On this week’s episode of “Conversations with Nicholas Kralev,” Harvard professor Joseph Nye, who coined the term “soft power,” talks about presidential leadership in the conduct of diplomacy, and how the United States can maintain its primacy in world affairs.
Every president has his own way of determining who would make his best secretary of state, but all commanders-in-chief tend to focus on how a candidate would carry out his or her boss’s foreign policy. In reality, the position of secretary of state is perhaps the most complex in the Cabinet, because it requires its occupant to wear three hats at the same time.
In most government departments, the secretary is mainly the CEO. At State, he or she is also the country’s chief diplomat — or the COO — as well as the president’s chief foreign policy adviser. To be truly successful, the secretary of state must give each of these roles the time and attention they deserve, which is even more challenging when one has various crises to resolve around the world and a 24-hour news cycle…
Charles Rivkin is an American ambassador of a peculiar kind. He is not a career diplomat but a political appointee, with no previous professional experience in international relations. However, unlike most of his current and former non-career colleagues, he speaks fluently the language of the county he is posted to — France — and is very well plugged-in when it comes to political and social developments there. He has received rave reviews for his performance in Paris both in official State Department audits and from his embassy’s employees.
But it wasn’t Rivkin’s diplomatic skills that landed him the coveted political ambassadorship. Rather, it was his skillful fundraising for President Obama during his 2008 election campaign…
When was the last time you used a travel agent? I asked that question in my book “Decoding Air Travel.” Last month, President Obama asked it, too, and the American Society of Travel Agents speedily protested. So let’s examine the modern — or perhaps not modern enough — travel-agency system and the value it brings.
Many young people don’t even remember the time when using a travel agent was the only practical way to book a trip. While many consumers today book their own travel, using travel agencies is still quite prevalent in the corporate world. However, many business travelers I know are unhappy with their company’s travel agency. It’s clear the current system isn’t working well anymore for a variety of reasons. Without taking sides, let’s look at those reasons from the perspective of travel agencies and their customers…
“Going political” is a phrase used in the U.S. Foreign Service to indicate career diplomats’ frustration that yet another ambassadorship has been taken from them and given to a political appointee. For 20 years, the post in Russia has been reserved for professionals because of its difficulty and sensitivity — but that’s about to change.
Although President Obama’s decision to nominate Michael McFaul as the next U.S. ambassador to Moscow, which the White House announced late last week, surprised many in the Foreign Service, it’s unlikely to be met with serious criticism. Despite my recent series of critical columns on political ambassadors, I have no reason to question Obama’s motives in this case, either.
Most of us don’t think we are cut out to be doctors or engineers. Then why do so many of us believe we can be diplomats? Does one need training or a particular background to become a U.S. ambassador? I find myself asking these questions every time I hear about a failed non-career ambassador.
President Obama promised change in Washington, but he continued the decades-long tradition of dishing out ambassadorial posts to people whose only “qualifications” were their big donations to his election campaign. As I’ve written before, the American Academy of Diplomacy and the American Foreign Service Association have called him out on this disgraceful practice.
President Obama is a very smart and highly intelligent man who knew more about the world than most presidential candidates do before taking office. So why did he appoint a political ambassador whose tenure has been nothing short of a disgrace, just because she was a significant contributor to his election campaign?
There are some excellent political appointees, but Cynthia Stroum, ambassador to Luxembourg, wasn’t one of them. She was forced to resign last week, following a scathing report of her management style and the damage she did to her embassy by the State Department’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG).
I began the week reminiscing about my travels with four secretaries of state, so I thought I’d end it by answering another question I’m frequently asked: What happened to the three secretaries I covered before Hillary Clinton? Starting with the most recent, they are Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell and Madeleine Albright.
I’ve also been asked often about the differences between those former chief U.S. diplomats, especially during travel. I usually point out an obvious similarity among them first: None of them is a white male. In fact, the last secretary to fit that description was Warren Christopher, who left office in January 1997, when Albright ended the centuries-old tradition.
One of the questions I’ve been asked most frequently in the last decade is whether I’ve earned any frequent-flier miles from my nearly 200 flights with four U.S. secretaries of state. Sadly, the answer is no — and what makes it even sadder is that my press colleagues accompanying the president do get miles and even elite status.
I’ve known many journalists over the years who were top elites purely as a result of White House travel. Some of them didn’t really use their elite benefits because of their very limited commercial flying. There were also a few who didn’t even know they had the coveted status.
