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In Defense of Caroline Kennedy


President Obama has attracted a lot of criticism for his appointment of Caroline Kennedy as US ambassador to Japan. On this one, we stand with the White House. It’s a smart appointment and one that many Japanese will welcome as an assurance of continued strong US and White House interest in this important relationship.

There are two types of country ambassadors: “career” and “political.” Career ambassadors come out of the ranks of the foreign service, and for them serving as ambassador is often the capstone to a successful diplomatic career. “Political” ambassadors are friends and/or supporters of the President. Historically, most ambassadors were what we today would call politicals. Ambassadors were the personal representatives of one monarch at the court of another. These positions went to nobles and prelates—not to clerks or other grubby, ink-stained drudges with middle class antecedents.

In the US, all representatives abroad were political appointments through much of our history. Many were not particularly good, and their eccentric habits and lack of familiarity with established diplomatic practice brought much merriment to European courts. Some, however, were quite distinguished; names like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin come to mind. The 19th century also saw many distinguished writers given diplomatic posts: Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Frederick Douglass all served their country abroad.

The professional foreign service emerged in the late 19th and early 20th century. Today the State Department and diplomatic staffs generally are much larger than they used to be, with professional diplomats filling most of the slots.

But the tradition of personal, non-career emissaries never ended, and today the US ambassadors at many important countries are chosen from outside the ranks of the foreign service. This annoys a lot of diplomats—both because these are plum posts that career people can’t get and because it can be awkward and difficult for a professional staff to work around politically chosen ambassadors, not all of whom are very good at the job. Get a professional cookie pusher to relax over an appropriate libation, and you are likely to hear some amusing and/or horrifying stories about the faux pas our amateur ambassadors commit from time to time.

But there’s a reason why a lot of countries still like political ambassadors—of the right kind. It’s kind of a status symbol among countries to have the right kind of political ambassador. Ms. Kennedy is very definitely the right kind. The wrong kind of political ambassador is a donor who doesn’t have much of a personal connection to the President. What countries like is the kind of ambassador who has the ability to call the President or the Secretary of State on the phone instead of getting the bureaucratic runaround. (There’s another reason for choosing non-career appointments in high-profile capitals: rich diplomats will spend their own money on fancy parties and events. Congress is too stingy, perhaps rightfully so, to provide US ambassadors with the kind of money needed to cut a wide swathe in cities like London and Rome.)

Ms. Kennedy is the right kind of political appointment. She’s a serious figure in American life, and the President owes her and her family a significant political debt, as Senator Kennedy’s mentoring and endorsement helped President Obama into the White House. She’s not an unknown bundler or rich obscurity with no real connection to the American establishment or the Oval Office. By all accounts she is a sincere and gracious person who will take the advice of her staff on professional matters and represent her country well. Her family ties and associations will enable her to contribute to artistic and cultural exchanges between the two countries and the luster of her name will reassure Japan that America cares.

That Ms. Kennedy lacks diplomatic experience is not as great an obstacle as one might suppose. The American ambassador in Japan is surrounded by a capable and well qualified staff that can steer newcomers through the intricacies of Japanese life. On matters of high policy, many ambassadors these days play only a secondary role. It is not like the old days when US envoys were weeks and months away from news from Washington and often had to make policy on their own.

There have been some bad ambassadorial appointments in recent years. Appointing obscure bundlers without Ms Kennedy’s social skills and network to overseas posts may be a way to thank fundraisers, but it sends a bad message to recipient countries. Some unlikely appointments have done well, but on the whole our advice to this and to future presidents is to either go high—selecting people who are well-known and are connected to the President in some serious way—or go career, choosing experienced professionals who know how to do the job.

President Obama went high with this appointment, and we wish Ms. Kennedy every possible success in her important and challenging assignment. Japan is one of the most important countries in the world from the standpoint of American foreign policy, and President Obama has made a sagacious choice.

[Image: Caroline Kennedy endorses Barack Obama for President in 2008, courtesy Wikimedia]

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  • Pete

    Caroline Kennedy as ambassador to Japan — give me a freaking break.

    What that dingbat has in name recognition she lacks in common sense, experience, and decency.

