Royalty in America? Exploring the world of U.S. ambassadors

Royalty in America? Exploring the world of U.S. ambassadors

So you think you want to be an American ambassador to a foreign country? It might be easier to get elected president.

To become an ambassador, you’re either going to have to work your way up through government service for two decades and hope that an appointment comes your way to a country where you would like to spend three years, or you can donate substantial money to presidential campaigns and shamelessly promote your interests to everyone you know.

What does it take to become an ambassador? Who is more qualified, a career ambassador or a political appointee? And what does an ambassador really do? Are they still necessary in today’s global world?

Those topics are addressed in retired ambassador and current Pennsylvania State University professor Dennis Jett’s new book, “American Ambassadors: The Past, Present, and Future of America’s Diplomats.”

Jett, who lives in Squirrel Hill and will be speaking about his book at Beth Shalom Congregation Sunday morning, was the American ambassador to Peru and Mozambique. He’s also spent time abroad in Malawi, Liberia, Argentina and Israel as the deputy chief of mission.

Currently, he is a professor at Penn State’s School of International Affairs.

His new book will likely appeal to those who are interested in the intricacies of bureaucracy and what really goes on behind the scenes in government. While the subject matter can be a little dry, the anecdotes save the book from being too textbook-like.

Jett discusses the history of diplomatic ambassadors and the grueling process by which an ambassador is selected. The political conflicts behind becoming an ambassador is best stated by Jett in this way: “Conflict within the State Department arises for several reasons. There are always many contenders for every ambassadorship, there are competing bureaucratic interests among the various bureaus and career tracks that want their share of the ambassadorial pie, and there are numerous high-level officials at the assistant secretary level and above who are seeking to reward their favorite officers. Those competing interests result in a process that is characterized by inevitable horse trading and bargaining as those various interests are taken into account.”

He talks about the colossal failures of certain ambassadors and how other potential candidates blew their chances to reach their ambassadorship goal.

For example, there was the candidate who, at a confirmation hearing, couldn’t elucidate the type of government in the country he was to serve. Then there was the candidate up for an ambassadorship in China who despite saying, “I’m no real expert on China” at his hearing, got voted in anyway.

So what is the appeal of being an ambassador?

“We don’t have any royalty in this country,” Jett said by phone from his Squirrel Hill home. “Essentially, you’re buying a title for life.”

His book makes clear, though, that there is much more to being an ambassador than attending cocktail parties, despite how some ambassadors have treated the position.

The book also provides information about the breakdown of ambassadors by gender, religion, race and ethnicity, even by sexual orientation. To entice diplomats to go to dangerous countries, diplomats are awarded danger pay allowances. In one of the many appendices in the book, the reader learns that to become an ambassador to Israel, for example, you would be awarded a 15 percent increase in pay. However, to go to Afghanistan or Iraq, you’d receive a 35 percent pay bump. There is also a table demonstrating the hardship allowance for those ambassadors placed in a country with no easy access to health care or where general conditions in that country are harsher.

Jett has strong opinions about his subject matter and clearly has great insight into the behind-the-scenes selection mechanisms. He is critical of the process by which political appointees can essentially buy their way into an ambassadorship. Currently, about 70 percent of ambassadors are career ambassadors and 30 percent are political appointees, though he said that number is flipped in the case of Western Europe and Caribbean nations.

Despite his criticism, Jett clearly has a great deal of respect for the title of ambassador. He addresses the future of the position and why it is still necessary in a world that seems a little smaller due to globalization. He argues that even our country, as the world’s only superpower, can’t handle all of the world’s problems without stellar diplomatic representation.

“Ambassadors who know little about the language, culture and history of the countries to which they are accredited will not be effective envoys,” he writes. “Those who are commonly seen to have bought their ambassadorships through bundling campaign contributions will have difficulty being taken seriously by opinion leaders in those countries.”

In the book, Jett doesn’t talk much about his own service as an ambassador.

“This was not supposed to be a memoir,” he said last week. “I viewed it more as an academic exercise but one that I hope would have a broader appeal. It was to explain the whole process and where ambassadors come from, where they go, what they do and why they still matter in today’s globalized world.”

He added that more than 3,000 former ambassadors, including himself, have recorded oral history interviews of their experiences; these transcripts can be found via the website of the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training at

>> Former Ambassador Dennis Jett will speak at Beth Shalom Congregation on Sunday, Feb. 8 at 10 a.m. Both the talk and a breakfast at 9:30 a.m. are open to the public. RSVP to or

Hilary Daninhirsch can be reached at

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