Late last Friday afternoon, U.S. president Barack Obama announced six new ambassadors to a wide list of countries — Spain, Denmark, the Vatican, Brazil, Ethiopia and Germany.
Of the six new ambassadors, however, only two are career diplomats. The new ambassador to Spain is James Costos (pictured above), an HBO executive and a top donor whose partner happens to be Michael Smith, who has served as the interior decorator of the White House. The high-profile gay couple raised millions of dollars for Obama’s reelection. That Costos and Rufus Gifford, Obama’s 2012 fundraising chairman and nominee for the Danish post, are both openly gay highlights the wide progress of LGBT equality since the troubled 1999 nomination of James Hormel as the U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg.
As Joshua Green and Hans Nicholas explained in December 2012 in BusinessWeek after Obama’s reelection, around 31% of the U.S. ambassadorships are currently held by political donors rather than by career diplomats. Though the arrangement gives an opportunity for a president to reward his donors, there’s a bona fide economic reason for appointing wealthy supporters to some of the world’s most poshest embassies — the costs run much higher than the U.S. government provides to conduct the wide array of social and diplomatic events that are expected:
The funds embassies receive from the U.S. Department of State don’t begin to cover the high costs of the frequent parties and dinners ambassadors are expected to host. Some wind up paying more than $1 million a year out of their own pockets, according to one of the president’s top donors who requested anonymity because he didn’t want to discuss private conversations.
But does that necessarily make sense?
The bipartisan tradition of appointing top donors as ambassadors is relatively novel, going back to the administration of U.S. president Ronald Reagan around three decades ago. In the days leading up to Obama’s inauguration, The New York Times even published a sort-of guide to the etiquette of making the transformation from donor to ambassador:
Interviews with more than a dozen donors, Democratic officials and advisers involved in the discussions revealed some unspoken rules: Volunteer for more than one country. Be prepared to serve for only two years, so that a second round of envoys can be appointed before Mr. Obama leaves office. Don’t mention how much money you raised for the campaign (but don’t expect much if you didn’t raise at least a million dollars). Let it be known where you want to go, but don’t publicly campaign for the job.
Appointing donors instead of professional diplomats comes at a cost — diplomats have spent decades learning their craft, whereas political appointees may not always understand the nuances of ambassadorial life. Seattle philanthropist Cynthia Stroum learned that the hard way when, in 2011, she resigned as the U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg after a U.S. state department report found Stroum to have had a negative and confrontation management style and, possibly, that Stroum may have misspent U.S. funds for personal use while ambassador.
Luxembourg, in the grand scheme of things, is a minor country vis-a-vis the United States, but how long before another Cynthia Stroum is appointed as a political donor to a G20 country?
Costos is an HBO executive in charge of global licensing and retail, and he’s certainly proven himself as a successful businessman. CNN reports that he gave over $67,000 in total last year to boost Obama’s reelection and the Democratic Party, he’s a previous donor to former New York senator and secretary of state Hillary Clinton and former Vermont governor Howard Dean, and he has also given to Newark mayor Cory Booker, who is running to become New Jersey senator. The White House announcement states that he’s also a former vice president for Hermes in New York and he serves on the Board of Directors of The Humane Society.
That may, as the tireless pro-LGBT group Human Rights Campaign noted Friday in a statement, make Costos a ‘true citizen of the world,’ but does it makes Costos the most qualified candidate to represent the United States in Spain?
It’s not clear if Costos even speaks Spanish.
Moreover, Costos’s appointment on Friday was covered more by Hollywood media than by the political media in the United States, and he’s expected to take a forceful line with the Spanish government on piracy, not an unexpected view from a Hollywood executive. His appointment is viewed as a reward not only to Costos individually, and also to Obama’s Hollywood donors and to the LGBT community as well, but those are not necessarily incredibly strong qualifications for U.S.-Spanish relations.
While bilateral relations with Spain aren’t as tricky as, say, relations with China, they’re still important. Spain, a country with nearly 50 million citizens, has the world’s 13th largest economy, and is the fifth-largest economy in Europe. Its unemployment rate is 26.7%, and the economy is, by far, in the worst shape at any time since the end of the Francoist dictatorship in the 1970s. As if that weren’t enough, the next ambassador to Spain will bear witness to what will likely be an fraught battle over regional autonomy and Catalan independence.
Costos has already stepped into one difficult issue — as a Humane Society activist, he has taken a dim view of bullfighting, a controversial issue in Spain in recent years, with animal rights activists and other alleging the sport’s cruelty. But a move by the nationalist regional government of Catalonia to ban bullfighting in 2011 means that the issue is loaded with broader tensions over the growing rift between Spain’s central government in Madrid and regional Catalan leaders, who have pushed for greater autonomy or even independence. Indeed, Catalan regional president Artur Mas seems likely to proceed with a controversial plan to schedule a referendum in 2014 for Catalan independence, despite the disapproval of prime minister Mariano Rajoy. Costos’s anti-bullfighting views already inadvertently puts him firmly on one side of what’s likely to be the trickiest political battle he’ll face while in Madrid. Costos, if approved by the U.S. Senate, will follow Alan Solomont, Obama’s first-term ambassador, also a political donor, and one of former U.S. president George W. Bush’s ambassadors, George Argyros, is a Greek-American real estate mogul who once owned the Seattle Mariners baseball team in the 1980s.
Contrast them to Spain’s ambassador to the United States, Ramón Gil-Casares, a career diplomat who previously served as Spain’s ambassador to Sudan and South Sudan and to South Africa, and who is close to Rajoy and other leaders of the governing center-right party, the Partido Popular (PP, People’s Party). His predecessor, Jorge Dezcallar, who served as Spain’s ambassador to the United States from 2008 to 2012 under the center-left government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, was also a career diplomat who formerly served as ambassador to the Vatican.
Although leading Spanish newspaper El País called his nomination ‘unorthodox,’ it also noted that the Spanish government wasn’t over concerned at Costos’s donation-gilded path to diplomacy:
The Spanish government does not seem overly concerned that the US Embassy is a seat for sale. Quite the opposite in fact. Diplomatic sources says that this proves that bilateral relations are in a purple patch and there is no reason for the US to send a more experienced diplomat. Costos is no wet-eared novice though: he graduated in Political Sciences from the University of Massachusetts in 1985.
Other news sources within Spain have been tougher on Costos, however, and one Catalan newspaper noted that Madrid will be troubled by an ambassador that it sees as potentially pro-Catalan and referred to him as an ‘ambaixador de ficció‘ — Catalan for ‘fictional ambassador.’
It’s not that the Obama administration is any worse than previous Democratic or Republican administrations of the past three decades. Nor is it that Costos is particularly ill-suited to serve as ambassador compared to any other political appointee — more likely than not, Costos will serve with the same distinction of past political appointees. But to pretend that Costos is the best person to carry forward the Obama administration’s diplomatic goals in a post-Wikileaks world — or that any political donor is necessarily the best candidate for a top diplomatic post — is an approach that leaves much to be desired, and could well be a ticking geopolitical time bomb.