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20 June, 2009

Meet Our New Ambassadors (and Foreign Policy Priorities)

I apologize to my readers for the recent dearth in posts. My schedule has now cleared up, and over the next few days I shall post a few of the things that have been sitting inside my blogspot workspace for the last while.

The appointment of American ambassadors are tricky things. In many ways, the position of Ambassador has denigrated to nothing more than a ceremonial title given to those who enjoy foreign social functions. Indeed, the apparent uselessness of American ambassadorships has lead some to question their reason for existence altogether. Despite the low stock we put in our ambassadorships, the same cannot be said for foreign populaces. There are places across the world where ceremony still matters and the appointment of men and women to act in place of the President still carries weight.

The importance placed on American ambassador picks can have unpredictable results; oft times these appointments can be torrid political affairs, as host countries attempt to assess their relationship with Washington by scrutinizing the credentials of the incoming Ambassador.

The recent kerfuffle surrounding the appointment of John Roos as Ambassador to Japan is a representative example of this.

President Obama appointed Roos - a silicon valley lawyer, fundraiser, and friend of Obama - to a position traditionally reserved for veteran statesman. It is widely feared that this appointment will be taken as insult by the face-conscience Japanese, and conservatives in both the U.S. and Japan have derided Obama for the pick.

Tobias Harris, a Japan-hand who blogs at Observing Japan, posted a convincing reply to all who viewed the appointment as a "slap in the face" to the Japanese.
Roos to Japan.
Tobias Harris. Observing Japan. May 26 2009.
I do not think this is something about which to hyperventilate. Nor do I think it is a lap in the face for Japan. This is normal. While Japanese elites worry that the alliance s adrift or in crisis, the Obama administration clearly does not feel the same. The attitude appears to be, every alliance has problems and the US-Japan alliance's problems are no more severe than the problems with any other alliance. While it is natural to compare the administration's China and Japan appointments, this strikes me as a mistake. The appointments say nothing about the countries' ranks in the administration's eyes and everything about the intensity of the problems in the bilateral relationship. Obama picked a Mandarin-speaking rising star with foreign policy experience for the Beijing job because it is a job that demands a Mandarin-speaking rising star with foreign policy experience. The task of coaxing China's path to becoming a "responsible stakeholder" requires an ambassador with sufficient clout on the ground in China.

What problems in the US-Japan relationship require the same class of appointment? Is a Harvard professorship or fluency in Japanese necessary to go stand on the beach in Niigata and look out to sea? It would be one thing if Japan was ready for a serious bilateral discussion on the future of the alliance, but given the response Ozawa Ichiro's musings on the subject, Japan's leaders are not even ready to have such a discussion amongst themselves.
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But the Roos appointment should not be treated as Japan's being downgraded but as Japan's not being a problem for Washington. I have previously written about this administration's tendency to approach foreign policy as problems to be solved. Japan, not being the source of major problems for the US, naturally does not require a high-profile troubleshooter as ambassador. And thus it continues to look as if the Obama administration has opted for benign neglect towards Japan.
The points made by Harris are well reasoned. Using John Roos' appointment to Tokyo and Mike Huntsman's appointment to Beijing as examples he assesses the Obama administration's strategic approach to both Japan and China.

While Harris sticks to the ambassadors being sent to the region he knows best, his method of assessment can be applied to all countries who Obama has nominated ambassadors for. This task - use Obama's ambassador nominees to identify his foreign policy priorities - is what shall be attempted in the remainder of this post.

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I have compiled a list of Ambassador-nominees who will be sent to countries of strategic importance to the United States. Each has a small biography below his name. All are listed by last name, alphabetical order.

Karl Eikenberry (b. 1952) is a West Point grad who has received an MA in East Asian Studies (Harvard) and Political Science (Stanford) and an advanced degree in Chinese History (Nanjing). He has served two tours in Afghanistan, working as the U.S. Security Coordinator for Afghanistan during his first tour, and Commander of Combined Forces Command during his second. His most recent position was Deputy Chairman of the NATO Military Committee. Eikenberry is a three star Lieutenant General in the U.S. Army.

General Karl Eikenberry is the U.S. Ambassador in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Donald Gips (b. 1960) graduated with distinction from Harvard (B.A.) and received a Masters in Public and Private Management from Yale. Gips worked as the internal regulator of the FCC until he was tapped by Al Gore as a technology policy adviser. Gips joined Level 3 Communications, an internet provider and communications company, in 1998. In 2008 Gips joined the agency review process for the Obama transition team. A good friend of Obama’s, Gips was given his current job, the White House Director of Personnel in early January.

