Cosden on Jett, 'American Ambassadors: The Past, Present, and Future of America's Diplomats'

Dennis C. Jett
Sean Cosden

Dennis C. Jett. American Ambassadors: The Past, Present, and Future of America's Diplomats. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. Tables. xiv + 283 pp. $39.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-137-39566-5.

Reviewed by Sean Cosden (Air University, Air War College)
Published on H-War (June, 2017)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey

In this fascinating book, Ambassador Dennis C. Jett clearly lays out in concise yet thorough detail the nuances that make US ambassadors, and therefore the US style of conducting diplomacy, unique among many modern nations. Through a combination of personal experience and exhaustive research, Jett has produced a comprehensive examination of who can become an ambassador, the processes for vetting and assigning such men and women, and the leadership and managerial traits required to effectively, and sometimes ineffectively, execute the nation’s diplomatic power in a foreign capital. American Ambassadors is an engaging read for both those who know little to nothing about US foreign diplomacy and those familiar with the process yet intrigued by the nuances of the system.

Jett begins by looking at the history of American foreign affairs and the role that US diplomatic emissaries have played since the founding of the Republic. He skillfully demonstrates the initial disdain that the founding fathers had for the European, aristocratic image of career ambassadors and royal envoys, who appeared to contradict the egalitarian values of the United States. Jett quotes George Herring, who points out that Thomas Jefferson sought a more nontraditional path for America’s diplomats: “By adapting the new nation’s forms to its principles, he hoped to establish a uniquely American style of diplomacy” (p. 15). These beliefs translated to over one hundred years of US diplomacy characterized by political, often amateurish, envoys who often lacked both the experience and supporting bureaucracy to conduct diplomacy as seen today. However, as the country grew in power and its belief in its global role expanded around the turn of the twentieth century, the need for a professionalized foreign service capable of diplomatically defending US interests abroad arose. The number of professional, career ambassadors, as opposed to political appointees, rose to nearly 70 percent of all ambassadorial positions, a ratio that still essentially stands today.

It is this tension between political appointees and career diplomats that permeates the discussion throughout the remainder of the book. Having set the historical context for US diplomacy, Jett looks at the career path to ambassadorship for State Department foreign service officers and compares that to the many nontraditional routes taken by political appointees. He steps through the complexities of the selection and confirmation processes, and describes in detail the many hurdles and pitfalls that nominees must overcome. Following the confirmation process, the author provides a colorful description of what an ambassador does in-country. This includes not just high-level diplomacy and engagement as the direct representative of the president to the host nation but also the day-to-day efforts required to lead and manage an embassy containing representatives from many different agencies, often with conflicting priorities. Jett effectively looks at both political appointees and career officers, showing that they bring different strengths and weaknesses to the role of ambassador. He further examines the many different countries to which ambassadors are assigned, and the often very different skill sets required to succeed in these various postings. The book concludes by reiterating the importance of ambassadors to American foreign policy, and Jett lays out a series of recommendations to improve the selection process and the implementation of US diplomacy.

The book is very well organized and the chapters are arranged so as to be useful to both novices and professionals. The relatively chronological tale of an ambassador’s career from selection to resignation makes the narrative easy to follow for those completely unfamiliar with the role of an ambassador. Similarly, the structure makes the book valuable for those looking to focus on a specific topic or to research a particular subject. The index is thorough, with entries for every ambassador or actor mentioned in the book, including those given only a cursory look in the text. The appendices are also comprehensive (eleven in all) and provide additional and pertinent information for those looking for more in-depth information on a specific topic.

One of the greatest strengths of the book is the way that the author complements concepts with specific examples or objective data to demonstrate his points clearly. For example, in discussing the personal traits that make or break an ambassadorship, Jett backs up each individual attribute with a specific ambassador who either exemplified or lacked that specific characteristic. Such examples often include colorful and stimulating details about that particular ambassador to drive the point home. This, combined with Ambassador Jett’s use of lay terminology, makes for an incredibly fascinating read. Furthermore, without being overly aggressive with statistics, Jett includes well-placed tables to back up specific points with data. For instance, in describing the tendency of political appointees to go to more advanced counties and avoid hardship posts, the statistics make the point painfully obvious; Jett shows that 73 percent and 72 percent of ambassadors to Western Europe and the Caribbean, respectively, have been political appointees, compared to just 15 percent in Africa and 14 percent in the Middle East (p. 147). Although this tendency is not difficult to grasp, the magnitude of the statistics provides great illustration to the reader.

While the book has no glaring flaws, there are a couple items that detract, though only slightly, from the overall excellence of the book. Jett clearly believes that career ambassadors are better able to conduct successful diplomacy and to manage an embassy than political appointees. The bias is subtle and takes a while to emerge, but it is unmistakable. While Jett does not hold back in pointing out the failures of certain career foreign service officers or the successes of political appointees, the bias is evident, especially considering that the author himself is a career foreign service officer. The only other minor complaint with the book is toward the conclusion when the author digresses somewhat by discussing unratified treaties. Jett makes a good point about the difficulties ambassadors face in conducting diplomacy when the United States is not a signatory of a widely accepted international treaty. However, the discussion appears to be more of a diatribe against specific congressmen or interest groups that hold up the ratification of such treaties, often for parochial reasons, and the section momentarily drops the book’s focus.

Despite the few negative comments above, Ambassador Jett has put together a thoroughly enjoyable book. He has conducted exhaustive research, often referring back to original sources, yet does not make the book overly academic. Similarly, the author’s personal observations and experiences complement his research perfectly. This is a highly recommended book to anyone interested in the American style of diplomacy!

Printable Version:

Citation: Sean Cosden. Review of Jett, Dennis C., American Ambassadors: The Past, Present, and Future of America's Diplomats. H-War, H-Net Reviews. June, 2017.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.