    This shows how seriousness Obama is regarding foreign affairs and how Japan is taken for granted by this administration.


  • Anthony

    “Japan is one of the most important countries in the world from standpoint of American foreign policy….” The choice from that standpoint does no harm; and as political ambassor appointment tracks United States history, Caroline Kennedy will probably be welcomed in diplomatic Japanese circles. Ambassor-in-waiting Kennedy though outside of professional State Department environs certainly enhances the Japanese foreign service portfolio – status symbol of right kind; President Obama could have did worse.

    • Andrew Allison

      “President Obama could have did worse.” Anthony, are you showing your true colors?
      (sorry, but it was irresistible :<( )"

      • Anthony

        Just attempting balance Andrew; the President gets it daily (no colors revealed given that for all intents and purposes its a done deal – Do you expect a senate rejection (rehetorical, not requiring a reply).

        • Andrew Allison

          I fear that you misunderstood — I was making a satirical reference to race, not political affiliation LOL
          (and I gave you a pass on “steep”)

          • Anthony

            Andrew, oh no, I thought you were referring to political identification; I never considered race. And I take you mean steep as used in jeburke reply :lofty, high in adjectival use. For record, my University/professorial tutelage ended long time ago – I need no passes, thank you. God Bless and let’s conclude.

  • Federale

    The Japanese insist that the American Ambassador has a close personal relationship with the President so issues can be taken directly to the President. However, despite her star status, Kennedy is a nobody in the Obama world. She is not part of the Chicago mafia and therefore has no influence with the President. Everything goes through Valerie Jarrett and Jarrett is well know for her hatred and contempt for anyone not from Chicago. Just look at the zero influence Hillary and John Kerry had in the White House. Methinks the Japanese have been blinded by the Kennedy name.

    • Andrew Allison

      Japan doesn’t get to decide who the Ambassador is, the President does!

      • tarentius

        But Japan can refuse to accept someone vetted by the White House. Had Japan said no when her name was presented, it would have been withdrawn.

        • Andrew Allison

          Of course. But that’s a very different thing from insisting on a candidate. And, in practice, it’s unheard of.

      • Federale

        Wrong, Japan has made it clear that it does not want any ambassador other than one with direct access to the President. They have long made that clear and most Presidents wisely appoint a strong political operative. Kennedy is not that but the Japanese don’t know that.

        • Andrew Allison

          Nonsense. It’s inconceivable that the Japanese government is not familiar with Caroline Kennedy’s career and almost inconceivable that the Administration would appoint a candidate to whom the Japanese object.

    • Corlyss

      “She is not part of the Chicago mafia and therefore has no influence with the President”
      True but her uncle gave Obama a tremendous boost. And really Obama has no influential advisors except Val and ‘Chelle. The rest just make noise. All the beards he had at the beginning of his first term to lend gravitas to His Empty-suit-ship drifted away because he just doesn’t listen to anyone but Val and ‘Chelle.

      • Federale

        If you think Valerie Jarrett is going to allow a skinny white girl access to the president, you got another thing coming. Not black, not Chicago, not Jewish, no influence. The Japanese got rickrolled on this one.

  • jeburke

    Mead should know that the choice is not limited to career Foreign Service officers, “bundlers,” or Caroline Kennedy. US Ambassadors to Japan since WW II have included such high ranking, politically experienced and distinguished Americans as Edwin Reischauer, Alexis Johnson, Mike Mansfield, Walter Mondale, Tom Foley and Howard Baker. They may not have known much about Japan but they certainly were steeped in public and international affairs and could draw on decades of life experiences in leadership to guide their relationships with Japanese officials.

    Dame Kennedy may be able to get Obama on the phone (maybe not, though) and she bears a famous name, but beyond that, what does she bring to this or any other high office? The only time Kennedy stepped out into the public arena — when she launched a campaign to snare Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat in 2009 — she made a fool of herself. She muffed an interview with the New York Times, displaying ignorance about most pressing issues, fumbled most other interactions with reporters (running away from one press scrum upstate ), and alienated one Democratic Party leader after another as she sought their support…how shall I say…undiplomatically, giving credence to the notion that she just wanted the Governor to give her the post without her having to deal with all the little people.