If confirmed by the Senate, Donald Gips will be the U.S. Ambassador in Johannesburg, South Africa.


Christopher Hill (b. 1952) graduated from Badouin College with a BA in Economics. A career foreign service officer, Hill served tours in Serbia, Poland, Albania, and South Korea before serving as Ambassador to Poland and South Korea. Hill was a prominent negotiator in both the 1995 Bosnia peace settlement and the ongoing six-party talks centered on North Korean disarmament. For the last four years he has served as the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs.

Christopher Hill is the U.S. Ambassador in Baghdad, Iraq.

John Huntsman Jr. (b. 1960) received a BA in Political Science from the University of Pennsylvania. Huntsman has worked as a Deputy Assistant Secretary of Commerce, U.S. Trade Representative, U.S. Ambassador to Singapore, and Deputy Assistant Secretary of for East Asian Affairs during the Bush Sr. and Jr. Administrations. Outside of government, Huntsman has worked as the CEO of the Huntsman Corporation. He is currently serving as governor of Utah, a position he has been elected to twice.

If confirmed, John Huntsman Jr. will be the U.S. Ambassador in Beijing, China.


Carlos Pascual. After obtaining his BA from Stanford, Pascual went on to receive a Master of Public Policy degree from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. Pascual worked with USAID and the Foreign Service in Sudan, South Africa, and Mozambique before being promoted to the National Security Council staff in the Clinton administration. In that position he served as Senior Director of Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia Affairs for the NSC; this led to his adoption of the Ukrainian ambassadorship under the Second Bush administration. After a stint as the State Department’s Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization, Pascual retired from public service to become a Director of Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institute.

If confirmed b the Senate, Carlos Pascual will be the U.S. Ambassador in Mexico City, Mexico.

Charles Rivkin (b. 1962) holds a B.A. in Political Science and International Relations and an M.B.A. from Hardvard Business School. Rivkin started his career as a corporate finance analyst with the Soloman Brothers, before becoming President and CEO of the Jim Henson Company. Most recently, Rivkin has worked as the CEO of entertainment company, W!LDBRAIN. Rivkin has also been a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in both 2008 and 2004.

If confirmed by the Senate, Charles Rivkin will be the U.S. Ambassador in Paris, France.

Timothy Roemer (b. 1956) received a PHD in American Government from the University of Notre Dame. He worked as a staffer for Representative Brademas (IN-D) and Deconcini (AZ-D) before being elected to the U.S. House of Representatives for Indiana’s 3rd Congressional district. He served in this position for 12 years, and was a candidate for DNC Chairman. He currently works as the President of the Center for National Policy, a left-leaning security think tank.

If confirmed by the Senate, Timothy Roemer will be the U.S. Ambassador in New Delhi, India.

John Roos (b. 1956) received both his BA and JD from Stanford. Roos has worked with several prodigious law firms, including O'Melveny & Myers and Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati. He has been a member of the latter law firm’s board of director for 10 years, and currently serves as its CEO. In addition to managing this international law firm, Roos has been an active supporter of both the John Kerry and Barrack Obama Presidential campaigns.

If confirmed by the Senate, John Roos will be the U.S. Ambassador in Tokyo, Japan.

Thomas Shannon obtained a B.A. in Government and Philosophy (College of William and Mary) and a PHD in Political Science (Oxford). A career foreign service officer, Shannon served tours in Cameroon, Gabon, Sao Tome, Brazil, Guatemala, South Africa, and Venezuela. Shannon moved up as the Director of Inter-American Affairs for the NSC in 1999, and soon filled numerous positions within the State Department, including Deputy Representative to the OAS, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Western Hemisphere Affairs, and Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs.

If confirmed by the Senate, Thomas Shannon will be the U.S. Ambassador in Brasilia, Brazil.

James Smith graduated from USAFA with a BA in military history, continued on to earn a MA in history from Indiana University, and graduated with distinction from the Naval War College, Air Command and Staff College, and the National War College. Smith has performed a plethora of roles throughout his military career, including combat sorties in the Gulf War, CSAF Chair of the National War College, vice director of North American Air Command, and commander of the 18th Wing at Kadana Air Force Base. Promoted to the rank of Brigadier General, Smith retired from the military in 2002 to work as an executive for Raytheon Integrated Defense Systems.

