The new US ambassador-designate a sign of shifting diplomatic tides
Acknowledging the changing circumstances for American ambassadors helps in thinking about the new choice for American ambassador to South Africa.
There once was a time when an American ambassador assigned to almost every country of the world had an outsized presence on the local political and diplomatic stage. If the post of assignment was in Beijing, Moscow, or one of Moscow’s satrapies among the Warsaw Pact nations, such ambassadors were right on the front line of the Cold War, trying hard to suss out those potentially dastardly intentions of America’s adversaries.
They were alert to events that – the fear was – might easily turn into the precipitating cause for an actual shooting, a hot war. There were always taut, even frightening movies, novels, and memoirs about just such tense times, keeping everyone aware of the consequences of such issues and the gravity of ambassadorial roles.
Meanwhile, by the same token, back in those days, in countries friendly (or even subservient) to the US, an ambassador (together with his official entourage) cut an outsized figure, a true primus inter pares. Behind the carefully chosen words, there was always (or at least believed by others and reinforced by that whole catalogue of political thriller action movies) the threat or possibility of the arrival of a destroyer or cruiser or two by sea, a contingent of combat-ready Marines, or a fighter squadron or two by air, if things were going less than satisfactorily. And in some countries, fresh from the end of their post-World War II occupations or in the midst of a shooting war with America on the side of the formal government, an American ambassador could sometimes be found wearing the mantle of modern pro-consul – almost a co-ruler, even.
But today’s world seems to have left that earlier one well behind it. Secretaries of state and defence, among others, are frequently on the road overseas, carrying out discussions with their counterparts directly. Modern American presidents, at least until President Trump, anyway, have increasingly chosen direct conversations with foreign leaders, face-to-face or by conference call (with aides listening in carefully), rather than asking their presumably handpicked personal representatives to carry out discussions and negotiations further.
As an historical footnote, my favourite story from the time when diplomats were largely left to their own devices dates back to the late 1850s when Townsend Harris – the American special envoy sent to Japan shortly after the island kingdom’s isolation came to an end following the visit by the naval flotilla led by Commodore Perry sailed into Tokyo Bay in 1854. Harris had been given presidential instructions to negotiate trade agreements with the shogun’s government.
Harris set about his task with much enthusiasm. He dutifully sent back progress reports ultimately destined for the state department and the president, each time a passing foreign merchant ship entered Tokyo Bay. There were, of course, no regular postal services or telegraphic connections yet. After more than 18 months, according to his meticulous diary, one of his reports carried a plaintive, even despairing cover note explaining that he had been on the job for over a year and a half, but had yet to receive a single reply to any of his earlier reports, let alone further instructions from Washington.
That would never happen now, of course. Instead, into every American embassy flows a constant stream of instructions, advice, and requests for updates sent from the various government departments across the entire spectrum of government activities. Most frequently, as a result of this massive change in work flow, together with the IT communications revolution, aside from carrying out day-to-day operations, among an ambassador and his (or her) staff’s key functions are staying in touch with developments in the local host country and with key government officials – the better to provide crucial context and data back home for a better understanding of developments abroad. Or, alternatively, their task can also become being well-placed enough to give their foreign interlocutors a better understanding of thinking in Washington that can affect them and their nation.
Whenever no one in Washington heeds such information, however, or when the embassy is blindsided by impromptu, presidential late night messages, one sees embarrassments such as that recent, infamous Trump tweet about land invasions and white genocide in South Africa. Nowadays, certainly, there is no easy or usual pathway for an ambassador in any American embassy to “call in the Marines”, just like in the movies. Even standing American military deployments in foreign nations are governed and carefully negotiated, lawyerly, complex “status of forces” agreements that cover things right down to the way traffic accidents between US military vehicles and local civilian ones are adjudicated, rather than being subject to the whim of an ambassador or any other official.
Being an ambassador can still be an exhilarating, intellectually challenging job. But it can also mean attending endless opening ceremonies for new projects or workshops on a host of sometimes boring topics, or even spending time and energy hammering out inter-agency disagreements within their official family. Sometimes these are about important policy questions – but it can also cover seemingly quotidian things such as budgets, staff size relative to office space, or even the relative fairness of the various American officers’ official housing assignments.
In the American system, certainly since the onset of the post-World War II era, especially as the number of embassies grew with the advent of decolonisation and the consequent fourfold increase in the number of independent nations, the foreign service has grown in size. Consequently, more career senior officers have gained chances to become ambassadors in places across Africa, the Caribbean, among the micro-nations in the Pacific, in various Middle East nations and the like.
But, as a general guideline, if a country suffers from severe isolation, difficult living conditions, a low-grade civil war, rampant dangerous diseases, out-of-control crime, or is located a great distance from more salubrious climes, the odds are that the ambassador sent there will be drawn from the career ranks. There is also a good chance such ambassadors have previously served there or in a neighbouring nation, and perhaps already know the local language, along with studies of the issues and circumstances of that country and its region.
Overall, perhaps as many as a third of all American ambassadors are not career appointees at a given time. Those non-career appointees generally go to London, Paris, Berlin, or similar cities, or lesser places in calm, peaceful spots with great food and interesting surroundings such as, say, Singapore.
There are two types of these appointments. Some, obviously, are made for individuals drawn from among the ranks of a president’s friends, or from among those who made signal contributions to the presidential campaign such as significant cash donations, or who worked hard at bundling together yet others’ contributions. Think Franklin Roosevelt’s appointment of Joseph P Kennedy (President John F Kennedy’s father) to Britain in the late 1930s as an example of this.
