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BookMark: "American Ambassadors" By Dennis C. Jett

Meghan Shiels and the book cover for "American Ambassadors"

Right now American embassies around the world are awaiting their next leaders. Traditionally, when a new president is elected every American ambassador submits a resignation letter. The president will refuse the resignations of most career ambassadors, but the political appointees placed by the previous president will return to their lives in the private sector. President Trump will soon have to fill all those open positions.

If you’re wondering how that happens, you might be interested in the book “American Ambassadors” by former ambassador and current Penn State professor Dennis C. Jett. I’ve been interested in this topic since middle school, when a career matching system suggested I become an ambassador. Based on the luxurious dinners and gowns I had seen in movies, this sounded good to me. Although I knew there was actual work involved, I wasn’t clear on what exactly diplomats did. My dreams of being an ambassador faded long ago, but “American Ambassadors” finally explained what the job entails.

I want to take a moment and say this book isn’t for everyone. There are several chapters dedicated to step-by-step directions on how to become an ambassador and in-depth analysis of policy issues only truly dedicated readers will be interested in. However, if you’re genuinely interested in knowing more about what ambassadors do and how they impact our government it’s worth a read.

One of the key points of “American Ambassadors” is the difference between a career ambassador and a political appointee. Political appointees are given ambassadorships as a reward for some other action. Generally these are influential people, fundraisers, and campaign donors. They come from the private sector and usually have some economic or personal connection to the president. Most have no diplomatic experience. Political appointees are sent to places like Italy, Germany, and France.

The other type of ambassador is the career ambassador. Career ambassadors work their way up through the ranks of the United States Foreign Service over a span of about 20 years. These are people who have dedicated their lives to diplomacy. They will work in places like Kazakhstan, Malawi, or Somalia. Jett was ambassador to both Mozambique and Peru and his book clearly favors this path, but recognizes there are successful political appointees as well.

The contrast between the two types of ambassador is sharp. Jett presents the current method of ambassador selection as a modern day spoils system. Wealthy, inexperienced people are given locations in fashionable countries, while government employees strive to receive any assignment at all. To get the ambassadorship I wanted in middle school, the easiest path would be to donate large amounts of money to the winning presidential candidate. That wouldn’t matter much if ambassadors only threw parties, but they are also responsible for every U.S. governmental worker in their country.

“American Ambassadors” calls into question the fractured systems in place for selecting our representatives to the world. Although it can feel procedure-heavy at times, the book shows exactly how important it is to pay attention to how our ambassadors get where they are. With new Trump administration political appointments on the horizon, it’s more critical than ever to understand what makes an “American Ambassador.”

American Ambassadors: The Past, Present, and Future of America’s Diplomats” by Dennis C. Jett is published by Palgrave Macmillan.

Reviewer Meghan Shiels is a sophomore at Penn State and an intern with WPSU. 

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