Education: Career Diplomats and Ambassadors

education and action Nov 18, 2019

By Lisa Rampton Halverson, MWEG Senior Director of Educate Limb

During the impeachment inquiry proceedings we have heard of ambassadors, career diplomats, foreign service officers, and more. Many have testified of their dedicated, nonpartisan career service to our country. Yet we hear that others were given their position as a political favor. We hope this post will help MWEGers and others understand who these people are and what kind of preparation they have had (or not had).

Career Diplomats or Foreign Service Officers

Career diplomats or FSOs are hired, not appointed. They come to their positions with a wide and extensive variety of experience and backgrounds. Many come in speaking several languages, having lived in different countries, and with many different degrees. Most go through a year-long vetting process before beginning to work, which includes background checks, health examinations, and both oral and written exams. Some join fresh from grad school, but many come from the private sector with significant experience in law, policy, economics, management, education, business, military affairs, and other sectors.

FSOs swear an oath to the Constitution when they are commissioned — the same oath that members of the Armed Forces and of Congress swear. FSOs must be nonpartisan, and that includes during non-working hours when posted overseas, because they are seen as representatives of the U.S. at all times. This also includes spouses of FSOs in many cases. MWEG has members and spouses of members who are FSOs.


There are two basic ways to become an ambassador. Most ambassadors work their way through the ranks for many years and achieve the rank through their diplomatic merit. Others are political appointees. Sometimes those political appointees have extensive military or foreign policy experience and are well qualified for the role. Others serve in a more ceremonial function, with career diplomats advising them and managing the day-to-day operations of the embassy. However, there are some ambassadorships that have always been reserved as political favors; this happens from both parties but is usually not the case for the most critical posts (Russia, China, etc.). You often see these posts-as-favors in Europe.

Acting Ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor and former Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch are examples of ambassadors who achieved their rank through their diplomatic merit. Taylor, for example, previously served in the Army (earning a Bronze Star in Vietnam) and the Department of Energy as well as other posts and countries. Yovanovitch served in Armenia and Kyrgyzstan before Ukraine, as well as in the U.S. Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs.

Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, is an example of a post-as-favor appointment. He founded Provenance Hotels and co-founded the merchant bank Aspen Capital, and he was a major donor to Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.

In current news: On November 5, the New York Times reported that Sondland stated he did, in fact, view delivery of the Ukrainian aid package as contingent upon the Ukrainian government publicly opening an investigation of Trump’s political rivals as desired by the President. According to Sondland’s testimony, he relayed this position to Ukrainian government officials.

Kurt Volker, who (we think) will be testifying again this week, was a career diplomat until he retired 10 years ago. But more recently and in his involvement with the whistleblower complaint, he was serving as the special representative to Ukraine as a political appointee. He was a well-qualified appointee, but a political appointee nonetheless.

It is easy to check Wikipedia to know whether a given appointee is a political appointee or not.

* Photo by Julie Gentry.


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