16 February 2019
It won’t be surprising if Ivanka Trump is appointed as US ambassador to Japan by her father, President-elect Donald Trump. Photo: Reuters
It won’t be surprising if Ivanka Trump is appointed as US ambassador to Japan by her father, President-elect Donald Trump. Photo: Reuters

Will Ivanka Trump be the next US ambassador to Japan?

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s meeting with President-elect Donald Trump in New York in November was an important diplomatic event but it was Trump’s eldest daughter, Ivanka Trump, who was the focus of international media attention.

Ivanka, who was also present at that meeting, is widely tipped for the position of US ambassador to Japan, according to unconfirmed reports by Japanese media.

In fact, one should not be surprised at all if Ivanka is eventually appointed as US ambassador to Japan by her father.

Throughout US history, appointing someone as US ambassador to a foreign country as a reward for their support or donations during presidential campaigns has almost become the norm in US politics.

Nominations of US ambassadors do not have to be approved by Congress and the president can basically appoint whoever he wants.

There are two types of ambassadors in the US — career diplomats who have spent years in the State Department undergoing formal diplomatic training and those who got the job as a reward for their services or financial support during presidential campaigns, or the so-called “rewardees”.

Over the years, as an unwritten rule, the proportion of career diplomats to “rewardees” has always stood at 7:3, even though the ratio may vary a bit among different presidents.

For example, when Bill Clinton was in office, the politically appointed rewardees accounted for 28 percent of the total.

That percentage rose slightly to 30 percent during George W. Bush’s presidency. It reached 37 percent under President Obama.

During his second term, Obama rewarded 39 of his most active campaign donors with plum jobs in foreign embassies.

According to a report by The Washington Diplomat, these politically appointed ambassadors had each raised an average of US$500,000 for the Obama campaign in the 2012 presidential election.

Some former US ambassadors and seasoned diplomats have likened such practice to the “selling of public office”.

Despite the fact that such practice is hardly a new feature in US politics, professional diplomats in Washington are increasingly dismayed at how it has grown.

The Obama administration has further fueled the controversy surrounding such practice when it appointed Matthew Barzun, the Obama campaign finance chairman who had helped raise nearly US$700 million for the Obama campaign in the 2012 cycle and who has zero experience in diplomacy.

Some State Department veterans are deeply concerned that the giving of ambassadorships to people who have raised a lot of campaign money might undermine the professional reputation of US diplomats as a whole.

It remains to be seen whether Donald Trump will eventually appoint his daughter as US ambassador to Japan but it is almost certain that his nomination list will be full of surprises. Let’s wait and see.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Dec. 2

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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