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Tokyo Drift

Naming Caroline Kennedy ambassador to Japan sends a terrible message about America.

Being something of an op-ed writer myself, I consider the nomination of Caroline Kennedy for ambassador to Japan to be a breakthrough. While America's diplomatic envoys have been chosen on the basis of a variety of criteria before -- key posts during the Obama years have, for example, been awarded for reasons ranging from the bundling of donations to the actual giving of their own personal cash -- the Kennedy nomination is perhaps the first time in history that an individual has been nominated for a top ambassadorial post primarily for having written an opinion column.

Early in 2008, back in the days when Barack Obama was hardly a shoo-in to be the Democratic nominee for president, Kennedy penned a piece for the New York Times called "A President Like My Father." In it, she described Obama as a man who could inspire a new generation of Americans as her father, President John F. Kennedy, had inspired a previous generation. It provided Obama with a big boost and, along with the support he received from Sen. Edward Kennedy, gave the candidate the imprimatur of the political-celebrity wing of the Democratic establishment -- a leg up in his tight race against then-Sen. Hillary Clinton.

Other than writing this op-ed, Kennedy has not the slightest hint of a qualification to be ambassador to Japan. Trained as a lawyer, she has led a worthy life of dedication to family charities, other nonprofit organizations, and writing. But she has no particular experience with Japan, no experience with diplomacy or foreign affairs, and no government experience. Hers is a nomination that reflects more on the president's views toward the diplomatic service and by extension the entire Department of State than it does on anything she has ever done or shown interest in doing. It also by extension illustrates the ever-growing centrality of the White House and more importantly the president himself to the conduct of U.S. international relations.

This is well illustrated by the comments of former Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell in the New York Times article announcing Kennedy's nomination. "For those who say she doesn't know a lot about Japan, I say 'sure,' but neither did Walter Mondale," said Campbell, referring to the former vice president who once served in the Tokyo post. He then went on to say: "What you really want in an ambassador is someone who can get the president of the United States on the phone.… I can't think of anybody in the United States who could do that more quickly than Caroline Kennedy."

I have great personal regard for Campbell; indeed, I view him as a good friend and as one of the most successful assistant secretaries of state for East Asian affairs the United States has ever produced. But this comment is both ill-considered and disturbing. It is ill-considered because it dismisses the foreign policy and government experience of Mondale, a former vice president and senator, as being as flimsy as that of Kennedy. Indeed, it is worth noting that the other political "marquee figures" who have served in the Japan job are Howard Baker and Thomas S. Foley, one a former Senate majority leader, the other a former speaker of the House. These were men chosen because they sent a message to Japan that America considers the job of U.S. representative to Japan a very high priority and honor. Sadly, so too does the selection of Kennedy, who is succeeding another appointee whose sole qualification for the job was the ability to get the president on the phone, John Roos, a big-time fundraiser for the president.

The disturbing message is the part of the Campbell statement that is rich with irony, given that it comes from someone who bears so many scars of the tug of war between the State Department and the White House over who should shape U.S. foreign policy. It is the idea that the most important thing in U.S. diplomacy and foreign policy more generally is access to the president. (I will leave aside for the moment the rather unsettling notion that the person in the very best position to get the president to take her or his call is Caroline Kennedy, whose primary political contribution is that of celebrity endorser.)

The idea that the principal job of an ambassador is to get the president on the phone grossly undervalues the role of the entire State Department and the rest of the U.S. government in relations between the United States and Japan or any other government. It suggests that all major policy issues travel through the White House, are resolved by the White House, are implemented at the behest of and with the influence of the White House, and that central to each of these is the president.

Giving out ambassadorial posts to those who have personally helped the president but who otherwise have no diplomatic experience or, in some cases, no experience with the countries in which they are being called upon to serve sends a host of lousy messages. One is that real diplomatic experience doesn't matter. Another is that in America cronyism trumps all. And another is this very un-American idea that U.S. foreign policy is more about the president than the actions of an entire government, a system, or national interests.

The concentration of the foreign-policy apparatus in the White House (which now boasts by far the biggest national security staff in American history, a staff almost 10 times larger than that overseen by Henry Kissinger), the acknowledged shift of much critical decision-making and actual implementation of foreign policy to the White House staff and away from the State Department, the fact that foreign governments and senior officials now often bypass the State Department and go straight to the White House to do their business, and the recent tendency to view White House or presidential statements of opinion on world affairs as the primary foreign-policy output of a United States that seemingly wants to do little other than comment on many issues -- all are bigger, more important signs of the oversized role the chief executive now plays in U.S. diplomacy. But actions like the Kennedy appointment underscore this in an unsettling way. History and common sense both show that such a concentration of focus around a single individual or seat of power reduces the input of many with vital experience and views, makes it harder to implement policies that require solutions from key departments or the whole of government, makes it harder for those agencies to do their mandated jobs, and, on top of it all, sends a really terrible message about American politics and values.

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