Foreign Policy

What Price the Court of St. James? Or How Much for a Plum Ambassadorship?


The headline is taken from an amusing study by two Pennsylvania State University economists who calculate the implied price in terms of presidential campaign contribution of desireable ambassadorships. The subtitle explains it all: "Political Influences on Ambassadorial Postings of the United States of America." Interestingly, it appears that the current ambassador got the job on the cheap side (see below). The New York Times reports:

[T]he paper looks at diplomatic appointments in the Obama administration through January 2011. Dr. Fedderke and Dr. Jett theorize that the most desirable postings are those to countries "that are not obscure, dangerous, poor or of low interest to tourists." Where "political campaign contributions (financial or otherwise) exercise an influence on the nature of posting received," the desirability of a posting should correspond to the size of the campaign contribution.

Comparing the amount of campaign contributions and the diplomatic posts landed, the Times reports that the researchers find:

Not surprisingly, the authors found that politically connected ambassadors, including former aides as well as donors, were statistically more likely to be posted to countries in the Caribbean, North America and Central America. But those whose political connections to Mr. Obama were measured in dollars, rather than administration service, had an increased chance of representing the United States in Western Europe, and a markedly smaller chance of serving in, say, Central Asia or sub-Saharan Africa. The study found that political ambassadors who had made campaign donations of $550,000, or bundled contributions of $750,000, had a 90 percent chance of being posted to a country in Western Europe…

When isolating a country's wealth over other factors, Luxembourg came in at the top of the chart, with a posting there valued at $3.1 million in direct contributions, while an appointment to Portugal was predicted to have a value of $602,686 in personal contributions. The model suggests that bundlers can get the same posts for less: Portugal was valued at about $341,160 in bundled contributions, Luxembourg at $1.8 million.

When factoring in a country's tourist trade, however, France and Monaco top the list, with the level of personal contributions at $6.2 million and bundled contributions at $4.4 million.

The prices, authors note, vary considerably depending on which factors to emphasize. And in some cases, the actual nominees appeared to "overpay" for their positions — raising or giving more than the model would suggest was necessary — and in some cases "underpay." That is because some donors bargain poorly for their positions, the authors suggest, while others may possess attributes (business experience, a personal connection to the president) that aid their case. But regardless of the model, Dr. Fedderke and Dr. Jett found, political ambassadors are more likely to be appointed to those countries that are wealthy, popular tourist destinations and safe.

And what price is the Court of St. James's — diplomatic-speak for Britain, the nation's most prestigious post? "The price for the Court of St. James's," the authors find, "appears to lie between $650,000 and $2.3 million."

The current U.S. Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to the Court of St. James's is retired investment banker and former Democratic National Committee member Louis Susman. Apparently he got the job at a markdown price—his Obama campaign contributions amounted to around $500,000.