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Americas

Donald Trump bids US ambassadors abrupt adieu

US President-elect Donald Trump has ordered Barack Obama's politically-appointed ambassadors to leave when he takes office. The move will force many deputies to pick up the slack.

President-elect Donald Trump's order for all Obama-appointed ambassadors to depart their jobs by the time he takes office makes clear his desire to break with traditional US foreign policy - raising even more questions about what directions he will take. It's traditional for incoming leaders to allow ambassadors to request extensions of a few months to give them time to make personal and professional adjustments, to let the new administration get their replacements confirmed by Congress and to allow for a more efficient transfer of power and knowledge. But Trump says point-blank, no Obama-era political appointee will be given an extension.

State Department Spokesman John Kirby confirmed to the media Friday that he will be among those exiting. "When you're a political appointee for this or any other administration, you have no expectation of staying beyond the inauguration of a new administration," Kirby explained. He said all non-career ambassadors - who make up about one-third of the total US ambassadorial corps - had been ordered to submit resignation letters by December 7 and to be gone by 12 p.m. on January 20, when Trump is sworn in as president.

With embassies for bilateral Belgian relations, the European Union and NATO all located in Brussels, this is likely to feel quite abrupt for European counterparts. Trump evidently wants it to be a palpable change, suggests Ian Lesser, senior foreign policy director at the German Marshall Fund of the US. "There clearly is a difference between viewing this as essentially a personnel question as opposed to viewing it as a political-ideological question," he pointed out, "and this sends the signal that the political and ideological dimension takes precedence."

One diplomat indicated to DW on background that the matter is receiving more attention than it warrants, and that there are real issues to deal with that are more critical than who is leading embassies. Deputy chiefs of mission in all US embassies are career foreign service officers who are quite capable of holding down the forts for as long as necessary.

But Lesser explained that because Trump has shaken up so many of the norms in US national and international behavior, no one knows what to expect. "There are a lot of very pressing foreign policy questions and some very critical relationships where embassies matter," Lesser explained, saying both the NATO and US/EU missions are among those sensitive posts. "The mix of someone coming into office proclaiming a new approach to American foreign policy and a set of very pressing questions on the international agenda makes this question of who is in place and who could make these connections even more important."

Belgien Nato-Außenministertreffen Plenum (Reuters/Y. Herman)

NATO is preparing for a change in US leadership

In Brussels, the most diplomatically experienced ambassador, US Permanent Representative to NATO Doug Lute, will be heading out even before the inauguration. A retired lieutenant general, Lute served more than 30 years in the military before taking up civilian posts in both the Bush and Obama administrations. Ambassador to Belgium Denise Bauer and Ambassador to the EU Anthony Gardner will both be making media appearances in Brussels later this week. Those embassies declined comment on their principals' next moves.

But Ivo Daalder, who served as the US ambassador to NATO during the first Obama administration, said Trump's actions are "fully within the norm of past practice." Daalder, who became president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs after leaving Brussels, told DW he could only recall a couple of individuals who used this waiver to stay beyond the end of their terms when Obama came into office in 2009.

Daalder also says not to worry about the mass exodus of known entities all at once. "The big thing political appointees bring to the job is a close connection to the president and the White House," he explained, "which in the present case would be lost on day one" anyway. He noted that while it's often useful to have the "different experiences and perspectives" that political appointees bring, the embassies are in perfectly capable hands with the deputies who've spent their lives as diplomats. "Overall, therefore, the impact should be quite small," Daalder surmised. "The biggest change is the transition in Washington, not of ambassadors."

In fact, some career foreign service officers are suggesting Trump make an even bigger break with tradition and curtail the practice of appointing big donors, activists and friends to ambassadorial positions at all. Lesser notes international partners always see this 70/30 split between experienced diplomats and assorted others as a "somewhat eccentric aspect of American policy."

Deutschland Ivo H. Daalder (imago/M. Schulz)

Daalder says a political appointee's main contribution is a close connection to the White House

Edward Peck, a former US ambassador to Iraq and Mauritania with a 33-year foreign service career, wrote an op-ed in the latest "American Foreign Service Journal" encouraging an end to "pay to play" ambassadorships, which he notes are not seen in other major democracies.

"Without a doubt, the ability to raise millions of dollars for a presidential campaign is a valuable skill. But rewarding a fundraiser or 'bundler' with the job of heading a US embassy reveals total ignorance of what the job entails," Peck opines. "[A]n ambassador's responsibilities are numerous, complex and important - sometimes critical. And, as with any and all top management positions, they cannot be effectively carried out by beginners."

Despite Trump's seeming preference so far for naming his friends and business partners to high office, Peck urges the president-elect to end the "spoils system" in US diplomacy, saying with this chaotic world, there's no time to give neophytes on-the-job training.

But as for now, State Department Spokesman Kirby summed up concisely "the way the system works." 

"The American people voted. They spoke. They elected Donald Trump as their president, and therefore they have elected his worldview," he told reporters at the daily departmental briefing. "And so the incoming team will, by design, be able to fashion that worldview around the staffing of certain individual diplomatic posts, to include ambassadors."

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