Years ago, I asked a former US ambassador how he managed to navigate his way around rural and provincial New Zealand. Pretty easily, he replied: “I just ask the person I’m meeting whether they have a KFC or a McDonalds in their town, and then I suggest that we meet up there.” Yes, the ambassador also commented, he did find it strange to see so many New Zealand kids wearing the caps and jackets of say, the Chicago Bulls or the Charlotte Hornets. “At times, it has made me wonder – if I really wanted to be the ambassador to Kansas City, maybe I should have just gone to Kansas City.”
Point being, a deep interest in New Zealand affairs and and knowledge of Kiwiana has probably never been a requirement for being the US ambassador to these parts. Such posts involve representing US interests, and – in New Zealand at least – there are neither strategic issues nor tactical subtleties that require access to anything much beyond the Wikipedia page on New Zealand and a weekend of cramming. New Zealanders are keen on All Blacks and rugby (update: currently proud of cricket team, but that situation subject to change); are ruled by a centre-right government pliable on trade issues, but left of centre in US terms on health provision and the welfare safety net. (Try not to be visibly shocked at this. And be comforted that New Zealand is fast becoming more like the US in those respects.) The locals are prone to perform a fierce – but brief – Maori war dance on any and all public occasions. Publicly, the country’s leaders will be skittish about joining US-led coalitions of the willing, but will provide a reliable (albeit token) presence in same. Congratulations! You now know all you need to know to be the next US ambassador to New Zealand.
Oh, there’s one other thing: you will also need to have raised six or seven figure sums in donations for Barack Obama. Increasingly, being a successful fund-raiser – the jargon term is “bundler” – for Obama and his Democratic Party is a reliable route to a plum diplomatic post, as this chart from Slate magazine amply demonstrates. There, near the top of the chart is Florida-based investment banker Mark D. Gilbert, former major league baseball player, bundler extraordinaire to the tune of $1.2 million, and current nominee as US ambassador to New Zealand. Will raising $1.2 million in donations always be the price of a diplomatic posting here? Hard to tell. Very hard to read the futures market on this one. Already, as the Slate chart indicates, successful bundlers-for-Obama have won diplomatic postings to Norway, the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, Austria, Switzerland etc etc. The list includes one Colleen Bell, whose credentials for heading the US diplomatic effort in Hungary seem to be that she used to produce an afternoon TV soap called The Bold and The Beautiful and raised a truckload of money for Obama.
At her confirmation hearings, Bell didn’t seem to know what strategic and diplomatic interests that the US currently has in Hungary, much less what might be on the priority list. When quizzed on this point, Bell reportedly replied:
“Well, we have our strategic interests, in terms of what are our key priorities in Hungary, I think our key priorities are to improve upon, as I mentioned, the security relationship and also the law enforcement and to promote business opportunities, increase trade– ”
[Senator John] McCain interrupted her: “I’d like to ask again what our strategic interests in Hungary are.”
Bell plowed ahead. “Our strategic interests are to work collaboratively as NATO allies, to work to promote and protect the security, both — for both countries and for — and for the world, to continue working together on the cause of human rights around the world, to build that side of our relationship while also maintaining and pursuing some difficult conversations that might be necessary in the coming years.”
In case you think Bell sounded a bit like she was channelling that beauty queen contestant from South Carolina I should point out that George Tsunis, the nominee as ambassador to Norway did no better. His credentials: he runs a hotel in New York (and raised plenty of cash for the Democrats) but didn’t seem to know that Norway is in fact a monarchy and therefore doesn’t have a president. Also, Tsunis denounced one of its “fringe” parties for hate rhetoric, without seeming to realise that the group in question is now part of Norway’s coalition government. Who knew? Was that on Wikipedia?
While we ponder whether to (a) to disrespect Mark D. Gilbert for his diplomatic inexperience or (b) respect him for his awesome bundling skills, the wider question is – don’t all US Presidents act like this? Sometimes. But Obama has done more of it, and the pace has been accelerating in his second term.
The president promised in 2009 to increase professional appointments, and the State Department said last Friday that it aims for a 70-30 split between career and political ambassadors. Yet, so far in his second term,53 percent of Mr. Obama’s appointments have been political, according to the American Foreign Service Association. A third have been fundraisers for his campaigns.
So it goes. At his confirmation hearings to be US ambassador for Argentina, Noah Bryson Mamet (his diplomatic credentials: he’s a political consultant, and raised $500,000) reportedly described Argentina as a ‘mature democracy’ and ‘US ally’, and praised its human rights record. This didn’t go down well:
That provoked a bipartisan tongue-lashing from Sens. Robert Mendendez (D-N.J.), the committee chairman, and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who pointed out that the Argentine government under Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has compromised freedom of the press and the judiciary, refused to pay debts to the U.S. government and American bondholders, seized equipment from a U.S. military training mission, undermined an investigation of an Iranian-sponsored terrorist bombing and aligned itself with the rabidly anti-American governments of Cuba and Venezuela. “This is the most unique ally I think we have in the world,” Mr. Rubio dryly noted.
At this rate, if Mark D. Gilbert doesn’t get off the plane in a Crocodile Dundee hat and ask to see our wonderful kangaroos, we should probably be grateful for small mercies.
Footnote on True Detective
Anyone who has been watching HBO’s jaw-dropping True Detective series may be interested in how Paste magazine – which has been doing the best week by week analysis – treated last night’s episode. The Paste review is here, and yes, obviously, it will contain major spoilers, so proceed at your own risk if you haven’t been keeping up.
The Paste review brilliantly outlines the alternative scenarios about where we may have got to last night, and where we may be heading. For background, the True Detective storyline has been making repeated reference to a collection of classic horror stories written in 1895 by Robert Chambers called The King In Yellow. The Yellow King and the dark city of Carcosa have become key plot elements in True Detective. The best intro to Chambers’ imaginary world are the two stories called “The Repairer of Reputations” and “The Yellow Sign” available here.
One of the many remarkable things about True Detective is that – unlike The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, The Wire and Mad Men, all of which employed a team of writers and directors – this entire series is the work of a single writer (Nic Pizzolatto, formerly a professor of literature at De Pauw University in Indiana) and a single director in the shape of Cory Joji Fukunaga, best known before now for his striking recent film version of Jane Eyre. But True Detective is something else again – and the good news overnight is that the original eight episode run may not be the end of the involvement of Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey.