I've never met Caroline Kennedy and really have nothing invested one way or the other in her appointment as U.S. ambassador to Japan. She strikes me a caring, talented woman with a passion for public service and a heavy but meaningful legacy to bear. But I must say that as an American, a defender of common sense, and a former career civil servant who spent the better part of a quarter century at the State Department dealing with Foreign Service officers, political appointees, career ambassadors, and assorted other Foggy Bottom types, I disagree with David Rothkopf's recent reaction to her appointment.
I'm not at all sure the smart and savvy Rothkopf intended it to come off this way, but the article echoes the elitism that gave the Department of State the reputation for striped-pants snobbery that it enjoyed for years. What I'm referring to is the notion that representing the nation abroad is solely a function of how much you know about country X and whether you have the right credentials -- whether they're bestowed by the American Foreign Service Association, the Council on Foreign Relations, or Foreign Policy magazine.
I understand that diplomacy requires more than just common sense and a general familiarity with an atlas. One of the career ambassadors I admire most, a friend and former colleague, Thomas Pickering, is dead-on accurate in saying that the trend since the late 1970s has been toward marginalizing the Foreign Service. America needs a professional diplomatic corps and it needs to be taken seriously by the political establishment otherwise diplomacy itself is devalued. And the statistics suggest that professional diplomacy is being undermined by politics. Since 1975, the number of top leadership positions at State has nearly doubled, yet the share filled by Foreign Service officers has fallen from 61 percent in 1975 to 24 percent in 2012.
But based on my own experience, I can't in all good conscience concede wholesale the notion that representing U.S. interests abroad is such a sacrosanct duty that it can be handled only by the high priests of the foreign policy temple. I knew lousy political appointees and terrific ones; great career FSOs who became ambassadors and awful ones. Most colored between the lines, both for good and ill. After all, the State Department, like most bureaucratic systems, doesn't encourage a great deal of bold, innovative thinking.
In my view, what defined the best of both careerists and politicos and what is required above everything else were sound judgment, emotional intelligence, a dose of humility, perspective, a knowledge of history, and how to deal with people -- all kinds of people. And this goes for foreign policy experts outside the State Department, too, including Cabinet officials. The foreign policy and national security credentials and resumes of those advising George W. Bush in the wake of 9/11 stretched around the block. But those same foreign policy experts brought us Iraq. I'd take judgment and balance in decision-making anytime over so-called expertise.