizations.
The nomination and some of Biden’s other recent ambassadorial picks are a depressing indicator that the president hasn’t lived up to the high hopes that many had when it comes to choosing America’s highest-ranking representatives overseas. It’s especially bad considering that when he took office, he initially sent signals that change was afoot and that the standard for being appointed to one of these plum positions would be set higher than “gave me a lot of money.” It made abundant sense for Biden to set a strong ethical tone at the outset of his presidency given the notorious lapses of his famously wayward predecessor, but the donor-to-embassy pipeline has long been ripe for dismantling.
As I’ve noted before, donor-ambassadors are a tragically bipartisan habit—and one that appears to be unique to the U.S. among major democracies. This sordid trend reached its logical conclusion under the Trump administration, when more than half the ambassadorial corps became unqualified political appointees. By some strange coincidence, Trump’s ambassadors to Canada, France, the United Kingdom, and various other smaller European countries all donated tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars to Trump’s campaign or inaugural committee. Gordon Sondland, an Oregon hotelier, gave $1 million to the latter and received both the ambassadorship to the European Union and a secondary role in Trump’s first impeachment saga for his troubles.
At the start of his administration last year, there were strong signs that Biden would make something of a clean break from Trump’s past. It was reported at the time that White House staff were actively discouraging donors who were quietly (and maybe not so quietly) trying to put their names forward for plum diplomatic postings. Biden, as a former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was undoubtedly familiar with the practice. Hopes that his experience would help him move against it have since been dashed.
Canada went to David Cohen, a former Comcast executive who hosted Biden’s first fundraiser as a presidential candidate in 2019. Some of Biden’s major campaign bundlers received solid postings, like Marc Stanley to Argentina and Michael Adler to Belgium. Scott Miller, the new U.S. ambassador to Switzerland and Lichtenstein, appeared to receive the post less for his expertise on the wealthy Alpine confederation or the last sovereign remnant of the Holy Roman Empire and more for being a major donor in Colorado Democratic circles. Tsunis, Biden’s aforementioned pick for Greece, even worked as a donor bundler for Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign.
One of the more justifiable political nominations was that of Michelle Kwan, the former Olympic figure skater, to serve as ambassador to Belize. In her post-Olympics career, Kwan worked for the State Department through multiple administrations on public diplomacy initiatives, including in a stint as an adviser to the department’s Office of Global Women’s Issues. That makes her more qualified for an ambassadorial post than many of Biden’s other nominees. But it also probably helped that she worked for the Biden campaign as a celebrity surrogate during the 2020 campaign.
Kwan’s experience is still something of an outlier. Some major postings went to longtime Democratic allies like Caroline Kennedy, who was confirmed as the ambassador to Australia last month. She also has diplomatic experience—from serving as the ambassador to Japan in the late Obama administration. Her aunt, Victoria Reggie Kennedy, is also now the ambassador to Austria. Other Biden friends and allies who don’t necessarily fall into the “donor” category have also received major positions: former Obama Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to Mexico, former Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti to India, former Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett to Luxembourg, and even former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to Japan. (Yes, that Rahm Emanuel.)
Indeed, it’s hard to read some of the nominations and appointments as anything other than patronage rewards for political support. An entire tranche of Biden’s political nominees are just Republicans who openly rejected Donald Trump. Former HP CEO and California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman was nominated to serve in Kenya. The Senate confirmed former Arizona Senator Jeff Flake earlier this month to the ambassadorship in Turkey. Cindy McCain, the widow of Arizona Senator John McCain, who publicly endorsed Biden last year, now represents the U.S. at the United Nations’ food and agriculture agencies.
Some of Biden’s ambassadorial staffing woes aren’t necessarily his fault. By last November, he was on track to get fewer ambassadors confirmed than any of his three immediate predecessors, with harmful consequences for his foreign policy agenda. Senate Republicans, most notably Texas’s Ted Cruz and Missouri’s Josh Hawley, used procedural tools to block many of his nominees from reaching the floor throughout 2020. Only after Majority Leader Chuck Schumer threatened to delay the holiday recess to confirm the nominees did lawmakers relent and approve them.
Cruz and Hawley claimed that their opposition came from a broader ideological difference with the Biden administration over standing up to China. Given that they tried to overthrow his election last January, you could be forgiven for thinking that their opposition might not be principled. It’s also striking that they didn’t choose the lowest-hanging fruit when coming up with a reason to block them. Sure, it would be slightly hypocritical after the bipartisan picks of the last few presidents. But the best time to stop a bad habit is always now. If Biden isn’t willing to shut down the patronage-industrial complex in American diplomacy, then perhaps the Senate should do it for him.