Through the “Ambassadors Corner,” the Board of Governors of the Philippine Ambassadors Foundation Inc. (PAFI) at its last meeting resolved to express its alarm and concern over the demoralization in the ranks of career ambassadors caused by the announced and probable appointment of political ambassadors to the country’s diplomatic and consular posts abroad.
While PAFI also includes, aside from career ambassadors, retired non-career ambassadors in its membership, it values the experience gained by both in the foreign service, and is committed to promoting and upholding the professionalization of the service for the effective pursuit of the interests of the country and its people. The board therefore deplores the appointment of non-career ambassadors on the basis of contributions the prospective appointee made to the election campaign kitty of the appointing power or powers, or upon the recommendation of campaign contributors and supporters.
One such appointment that has not escaped the notice of the PAFI board involves yanking a career ambassador, a former undersecretary of foreign affairs for policy no less and a topnotcher of the Foreign Service Officers examination, from a post at which he is newly arrived and has just presented his credentials. This is almost unheard of, even in the Philippines. Political appointments have always been to vacant or about-to-be-vacant posts.
The appointment in question has brought jitters to other career ambassadors, making them burn the wires to Manila to find out if they are secure in their assignments. The apprehension seems to be general, given the indications that would-be political appointees are targeting not just the reputedly cushy posts such as the aforementioned one but any and all ambassadorships, the remotest and so-called hardship posts not excepted.
How explain this indiscriminate, amoral hunting for ambassadorial posts?
Could it be the news report not too-long-ago of fabulous allowances enjoyed by our ambassadors that was grossly exaggerated and erroneous? Could it simply be the title “Ambassador,” or the fact that ambassadors like generals carry their title with them the rest of their lives? (Protocol books rule that anyone who was once addressed as “Excellency” may continue to be addressed as such even in retirement.)
But the reasons appear to be more than these. Witness the phenomenal case of one businessman who has secured an ambassadorship under four successive, different administrations. The appointment of a political ambassador is co-terminous with the appointing power. But this particular political appointee, instead of preparing his resignation letter at the end of an administration, launches a campaign of his own to get an ambassadorial appointment from whoever succeeds to the presidency. Political ambassadors plucked from eminent business circles declare themselves “done” after a stint that has meant an enormous financial sacrifice for them. But this is probably not the case with this particular political appointee, for instead, his family business seems to thrive while he is in the foreign service. And how does he manage to get appointed by whoever emerges the winner in an apparently tight election contest? Does he have extrasensory perception (ESP)?
Ambassadorial appointments predicated on election campaign contributions actually reflect the colonial influence of the United States in the Philippines. As might be expected of a former colony, the Philippine Foreign Service is patterned after the best and worst of the US Foreign Service. The better part of it is that the first career diplomats of the Philippines were trained in the US State Department, which did not invariably turn them into “brown Americans” but generally contributed to the making of one of the most prestigious foreign service corps in the developing world. The worst part is the awarding of diplomatic posts as political spoils, and it could only have come from the United States.
For the US practice is almost unique in the global community. The career ambassador is the norm. James Bruno, in an article “Why does America send so many stupid, unqualified hacks overseas?” in the Internet, calls the US practice “an outmoded system that rivals the patronage practice of banana republics, dictatorships, and two-bit monarchies.” However, the last time I looked, even the ambassadors of developing countries mostly come from the career ranks. This is especially true of the Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) members.
Career diplomats of the Philippines seem to be involved in an even more uphill struggle for a predominant share of ambassadorial appointments than those of the United States. In the worst of recent United States history, the Obama Administration included, only one-third of ambassadorships went to political ambassadors.
To the great disappointment of the Department of Foreign Affairs career service, the repeal of the Philippine Foreign Service Law set a ratio of career ambassadors to political ambassadors to a majority of one, or a preposterous 51 percent to 49percent! Preposterous because a ratio of 80 percent career to 20percent political had been observed in actual practice before.
Out in the field, career ambassadors obviously enjoy an advantage over non-career ones. They deal with their own kind, career people, all conscious of the truism that in world politics, there are no permanent friends, only permanent interests, but all confident that with their training and common language of diplomacy, they can peacefully resolve differences and come at least to a livable arrangement, and make the most of the friendship and harmony among them for the benefit of their own countries and peoples.
The law does not prohibit political appointees nor does it prescribe their qualifications. But the growing challenges facing the country’s foreign service are the same for both career and non-career ambassadors and reasonably require of political appointees the same abilities gained by career ambassadors by their qualifications and training.
Political appointees should at the very least meet the same age range requirement. Career ambassadors are subject to a mandatory retirement age of 65. Certain recent appointees are observed to be advanced in age and are even hard of hearing.. This is a dangerous impairment in person-to-person representations and negotiations over complicated or highly nuanced issues, no matter to what post an ambassador is assigned to.
Why won’t the awarding of ambassadorships as political spoils cause demoralization in the DFA career service? In the first place, the entrance examinations have by no means been made easier. Before there were only the written and oral examinations to worry about. Now, the applicants may be disqualified outright by the Civil Service examination. Those who pass the written and oral tests may flunk the psychological examination.
Because the FSO examinations have been reformed to take on board applicants from a multiplicity of disciplines, newly appointed Foreign Service Officers undergo a specific foreign service cadetship program. They then undergo continuous on-the-job training to meet the changing needs of the country and changing developments in the international environment, including, aside from traditional diplomacy, economic diplomacy, public diplomacy, and serving the worldwide Filipino diaspora overseas. Promotion to every upper rung of the career system is competitive. In recent years, Foreign Service Officers have been required to take a Career Minister examination before they can go to the ultimate rungs and pinnacle of the system.
As with their original appointment, promotions of FSOs and Career Ministers and appointments as Ambassadors are subject to confirmation by the congressional Commission on Appointments. In the case of political appointees, the CA hopefully will set the bar as high as befits the enormous challenges facing all Philippine ambassadors, career and non-career, in the service of the country and people.
Jaime J. Yambao is a retired career ambassador and currently secretary-general of the Philippine Ambassadors Foundation Inc.