But there are also individuals whom a president nominates for strategically important places when the president believes such appointments can make a real contribution to improving relations by virtue of their skills, experience, background, and knowledge. The best example this writer ever observed of just such an appointee was Amb. Mike Mansfield’s decade-plus tenure in Tokyo. Besides being vastly experienced in American politics from his years as a US senator, he had taught East Asian history and politics at the university level – and he had even been deployed on a US naval vessel in East Asia, way back in the 1930s. A whole generation of Japanese grew up with the idea that Amb. Mansfield’s presence in Tokyo assured Japan it had a close connection with and access to whoever was in the White House, as well as in Congress. And vice versa.
Speaking more locally, for many years now America has been well served by a long list of highly experienced career ambassadors in Pretoria. This has included, among others, William Bowdler, William Swing, Princeton Lyman, Cameron Hume, and Edward Perkins. Many of these diplomats had already been tested in other troubled parts of the world, and South Africa was the kind of place – especially in the 1970s, ‘80s, ‘90s, and into the early 2000s – that could make good use of their skills and insights on behalf of the US. Most recently, in the view of many, Patrick Gaspard was a model non-career ambassador, similarly well suited for the times and the place. A confidante of the president who had appointed him, and an experienced political activist himself, Gaspard’s skills and experience, and an abiding interest in African politics, economics and culture, had made him the right choice.
And so, once Donald Trump became president on 20 January 2017, along with the several thousand other appointments he could make, spread across the full extent of the federal government, he had the entire range of US ambassadors to appoint. This is because all sitting ambassadors traditionally turn in pro forma letters of resignation once a new president comes into office. Curiously, besides not bothering to nominate ambassadors – career or otherwise – to dozens of nations, he also ignored filling the ranks of assistant secretaries of state for the various regions of the globe, as well as a number of the functional or thematic bureaus.
The Africa bureau only recently gained the appointment of an assistant secretary, Amb. Tibor Nagy, after nearly two years into the Trump presidency. But until now, South Africa has similarly been without an ambassador. Along the way, several names were mooted, but they ultimately were not nominated. The truth be told, the current deputy chief of mission, now designated the “chargé d’affaires” for obvious reasons, has carried out her tasks with skill, enthusiasm and effectiveness.
Nevertheless, people do expect the most powerful nation on the planet to put its highest ranking foot forward in those highly visible jobs; and there are some tasks that only someone bearing the title “ambassador” in front of their name can realistically hope to bring to a decisive closure.
In fact, the whole lackadaisical appointments process of the Trump presidency seems a manifestation of Trump’s professed view, offered right from the nominating convention onward, that only he could fix anything, and that the only people he really trusted seemed to be family or a few friends from within a very close-knit circle. And, moreover, he really did not seem to have much interest in staffing a lean, mean, fighting machine he bragged he wanted in place, beyond that tight circle.
Now, this week, we have finally learned of his intention to nominate handbag designer/manufacturer Lana Marks as his most senior representative to South Africa.
Marks was born and raised in East London in the Eastern Cape. She attended the University of the Witwatersrand, studying for a BComm degree, but married her British doctor husband before finishing the full course of study. Her husband had been working in a Cape Town hospital at the time. After their marriage, they moved to Bermuda for some years, before that period in their lives ended when there were visa and work permit issues. That, in turn, led them on to relocate to the US.
They ended up in Florida where, over time, they seem to have become friends with the Trumps, close enough so that the Marks’ held their daughter’s wedding at Trump’s Mar a Lago beach club. Along the way, she entered the design and manufacture of very pricey women’s handbags, creating an eye-catching, fast-selling, ultra-expensive, and very desirable brand. She worked so hard to build a mystique around these items that the late Princess Diana, among other celebrities, became devotees of these often-brightly coloured, exotic leather bags. Along the way, she also nibbled at the edges of Hollywood, garnering some modest screen credits such as a star’s handbag co-ordinator and a couple of uncredited roles in cinematic crowd scenes.
In discussing her career and life story, she has been known to allude to competing in prestigious international tennis tourneys, and that she had studied at Royal School Ballet. Perhaps there has been a modest bit of CV inflation, but it is probably more precise to say she competed for the US in tennis for the international Maccabi games, and that her ballet study would have been in East London with a teacher authorised to tutor the Royal School curriculum for their examinations.
The real question, of course, is why she would wish to return to South Africa to take up a really complex job in a rather troubled time for the country. Presumably she may believe she can bring special insights from her early life in the South Africa that could illuminate her work in that position. Or, perhaps, it is because she believes her successful transition from being a provincial East London school kid to someone with global fashion mogul status means lessons from her own transformation can similarly be useful for would-be South African entrepreneurs. (As a footnote, America has always been the land of the remaking of oneself, as with the fictional life of Jay Gatsby.) Or, perhaps it is simply that Trump offered the job to her – and just like the president and others in his circle she, too, believes government jobs are easy to do, especially if you have a competent staff to do the details and the boring bits.
Still, there is a long road ahead for her before she moves into the graceful official residence, Hill House, in Pretoria. First there is the still-pending receipt of formal agreement from the receiving government, that is, a nod of approval from Cyril Ramaphosa’s government. Then there will be those confirmation hearings by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and then the vote by the full Senate. (The contretemps over Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to become a member of the Supreme Court should be a modest cautionary tale of how quickly a nomination can spiral out of control if there is not careful prep.) Then there is the so-called “charm school” and other consultations for new ambassadors, before departing for South Africa. Given the impending midterm election and adjournment of the Congress, best not to figure on leaving the US before early 2019, however, even if it all goes well.
Meanwhile, the First Lady, Melania Trump, is in the midst of a four-nation trip to Africa – but not to South Africa. Perhaps in this fact we can read a message concerning the relative importance the Trump administration is affording to US-South Africa relations, despite the long list of areas where the two nations co-operate, as well as that growing list of areas where the two governments seem to disagree. DM
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