Tenure, promotion and performance: The career path of US ambassadors


The mission of diplomats have often been characterized as promoting peace while advancing national interests. Ambassadorial appointments are also portrayed as patronage, used as a reward for domestic political favors. Here, we develop an original database of the tenure of US ambassadors from sources at the US State Department to better understand the determinants of ambassadorial careers. We assess the tenure of both political appointees and career diplomats based on four factors: (1) Political factors, such as leader turnover in the US and the host nation; (2) Personal characteristics of the ambassador, such as age and gender; (3) Characteristics of the host nation such as population, wealth, trade and alignment with the US; and (4) Performance measures, such as improvements in economic, diplomatic and security relations. US Presidential turnover has the greatest effect on ambassadorial tenure, especially for political appointees. Performance measures have little impact on the tenure or future career prospects of ambassadors.

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  1. 1.

    Source: US Department of State. Web:

  2. 2.

    For ease of language, we refer to the person who heads a US mission in a host nation as the ambassador. However, it is important to note that ambassador is not always the title of the head of a mission.

  3. 3.

    There is an enormous economic and political science literature on principal-agent problems. See for instance Jensen and Meckling (1976).

  4. 4.

    See for instance Juliet Eilperin, “Obama ambassador nominees prompt an uproar with bungled answers, lack of ties.” Washington Post, February 14, 2014. Web: Last accessed: June, 8, 2015.

  5. 5.

    For other studies linking patronage appointments and international factors see Gray (2015) and Arias (2017).

  6. 6.


  7. 7.

    7 Although not a signatory, the United States followed Annex 17 to the Congress Treaty of Vienna (March 19, 1815) which established rank and precedence of diplomatic agents (ambassadors, envoys, and chargés d’affaires). The Proces-Verbal of the Conference of Aix-la-Chapelle (November 9, 1818), recognized ministers resident as an intermediate class between Ministers and chargés d’affaires.

  8. 8.

    Career appointees hold the Foreign Service Officer status, and are commonly referred to as non-political appointees or Foreign Service Officers appointees.

  9. 9.

    Drawing on a comprehensive database of over 100 million contributions made during state and federal elections since 1979, the CFscore methodology uses patterns of who gives to whom to recover ideal points for candidates and contributors using a joint estimation procedure analogous to the widely used methods to scale roll call data.

  10. 10.


  11. 11.

    Not reported here, but available upon request.

  12. 12.

    COW alliance types contains three, namely defense pact, neutrality pact and entente.

  13. 13.

    Other export measures such as exports’ value growth over host GDP, or the natural logarithm of exports’ value growth provide the same substantive results.

  14. 14.

    The Appendix is available at the Review of International Organizations’ webpage.

  15. 15.

    We obtain the same results if we conduct a fully interacted model of appointment status and the other variables of interests. However, splitting the sample while using the Cox model has the added flexibility of allowing different baseline hazard rates for political and career appointees.

  16. 16.

    Moreover, results are the same if one controls for an indicator variable on whether the ambassador is in his/her third of years of service in that post.

  17. 17.

    As is standard, to address the issue of small number of events in the higher strata, we combine the third ambassadorial post or higher, into the a single one.

  18. 18.

    We obtain similar result from the conditional time gap model.

  19. 19.

    Other methods, such as factor analysis provide the same results.

  20. 20.

    Table A16 in the Appendix replicates the analysis presented here but uses the the terciles categories from the Host Nation Rank –High Ranked, Neutral Ranked, and Low Ranked Post–instead of Promotion, Similar Post, and Demotion, finding the same substantive results.

  21. 21.

    Similar results appear when only analyzing the period under the Foreign Service Act of 1980. See Table A12.

  22. 22.

    Tables A13 through A15 in the Appendix show the results using specific performance measures, finding similar results.

  23. 23.

    We find similar results when looking at G20 and non-G20 countries separately. This is also true when examining the period following the Foreign Service Act, with the exception of promotions of political appointees (althought these are only 7 cases); see Table A17.


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Correspondence to Alastair Smith.

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Arias, E., Smith, A. Tenure, promotion and performance: The career path of US ambassadors. Rev Int Organ 13, 77–103 (2018).

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  • US ambassadors
  • Diplomatic relations
  • Tenure

JEL Classification

  • D73
  • F02
  • F5
  • H83