This matter of political appointees as diplomats

Sunday, September 16, 2018

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The appointment of individuals to represent Jamaica as ambassadors is the sole prerogative of the prime minister who is not obliged to consult anyone, not even the minister of foreign affairs. The normal process is for the permanent secretary in the ministry to submit three names to the minister who could agree, add, or reject the list and then send the suggested candidates to the prime minister.

The prime minister does exactly what he wants, which could be either appoint a career diplomat from the ranks of the Foreign Service or name a non-career diplomat, the latter being referred to as a “political appointee”.

A political appointee can be either be someone who has some skill and/or experience not available in the foreign ministry or could be totally unqualified and quite unsuitable. In the United States nominees have to be scrutinised and pass a hearing in the Congress, allowing the public to comment. In Jamaica there is no such quality control.

All countries have a mix of outsiders and career diplomats. For example, traditionally about 30 per cent of the ambassadors of the United States have been political appointees, usually financial contributors or those who were involved in the presidential campaign. We recall that in 1977 British Prime Minister James Callaghan appointed his son-in-law to be the United Kingdom's ambassador in Washington. In Jamaica, Prime Minister Michael Manley started an unfortunate method of “retiring” politicians by appointing them as ambassadors/high commissioners. Nice work if you can get it, paying foreign exchange with a diplomatic passport. Now, it seems ambassador is the title most sought after.

Jamaica's experience with political appointees has been mixed with some successes and some notable failures, many of the latter were former politicians and political activists. In fact, it was never expected that they would succeed since they understood that it was their reward or pension. This is an awful price for Jamaica to pay because external relations are of critical importance to small economies.

By January 2019 there will be six political appointees in Beijing; Havana; Washington, DC; London; Port of Spain; and Miami. Two outsiders are in New York and Mexico City. There are 11 career diplomats at the United Nations, Geneva, Tokyo, Berlin, Brussels, Lagos, Ottawa, Brazil, Venezuela, Kuwait, and South Africa. Non-career diplomats represent about 40 per cent of the postings. The comparable figure in the US, as we stated, is 30 per cent.

Political appointees should be confined to individuals who bring skills and experience not available in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. After all, while the ministry cannot boast an embarrassment of riches it does have a cadre of able and experienced career diplomats. A balance, therefore, has to be struck between career diplomats and political appointees. At the very least, tough, diplomatic posts should not be used as reward for politicians and political activists.

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