How to Handle Ambassadorial Appointments: US – and anywhere

Reports that former Senator Scott Brown is the likely nominee to be US ambassador to New Zealand has caused an intense, and essentially negative, reaction here in New Zealand.  The issue raises the delicate relationship between political judgements and diplomatic procedure.  Both are essential; they occupy different spaces but their circles intersect. It is open to any country to reject the credentials of an ambassadorial nominee.  Israel rejected our proposed ambassador in 2014 because he was also accredited to the Palestinian Authority, and New Zealand made an alternative arrangement.

The question is, on what grounds would a rejection be perceived to be valid.

An ambassador is the official representative of their country, and their personal qualities are generally secondary. If an ambassador’s behaviour once in the country becomes unacceptable, New Zealand may request the foreign country to recall that person; this does occur.  But an individual’s personal views or character are usually not taken to be central to the judgement of whether they can adequately represent the country.

Political appointments, as opposed to career appointments, are increasingly common especially in the Bush and Obama administrations (55% under Obama). Six of our own ambassadors are currently political appointees.  So while we might yearn for a competent career diplomat, that is not about to happen. Obama’s political appointee to New Zealand, the recently-departed Mark Gilbert, was one of the best ambassadors New Zealand has ever received.

ambassador scott brown

Scott Brown and President Obama

Is there anything in a person’s personal views or behaviour that might justifiably cause New Zealand to reject Brown as US ambassador here?  Brown has posed nude in a magazine, as part of having been rated America’s sexiest man in 2002. That probably does not do it.  The photograph was not obscene.  He is not Congressman Wiener.

More seriously, Brown is the recipient of a complaint of sexual harassment.  If the complaint is proved correct, then perhaps either the US would not proceed with his credentials, or New Zealand could suggest that the US nominate another person. But it would be contrary to natural justice to oppose him today on unproven grounds.

It is also deeply concerning that Brown appears to have advocated a return to waterboarding. Most jurists would conclude that this is a direct violation of the UN Convention against Torture (1985).  Given that President Trump advocates the practice, it appears that Brown is representing his country’s policies.  If New Zealand chose to reject him on these grounds, there would be significant consequences for all other US diplomats here.

A related consideration is that US policy on waterboarding is opaque and not confined to Trump.  President Obama terminated the Bush practice with an Executive Order in 2009, but it has remained unclear since as to what could and could not be done in Guantanamo.[1] We did not downgrade US representation through the Bush/Obama years.

What we could do, is to ask the NZ Attorney-General whether waterboarding, as advocated publicly by President Trump, comprises a violation of the Torture Convention and other human rights standards.

Such a move would be a step forward for the rule of law and would be appropriate to the intersection of politics and diplomacy. We just need to be careful, and reasonable, in how we react to an individual’s nomination for an official position of representing his or her country.

[1] ‘Has Obama Banned Torture? Yes and No’, Rupert Stone, 1 Dec. 2015. http://america.aljazeera.com/opinions/2015/12/has-obama-banned-torture-yes-and-no.html