Monday 20 Aug 2018 | 15:34 | SYDNEY
Monday 20 Aug 2018 | 15:34 | SYDNEY

The value of disorderly diplomacy


Sam Roggeveen


29 May 2009 12:18

US presidents are in the habit of doling out ambassadorships to political backers and fundraisers, and as Christopher Beam notes in this Slate piece, Obama is no exception. Beam is critical of the practise, and it does have a vague whiff of corruption about it. But as Greg Sheridan argues in today's Australian (I already referred to this piece in my Linkage post, below), it has advantages for Australia:

We like a political appointee because we always want to have a friend of the president...It means if there's ever something Australia really needs in the relationship, or God forbid if there's ever a real problem, the ambassador in Canberra can get on the phone to his friend in the White House (or more usually the senior staff) and get it fixed.

 Beam rebuts this point by quoting career US diplomat Thomas Pickering:

Some say that a friend of the president can be more effective than a professional diplomat. After all, he can speak for the president and has the president's ear. Pickering rejects that claim. The ambassador is supposed to go through the secretary of state—not contact the president directly. "That's a very disorderly way to make foreign policy," he says.

So Pickering doesn't actually disagree that a political appointment can be useful, he just thinks it's 'disorderly'. The bureaucratic stuffiness implied in the quote actually disguises a serious point, which is that a lack of coordination and multiple lines of communication can create serious diplomatic problems. Then again, there are clear advantages to having a direct line to the leadership that avoids regular channels.

For instance, I've just finished James Mann's The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan: A History of the End of the Cold War, and one of the historical revalations in the book is the role played by a little known Russia expert named Suzanne Massie, who not only played a seemingly major role in shaping Reagan's views of the Soviet Union but acted as a diplomatic back-channel to the Soviet leadership. The State Department and National Security Council didn't trust Massie but, for a time at least, Reagan did, and it helped him get things done with the Soviets.

I may write more on Mann's uneven book in future posts.