If confirmed by the Senate, James Smith will be the U.S. Ambassador in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.


Louis Susman (b. 1938) obtained a undergraduate degree from the University of Michigan and received his JD from Washington University in St. Louis. Susman began his career as a corporate lawyer based in St. Louis, a job he left behind in favor of investment banking when he came to Chicago to work for the Solamon Brothers. Susman moved up the ranks of investment banking, collimating with vice-chair of Citigroup Global Markets, a position he held until February of this year. Susman has been an active campaigner for Democrat politicians, serving on the DNC for ten years, and acting as the national finance director of the John Kerry Presidential Campaign.

If confirmed by the Senate, Louis Susman will be the U.S. Ambassador in London, Great Britain.


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A few conclusions can be drawn from this list.

The ambassador nominees can be divided into two groups: intelligent men with a list of foreign policy and economic credentials, and intelligent men with deep pockets and the friendship of the President. I think it is fair to state that those heading off to Kabul, Baghdad, New Delhi, Brasilia, Beijing and Mexico City are of the first type; those being sent to Tokyo, London, Paris, and Johannesburg are of the second.

The two men with the most impressive diplomatic resumes are probably General Eikenberry and Mr. Hill. This fact, combined with the speed at which Eikenberry and Hill were nominated and confirmed suggests that the war in Afghanistan and Iraq is the most pressing of priorities for the Obama Administration. News of Eikenberry's appointment was leaked to the press back in January; most of the other nominees were not announced until late this May. The message is clear: American efforts in the Middle East are of paramount importance.

The appointees to London, France, South Africa, and Japan are on the opposite side of the spectrum. While clearly intelligent and competent, none of these men have regional expertise, a background in trade or security issues, or any experience with diplomacy. What they do have is friendship with the President, and undoubtedly they will obtain the ear of the President in case of a crisis.

It would not be inaccurate to characterize these men as fair-relation diplomats. The United States maintains very strong and asymmetrical relationships with Japan, France, and the UK. The nomination of non-specialists to head the embassies in these countries suggests that Obama does not believe any of these countries are in need of a specialist - in other words, Obama is incredibly confident in the strength of the American relationship with these states.

In this light, Obama's picks for Beijing, Brasilia, Mexico City, and New Delhi are more interesting. Each of these capitals (with the exception of New Delhi) will be receiving a nominee with previous experience in the region and proven policy expertise.

Carlos Pascual is a perfect example of this. Pascual is well recognized as an authority on failed states and state stabilization. His nomination to the embassy in Mexico City implies that the Obama administration views the growing narco-insurgency in Mexico worthy of Ambassadorial attention.

John Huntsman goes to Beijing as a man proficient in Mandarin, familiar with the Chinese government, and possessing a long record as a competent executive. While China is not an open adversary to the United States, the interests of America and the People's Republic are often in sharp contradiction. As China rises, the Obama administration has deemed it imperative to have an able diplomat and administrator running the show in Beijing.

The nominees going to Brasilia and New Delhi are the most intriguing cases. Unlike China, the interests of India and Brazil are generally aligned with the United States; both countries have superb relations with America -- or at least, their relations with the United States are as good as that existing between America and South Africa, which Obama deemed strong enough to tie together with a non-specialist Ambassador.

While this is speculation on my part, I believe the reason India and Brazil received top-notch ambassador nominees can be found in these two nations' strategic outlook. Both of these states have overcome domestic political divisions, and the executives in each dwell in a position of strength. Furthermore, both India and Brazil are looking outwards, eager to wield force on the global stage. In contrast to the distracted Japanese and British, Brazil and India are ready to reassess their strategic relationships. By nominating Roemer and Shannon, Obama hopes to engage New Delhi and Brasilia now, hoping that the result will be bilateral initiatives that will secure their place as American allies for decades to come.

Only time will prove if my predictions are correct.

To conclude, I should note that President Obama is not done with the Ambassador nominating process. Most embassies have not yet been glanced at, and a few big powers are still waiting for their Ambassador to be nominated. As the nominees roll forward, I might write an update to this post. There are a few nations - Indonesia, Russia - where the choice of Ambassador will mean quite a bit.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

You may want to correct Gen. Eikenberry's birth date - it is certainly not 1972.

T. Greer said...

@Annon:

Good catch. Eikenberry's birth was in '52. The '7' there was an accident.

Onager said...

Great post... this is the type of analysis that is utterly lacking through most media outlets - somehow the blogosphere does it though.