The Dirtiest Secret in American Diplomacy

Secretary of State John Kerry says goodbye to U.S. Ambassador to the UAE Barbara Leaf as he leaves Abu Dhabi on November 24, 2015.

SourceJacquelyn Martin/Getty, Infographics by Alvaro Tapia Hidalgo

Why you should care

Because what some call loyalty, others call “pay for play.” 

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For Donald Trump and his supporters, it’s payback time. The currency? Ambassadorships.

So far, Trump has named just four ambassadors, meaning dozens of posh posts are yet to be doled out to loyal supporters. This is not some scandalous quid pro quo, but rather a time-honored tradition in American politics: Loyalty pays, and sometimes it pays in the form of a four-year, all-expenses-paid sabbatical in a dope house in Rome, Paris or Tokyo.

The less glamorous posts — those in, say, Yemen or Chad — are reserved for the State Department lifers, the civil servants who’ve spent their lives working their way up the ranks. Indeed, there’s a curious correlation between a country’s per capita GDP and what type of U.S. ambassador it gets. The richer the country, the likelier it is it will get a presidential pick.

The correlation is striking. Consider: American ambassadors to European countries have been almost uniformly political appointees. Meanwhile, State careerists have gotten shipped to almost every country in Latin America and Africa. The main exceptions to the rule in Africa, by the way, are South Africa (one of the richest and whitest countries on the continent) and Tanzania (a stable and salubrious world-class safari destination).

Two types of countries seem to upend the correlation between GDP and political appointees: rich Middle Eastern countries and poor Caribbean ones. Careerists typically get sent to wealthy Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. And presidents still send political appointees to work in the Caribbean. Tough, tough gig to maintain diplomatic discipline in the face of all those white-sand beaches, turquoise waters and fruity rum drinks. Oops, except Haiti. Careerists are sent to Haiti.

A handful of countries are wildcards that don’t fit in this scheme. Iceland and South Korea both have high GDPs per capita and career diplomats. Mexico, China, Morocco and India have low GDPs per capita, but most ambassadors to those countries have been political appointees.


Career diplomats don’t usually turn over with a new administration. Of course, Trump has already defied precedent in one ambassadorial matter — he ordered all 53 of President Obama’s appointees to vacate their embassies before the inauguration, a move that will leave those posts empty, perhaps for months. But when it comes to the career cadres, experts suspect he’ll stick to the norm and keep them in place. “I would not expect massive turnover,” says Todd Moss, senior fellow at the Center for Global Development and former senior official in George W. Bush’s State Department.

The correlation, which some refer to as “pay-to-play,” has haters — especially among the foreign service corps. Some argue that the nations with the biggest economies and most geopolitical significance should get the most experienced diplomats, not the neophyte richies. Those in favor of political appointees, on the other hand, argue that their special relationship with the president makes them more effective envoys.

For our part, we’re eager to see how the theories play out. Ivana Trump, the president’s Czech ex-wife, is said to be gunning for the post in Prague.

Data provided by the American Foreign Service Association and the World Bank. Infographics by Alvaro Tapia Hidalgo

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