    I’m sure she’s a very nice lady and no doubt Obama owes her. Beyond that…?

    And not incidentally, I find it appalling to say that high appointments to political supporters with no known qualifications are OK because the professionals in support can fill the gaps. Fill the gaps, sure, for someone like Mondale or Baker, but not for a complete novice.

    • Andrew Allison

      I’m afraid that I must agree with Prof. Mead. What qualifications, other than bootlegging, antisemitism and support for Hitler did her grandfather have when appointed to the Court of St James?

      • f1b0nacc1

        You left out that he despised the British
        Of course he was also a remarkably ineffective ambassador, so perhaps this isn’t a good example?

        • Andrew Allison

          I beg to differ; it’s a perfect example of the long-standing “qualifications” for an Ambassodorship, i.e., not what you know but who you know.

      • Kavanna

        The point of the Kennedy patriarch in Lonon was to keep him out of US politics in 1940. FDR kept a united party front on preparing to enter the war, excluding the isolationists, Anglophobes, and America Firsters. The Republicans reciprocated by nominating Wilkie and excluding Lindbergh et al.

        Presumably, sending an Irish American to be ambassador in London also reflected FDR’s sense of humor.

      • Corlyss

        In the era before Skype, iPads, iPhones, etc., the appointment got him out of FDR’s hair and put him where he’d do the least harm. The Brits knew how to take care of him.

        • Andrew Allison

          So that’s why Obama appointed her! LOL

    • Anthony

      Well said jeburke and I wholeheartly agree; and times are a changing because people you referenced were steep in both national political and international concerns.

    • jeburke

      I should have made a distinction for Edwin Reischauer when I wrote that some of these guys “may not have known anything about Japan.” Reischauer was, of course, one of America’s leading scholars on things Japanese and East Asian. He was Jack Kennedy’s appointee as US Ambassador to Japan, making it odd that his charming but no account daughter would one day fill the same post.

      President Kennedy’s choices for key foreign legations, including Japan, are instructive — and call into question Mead’s theory that political closeness to the President is much of a qualification. JFK sent another renowned academic, John Kenneth Galbraith, to India. He tapped Gen. James Gavin for Paris, based on Gavin’s wartime relationship to deGaulle, and after Gavin, he gave France to Charles “Chip” Bohlen, one of America’s outstanding professional diplomats. He kept other experienced professionals, appointed originally by Eisenhower, in Berlin and Moscow. And he named David Bruce, another distinguished diplomat who earlier served as ambassador to France and West Germany, and later as the first US Ambassador to the People’s Republic of China, to the Court of St. James. Not a mere bundler in the bunch.

      Mead is just wrong. Sure, many lesser postings have gone to political boosters and rich donors in the past but by and large, important appointments have been filled by, well, important people. That this has not always been the case is nothing to celebrate.

      And let’s face it: all those foreigners are not stupid. They know when they’re getting a totally inexperienced political celebrity and when they’re getting a Reischauer or a Bohlen — and they draw conclusions from it.

      • Kavanna

        And Abe et al. will conclude that Japan needs more than ever to watch out for itself, as its big protector, America, is no longer a serious country.

  • Gerald

    While I understand the history of political appointments, I would have thought that the increasing tension between Japan and China, as well as the relationship between the United States and Japan would have indicated the need for an experienced professional diplomat. Ms. Kennedy is neither experienced or diplomatic, nor does she have significant connections with the political powers that be in the United States.
    If I were Japanese, this would be one more example of the lack of seriousness of the Obama Administration, and a continuing demonstration of deteriorating U.S. Foreign Policy and support of alliances.

  • ljgude

    Good article – good discussion. This is why I read Via Meadia. I suppose the saddest thing was the long list of serious appointments that were brought up by jeburke and others. We have had some really good political appointees in the era before mere celebrity was itself a qualification. (Buying an ambassadorship is of course a hallowed American tradition.) I can’t help but feel that the problem is not just with Caroline Kennedy, but with our whole political culture which is long on superficialities and short on substance. I have had quite enough of Obama magic and Kennedy magic.

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