So why the differentiation? The above photo will help explain things. I snapped it while waiting for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Beijing a year ago — we flew to Afghanistan that day.
Clinton’s plane is the one of the right — as I wrote last year, it’s the Air Force version of the Boeing 757, also known as C-32. Air Force One — the Boeing 747 on the left — was waiting for President Obama and later took him to Seoul.
The State Department traveling press corps — about a dozen on average — flies on the secretary’s aircraft. Air Force One, however, has enough seats only for a pool of 12, and usually more than 100 reporters go on a foreign presidential trip. There is a rotation for the pool seats on every flight, but most of the time reporters fly on a so-called press plane chartered by the White House, usually from United Airlines.
What you don’t see on the above photo is that, across from the two Air Force planes, to the left of the traffic lane, there was a parked United aircraft, which was of course the press charter.
Everyone on that plane earned United miles, and many of those traveling with the president regularly have 1K status — United’s highest published elite level, requiring 100,000 flown miles per calendar year. Moreover, fliers get first-class mileage credit, which means 150 percent elite-qualifying miles.
Before every trip, different airlines bid for the charter contract, and the White House travel office and the White House Correspondents Association choose the offer they deem best. Although most of the time they select United, for Obama’s trip to Asia last week the winner was Delta Airlines.
The trip took travelers around the world — they flew over the Atlantic en route to India, then went to Indonesia, South Korea and Japan, before returning to Washington via the Pacific. According to the Great Circle Mapper, that’s about 22,000 miles. Delta spokesman Anthony Black declined to say whether the fliers will earn mileage, citing “customer privacy.”
I admit I’ve been a little jealous about all the “missed” miles over the years — almost half a million — but I never wanted to cover the White House because of the domestic politics involved in that beat.
I found another way to earn miles from official trips. After flying almost 100,000 miles with Colin Powell in 2003, I’d had it with non-mileage-earning flights. I still needed to re-qualify for 1K. The following year, I decided that I’d go on the secretary’s plane but would drop off at the last stop and come home commercially. Now I’ve been 1K for a decade.
Some of you might think I was crazy to give up a seat on the secretary’s plane and a hassle-free journey, not having to worry about passport control, customs and sometimes even security screening.
But I thought about it in a different way. I was paying half the price the State Department would charge me — yet, I was getting much better seats as a result of business-class upgrades, mileage credit and better food — yes, even on United.
The middle of the summer is a good time to review the balance of political appointees vs. career diplomats in ambassadorial posts around the world. Not surprisingly, the familiar 30-percent quota for political appointments of the last several decades remains largely intact.
Actually, for some people, continuing the tradition of awarding presidential campaign contributors with embassies may be surprising, given President Obama’s promise to change the way Washington works during the 2008 election. However, as I wrote a year ago, reality set in soon after Obama took office. According to a list maintained by the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), the diplomats’ union, of all ambassadors Obama has nominated so far, about 40 percent are political appointees.
- Nicholas Kralev is an author and expert on diplomacy, world affairs and global travel. He hosts the weekly TV program "Conversations with Nicholas Kralev." A former Financial Times and Washington Times correspondent, he has traveled around the world with four U.S. secretaries of state — Hillary Clinton, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell and Madeleine Albright. He has flown over 2 million miles and visited 84 countries.
Subscribe to updates
Upcoming speaking engagements
FEB 24, 2014 — ADDIS ABABA, ETHIOPIA
FEB 27, 2014 — DAKAR, SENEGAL
MAR 3, 2014 — DAR ES SALAAM, TANZANIA
MAR 5, 2014 — GABORONE, BOTSWANA
MAR 7, 2014 — LUSAKA, ZAMBIA
APR 22, 2014 — BRATISLAVA, SLOVAKIA
APR 24, 2014 — RIGA, LATVIA
APR 28, 2014 — PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC
MAY 5, 2014 — CHISINAU, MOLDOVA
- The best of my show’s first season
- How money in domestic politics affects U.S. diplomacy
- Once expelled, gay diplomat thrives in Foreign Service
- U.S. expects Syrian stockpile destroyed ahead of schedule
- Politics’ role in U.S.-Canada diplomacy
- From the peanut fields of Alabama to the Foreign Service
- Can diplomacy be taught?
- Asia still ‘distant third’ in U.S. priorities, ex-Obama official says
- U.S. calls on China to lift flight limits
- The royal family’s role in British diplomacy