Political Patronage

by Ed Sawicki

You can get an idea of a presidential administration's desire to put the country ahead of party and politics by its political patronage. This is the use of state resources to reward individuals for their electoral support. The award of ambassadorships is a traditional way of rewarding supporters.

This article lists recent administrations and the percentages of their ambassador nominations of career diplomats versus political appointees.

Two kinds of people who become ambassadors: career diplomats and political appointees.

Career diplomats

These people made diplomacy their careers and have been trained to be diplomats. They are usually much more effective at the job and less likely to have motives and agendas that interfere with serving the best interests of the American people.

Political appointments

Political appointments usually reward people who contributed large amounts of money to a president's campaign. These people do not necessarily know anything about diplomacy. They could seek the position to influence foreign governments for the benefit of companies they have an interest in.

This table shows the number of appointments made by recent presidents and the percentage of career diplomats they appointed - a higher percentage is better. The data comes from the American Foreign Service Association.

PresidentAppts  Career
Gerald Ford 97 62
Jimmy Carter 20274
Ronald Reagan 42062
George HW Bush21468
Bill Clinton 41772
George W Bush 46068
Barak Obama 41670
Donald Trump 18961
Joe Biden* 14782

* The numbers for Biden are incomplete.

When you're looking at the number of appointments column, remember that some presidents served two terms.

Unfortunately, the table doesn't indicate the political appointees' effectiveness or motives. President Barak Obama appointed Caroline Kennedy to be the ambassador to Japan. Kennedy was not a career diplomat and was, perhaps, less effective than a career diplomat would have been given the press reports of difficulties in the embassy that she ran. However, she didn't have any known ulterior motives for serving in that capacity.

Trump's appointment of Kelly Dawn Craft as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations was problematic because she supported the Trump administration's claim that climate change was not settled science. The American people are not well-served by a top diplomat who denies climate change.

Trump appointments

Other than Gerald Ford, who served less than a full term as president, Trump has appointed the fewest number of diplomats and the smallest percentage of career diplomats. Many of his nominations were made in 2019, over two years after he took office. This indicates that he places little importance on diplomacy.

After Nikki Haley resigned her her post as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Trump appointed Kelly Craft—a political appointee. He's made no appointment to Japan—a traditional ally. His appointments to countries close to or bordering Russia, such as Ukraine, Estonia, Lithuania, Albania, and Belarus, didn't occur until 2020—some are still not confirmed. He has the lowest percentage of career diplomats.

William B. Taylor Jr., who testified at Trump's impeachment, is the Acting Ambassador to Ukraine. He was appointed chargé d'affaires for Ukraine when Trump removed career Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch on May 20, 2019.

Biden appointments

The chart above was updated less than midway through the Biden Administration, so the numbers are incomplete and many appointees have not yet been confirmed. However, the percentage of career diplomats so far is the highest it's been in recorded history—possibly ever. Congratulations to the Biden Administration for having the lowest political patronage in the diplomatic corps.


American Foreign Service Association Ambassador tracker

UNITAR - United Nations Institute for Training and Research, Core Diplomatic Training

Wikipedia: List of diplomatic training institutions

Washington International Diplomatic Academy (WIDA)

When Diplomacy and Ethics Collide

University of Arizona, James E. Rogers College of Law: Foreign Diplomat Training Program