Let’s clarify the role of U.S. ambassadors

January 27, 2020 6:00 am

Mary Kramer signs credentials after being sworn in as U.S. ambassador to Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of State)

Recently we have all seen and heard many conversations about U.S. ambassadors, their roles and responsibilities and the variety of methods the United States uses to select their ambassadors/chiefs of mission.

This is good news/bad news.  The good news is, Americans are woefully uninformed about the role of the ambassador so the attention provides opportunities for education.

The bad news is that often the emphasis given to events involving ambassadors are far beyond their actual significance, while issues that go unreported are serious and consequential — things the public should know.

My comments are informed by my own experience. I was appointed in 2003 by President George W. Bush as ambassador to Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean. I served until December 2006.  The role of the ambassador was made abundantly clear to me during multiple state department visits. A brief outline of that role is included at the end of this column.

Certainly the ambassador, being fully informed, may advocate for policy positions regarding his or her appointed country, but once the policy is determined, it is their role to carry out those policies and see that other embassy employees do the same.

U.S. presidents nominate ambassadors in two ways. They promote career foreign service officers (FSOs) or choose a private-sector citizen, most often someone with knowledge and experience regarding the culture or business interests of that country, or who have a skill set needed to solve problems in the country.

U.S. ambassadors are a granted a high degree of confidential classification. They are privy to highly classified information from around the world.  The confirmation process subjects them to an extraordinary degree of personal scrutiny. There are no secrets at the end of the confirmation process. Also mandated during the confirmation process is attendance at the Ambassadorial Seminar by both the nominee and their spouse or partner. During that seminar, it is made abundantly clear that the ambassador serves at the pleasure of the president and may be recalled at any time. No ambassador is fired. They are recalled. FSOs are usually given a different appointment and private citizens usually return home.

All ambassadors receive two documents. The first requires their signature indicating they understand and accept the seriousness of the confidentiality their role demands and they also understand and accept the fact they may be charged with a felony, including treason, for violating this responsibility. The other is a letter spelling out the employment agreement including the fact they serve at the pleasure of the president and the mission of the embassy. For example, my directive was to “maintain stable democracies in the region.”

It was disappointing during the course of public testimony in the House Judiciary Committee’s impeachment hearing when both the questions and the responses ignored these facts.  How one feels about the process is not on the table.  Every ambassador clearly understands he or she serves at the pleasure of the president and carries out the policies outlined by the president.

It is also disappointing when a presidential candidate equates the long-standing practice of presidents appointing private citizens as ambassadors as an example of government corruption. A TV ad for presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren states:  “Republicans and Democrats have been rewarding big donors with cushy ambassadorships like this for years … It’s Washington corruption at its worst.”

Being an ambassador is NOT a cushy job. I can personally attest to many appointments being in the best interests of the country. My own appointment notwithstanding, individuals with special knowledge and skills – language, cultural understanding, business knowledge and experience and demonstrated leadership skills were all in evidence in the ambassadors I have had the pleasure to call colleagues.

Serving as a U.S. ambassador is a pleasure and a privilege.  It is one of the highest forms of public service. I will be forever grateful for the opportunity to serve.

The role of U.S. ambassadors

In the book “First Line of Defense; Ambassadors, Embassies and American Interests Abroad,” the statutory obligations of a U.S.ambassador are described as follows:

Chief of Mission

Under the direction of the President of the United States, (POTUS) the Chief of Mission (COM) to a foreign country:

Shall have full responsibility for the direction, supervision and coordination of all Government executive branch employees in the country (except for the employees under the command of a US military commander )


Shall keep POTUS fully and completely informed with respect to all activities and operations of the government within that country and shall insure that all government employees in that country (except for employees under the command of a US military commander) comply fully with all applicable directives of the COM.

This statutory definition highlights the two major functions of the ambassador.  Advance the agenda and policy goals of the United States. Gain an intimate, in-depth, understanding of the politics, economics and social aspects of that country and feed back that knowledge and understanding to Washington so that correct decisions and policies may be advanced.




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Mary Kramer
Mary Kramer

Mary E. Kramer served in the Iowa Senate beginning in 1991 and was elected President of the Senate in 1997. In 2003, President George W. Bush nominated her to serve as U.S. Ambassador to Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean. Her experience began in May of 2003 and continued until November of 2007. Her first book,“More Than a Walk on the Beach; Confessions of an Unlikely Diplomat” describes her experiences as a U.S. ambassador. Her second book, co-authored with her daughter Krista Kramer Hartman, is titled, "An Unlikely Ambassador and Her Diplomatic Daughter."