How Not to Choose Ambassadors

August 27, 2021 Updated: September 6, 2021

Commentary

Former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel was recently nominated by President Joe Biden to become the U.S. ambassador to Japan.

“I would proudly represent our nation with one of our most critical allies in one of the most critical geo-political regions,” Emanuel said.

While it’s nice to hear that Emanuel would like to do the job, his nomination is a perfect example of how U.S. ambassadors shouldn’t be chosen.

Virtually all countries have professional diplomatic services, staffed by people who explicitly study international relations and diplomacy. Those people must pass difficult examinations in order to join the diplomatic service. Then, they must work 20 or 30 years in various diplomatic jobs, specialize in learning about and working in and with a particular country or countries, and become fluent in the languages of those countries before being named ambassadors.

An excellent example is the ambassador of China to Japan. Kong Xuanyou is a graduate of Shanghai International Studies University, where he majored in Japanese. He has spent years in Japan, and he can speak fluently in Japanese on any topic on television or radio and engage in vigorous repartee with the Japanese press. Prior to taking up his ambassadorial assignment, he was vice foreign minister.

Because Kong has been dealing with Japan for a long time, he has an extensive network of contacts among key Japanese leaders and journalists. He can tell China’s story to the Japanese in words and ways they easily understand. He can also deeply analyze the situation in Japan and accurately inform his government on what the Japanese are thinking about China. Indeed, he can explain in detail to his government what the various factions in the Japanese government and society are thinking, how they’re debating among themselves, and how China might act to help its Japanese supporters while undermining Japanese supporters of the United States.

No doubt, Emanuel would be proud to become a major U.S. ambassador, and he’s certainly correct that Japan is one of America’s most important (some would say the most important) allies and that the Indo-Pacific is one of the most critical (some would say the most critical) regions of the world.

It’s precisely because Japan and the Indo-Pacific region are so important that Emanuel and others like him should have the grace and good sense to decline ambassadorial nominations and suggest more knowledgeable and experienced people for the job. This isn’t to say that he and other newly named U.S. ambassadors, such as Denis Bauer (France), Amy Gutmann (Germany), and Eric Garcetti (India), aren’t talented, hard-working people. It’s only to say that they haven’t been trained nor have the experience for high diplomatic office.

Rahm Emanuel has been an effective political adviser to several presidents and was twice elected as mayor of Chicago, one of America’s most important cities. On the other hand, he hasn’t lived in Japan or studied about Japan. He doesn’t speak Japanese, hasn’t traveled much to Japan, or had business or other dealings with Japan. He doesn’t know anything about the politics of Japan.

The key point is that he isn’t being chosen for his knowledge of Japan, of Asia, or of U.S. foreign policy. He’s being rewarded for having been of political assistance to Biden and the Democratic Party. This is how American practice diverges dangerously from that of most other countries. Washington doesn’t choose the best-qualified people for its key ambassadorships. Rather it uses what is known as the “spoils system.” The winners of a presidential election use the appointment of key ambassadorial positions as a reward for financial donations or other political support. Essentially, the top ambassadorial posts are up for auction to the highest political bidders.

The main job of a U.S. ambassador isn’t to tell another country what the United States thinks or what its policy is. That’s the job of that country’s ambassador to Washington. The most important task of a U.S. ambassador is to learn, understand, and explain to Washington what’s happening in the country to which he or she has been appointed and why it’s happening and to what extent, as well as how the United States might be able to influence that country—Japan in this case.

Indeed, nowhere is this more important than in Japan. It’s one of the most homogeneous countries in the world and speaks one of the most nuanced and complex languages of the world. It’s a society in which personal and long-term relationships are of extreme importance and in which a particular nod, glance, or frown can be of the utmost importance. It isn’t a society that welcomes newcomers or easily integrates them into its systems. Long-term relationships nurtured over many years are of utmost importance. If an outsider hasn’t taken the time to learn the language and develop those relationships, he or she will be at a great disadvantage in trying to deal meaningfully with Japan or with any other major country.

Nor is it just a matter of being able to communicate well with another nation. A long-standing problem in the U.S.–Japan relationship is that because the Americans tend not to be able to speak Japanese while many key Japanese leaders speak English, the conversation tends to be guided by the Japanese. Also, because the Japanese know more about the United States than U.S. diplomats know about Japan, the Japanese tend to, if not dictate, at least strongly shape U.S. policies toward Japan. In effect, the U.S. ambassadors become puppets of Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. One could say the same of France, Germany, the UK, India, and many other key countries.

Perhaps the reason American diplomacy has had such poor results is because it isn’t truly American.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Clyde Prestowitz
Clyde Prestowitz
Clyde Prestowitz is an Asia and globalization expert, a veteran U.S. trade negotiator, and presidential adviser. He was the leader of the first U.S. trade mission to China in 1982 and has served as an adviser to Presidents Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton, and Obama. As counselor to the secretary of commerce in the Reagan administration, Prestowitz headed negotiations with Japan, South Korea, and China. His newest book is "The World Turned Upside Down: America, China, and the Struggle for Global Leadership," which was published in January 2021.