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Blog Post | May 11, 2020

Diplomacy by Donors

2020 Election/TransitionCampaign FinanceForeign Policy

On December 18, 2019, the United States House of Representatives impeached President Donald Trump for withholding military aid from Ukraine as a means to pressure Vladimir Zelensky to investigate Democratic presidential candidate, Joe Biden. One of the key figures in this scandal was Gordon Sondland, then ambassador to the European Union. Sondland had limited diplomatic experience before his appointment, but he had the privilege of donating $1 million to President Trump’s inaugural committee. 

This phenomenon, whereby top donors and bundlers land cushy ambassadorial positions, is not peculiar to the Trump administration. In fact, it was common during President Obama’s tenure as well. As such, there is reason to suspect that it would continue in a Joe Biden-led White House. 

Continuation of this evidently corrupt practice is a clear problem for any society that aspires to uphold democratic ideals. Further, it is disrespectful to the career foreign service officers who are truly committed to performing their duties as federal employees. The fallout from President Trump’s Ukraine pressure campaign should not just be a lesson to Trump and the Republican Party, but one for all Americans about the costs of this type of “acceptable” corruption.  

The Price of an Ambassadorship

The transactional relationship between campaign finance and diplomatic postings has a long history in American politics. In a recording captured on the White House taping system, Richard Nixon can be heard telling his chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, that only donors who contributed over $100,000 could be considered for any kind of posting. 

Clearly, the price of a diplomatic job has risen since then. A study by professors from the Pennsylvania State University notes larger fundraising hauls, to the tune of $650,000 to $700,000, usually led to more comfortable appointments in either wealthier countries or favorable climates.

Forty-four of President Obama’s diplomatic appointments across his two terms in office raised at least $500,000 for his campaigns. Here are some key examples of Obama-appointed ambassadors that are also fundraising for Joe Biden: 

  • Denise Bauer, who served as ambassador to Belgium, raised at least $200,000 in 2008 and at least $500,000 in 2012. A prominent name in Democratic fundraising circles, Bauer is currently heavily involved in Joe Biden’s campaign, serving as the executive director for Women for Biden. 
  • Bruce Heyman, a former Vice President of Goldman Sachs, raised at least $500,000 in 2008 and 2012. He was subsequently appointed as ambassador to Canada. After his time in office, Heyman published a book, The Art of Diplomacy, which focuses on strengthening US-Canada relations.
  • Tim Broas, who served as ambassador to the Netherlands, raised over $500,000 before his appointment. He is currently a prominent lawyer in Washington, DC. 
  • Robert Sherman served as ambassador to Portugal after raising over $500,000 for President Obama’s 2012 campaign. Sherman returned to his position as Senior Counsel at Greenberg Traurig LLP after his tenure. He is also an independent board member of Novo Banco, a European bank based in Portugal. 
  • Matthew Barzun, who was one of Obama’s top fundraisers, served as ambassador to Sweden and the United Kingdom after raising over $500,000 in 2008 and 2012. Barzun acquired the Louisville Magazine shortly after leaving office and sits on the board of the media holding company, Gannett. 
  • Anthony Gardner, who served as ambassador to the European Union, raised at least $500,000 for President Obama’s 2012 campaign. He is currently Senior Counsel for Sidley Austin LLP, a law and lobbying firm, and sits on the board of private equity firm, Brookfield.
  • Mark Gilbert raised over $500,000 for both of President Obama’s campaigns. He was appointed ambassador to New Zealand and Samoa. Presently, he serves as Vice Chairman of UBS. 
  • James Costos, ambassador to Spain and Andorra. Costos raised over $500,000 for President Obama in 2012. Prior to his appointment, he was Vice President at the television company HBO. Currently Costos is a Senior Managing Director at Dentons, an international law practice. 

As of now, Joe Biden has only released lists of bundlers that have raised over $25,000 for his presidential campaign. This makes it more difficult to determine which individuals may be in consideration for the most desirable positions based on their fundraising prowess. However, based on historical trends, it is fair to predict that individuals that raise around $1 million will be in line for diplomatic appointments. 

Joe Biden’s Foreign Policy Vision

Joe Biden’s foreign policy vision emphasizes the importance of global partnerships in tackling common challenges facing the world today. The Biden platform promises strong democratic alliances and resource mobilization among countries. To achieve this goal of renewing American leadership, the Biden campaign highlights the value of diplomacy. Biden has promised to “elevate diplomacy as America’s premier tool of global engagement, pledging to rebuild a modern, agile U.S. Department of State.”

Ambassadors oversee the entirety of operations for American embassies with lines of communication to the leadership of the Department of State and at times, the President. Further, ambassadors and embassy staff work with personnel from as many as 27 federal agencies. This position clearly requires a robust skillset, but more importantly, a knowledge of the federal government, international relations, and country specific dynamics. History shows us that appointments who take a direct route from the private sector to ambassadorships often lack the requisite knowledge. There are numerous cases of persons withdrawing from the nomination process because of this. 

Therefore, if Joe Biden’s promise to rebuild the Department of State is sincere, an obvious starting point is the diplomatic appointment process. Two lines in campaign literature highlighting the need to invest in the country’s diverse diplomatic corps are not enough. Empowering the country’s diplomatic corps will require more than buzzwords. To achieve his stated goals, Biden must end the practice of appointing major fundraisers as representatives of the American people abroad.

2020 Election/TransitionCampaign FinanceForeign Policy

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