Speculation heats up over next U.S. ambassador

The new American envoy to Ottawa is likely to be more practical than ambitious
Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg speaks during the Profiles in Courage Award ceremony at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, Massachusetts May 23, 2011. Brian Snyder/Reuters
Diplomatic prize
Brian Snyder/Reuters

Depending on whom you ask, the next U.S. ambassador to Canada should have an extensive understanding of Canada-U.S. issues or, conversely, be a diplomatic rookie. They should have a close relationship with President Barack Obama, or never have donated a penny to his campaigns.

Speculation about the next American envoy to Ottawa is heating up, even though the next appointee might not occupy the Sussex Drive office for months. Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of former president John F. Kennedy and a major Obama supporter since she endorsed him in early 2008, recently joined a weighty list of former governors and Democratic party boosters rumoured to replace outgoing ambassador David Jacobson. Other names include U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, former Republican senator Olympia Snowe, former Washington governor Christine Gregoire and former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm.

Kennedy, a Democrat whose political views are decidedly left-wing, lives in New York where she has worked to improve the city’s public education system. Whether or not she is qualified to be ambassador to Canada is debatable. When Hillary Clinton was appointed secretary of state, Kennedy expressed an interest in filling Clinton’s vacant senate seat, which her uncle, Robert, once held. After a devastating series of speeches and interviews described as “vapid” and “liberal boilerplate,” Kennedy gave up.

Robert Pastor, the director of the Center for North American Studies at American University in Washington, D.C., who served as national security adviser to former president Jimmy Carter, believes rewarding prominent donors with diplomatic posts is “one of the more offensive dimensions of American politics and foreign policy.”

Jacobson’s predecessor David Wilkins spent 25 years in the South Carolina state legislature before he was tapped for the job in 2005 by former president George W. Bush, for whom he ran the presidential campaigns in that state. “I think the overriding quality would be an individual the President has trust and confidence in,” he says. Wilkins had “limited contact with Canada,” but claims it wasn’t detrimental. “You can work hard and learn the issues very quickly.”

Canada isn’t attractive to prominent donors or career foreign service officers, all of whom seek more exotic postings, says Pastor. Those who do come are more practical than ambitious. “The kinds of people who put it at the top of their lists are either policy wonks, or politicians, or people who see a future career in working on some of these issues.”