What Does a U.S. Ambassador Do?

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Christopher Stevens, the U.S. Ambassador to Libya, was killed last night along with three other Americans when an Islamist mob stormed the American Consulate in Benghazi. With the tragic story all over the news today, reader Kimberly wrote to ask what, exactly, goes into being a U.S. ambassador.

In the strictest sense, U.S. ambassadors represent the President of the United States in an official capacity in foreign nations and communities. They are charged with protecting and promoting national interests, maintaining diplomacy, organizing visits, welcoming visitors, and supporting resolutions. If a U.S. citizen living or visiting abroad gets into legal trouble of some sort, it is the duty of the ambassador to ensure that said citizen is treated justly. This doesn't mean, however, that the U.S. Ambassador to Turkey can spirit you out of the country without reprisal if you've been found with a pound of cocaine in your luggage; it simply means that he or she can make sure you've got access to legal counsel while you're in prison awaiting trial.

While to casual observers it may seem like an ambassador's work day is filled with giving speeches and glad-handing at cocktail parties, these social engineering opportunities are actually an important part of strengthening international relationships. The ambassador learns of local concerns and criticisms (for example, beef exports from Ireland to the U.S.) and has the ability to take those issues directly to Washington. The ambassador is also the chief executive at his foreign embassy and is in charge of making sure embassy staff abide by the local laws and customs.

Getting the Job

A solid background in politics and a fluency in a foreign language would seem like necessary resume bullet-points in order to be granted an ambassadorship, and the majority of U.S. ambassadors are career foreign-service diplomats. But why do some folks with no credentials other than celebrity status or deep pockets manage to land such a post?

Presidents have certainly used ambassadorships as a way to thank their friends and supporters. But one part of our ambassadors' jobs is to ingratiate themselves (and thus the U.S.) to foreign countries by providing funding for local programs, whether it be building schools or training midwives to assist pregnant women. In these cases, celebrity status can be more beneficial than a graduate degree in international economics. Beloved child star Shirley Temple (previously the U.S. Ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia) can give a few impassioned interviews about the need for maternal health care programs in Africa, and her celebrity cohorts will open their wallets.