The suggestion that President Barack Obama might nominate Caroline Kennedy as U.S. ambassador to Japan has raised the question of her qualifications for the job as well as the general question of the wisdom of presidents naming nonprofessionals to diplomatic posts for political and financial reasons.
Mr. Obama in his first term followed general recent practice of making roughly 70 percent career officer and 30 percent nonprofessional appointments to ambassadorial posts. Political appointees normally go to comfortable assignments in Europe, the Caribbean or possibly Asia, not Libya or Yemen. It is usually a question of the role that they have played in fundraising in the president's most recent campaign.
In exceptional cases other considerations, such as celebrity, distinguished service, some link to a particular country or language skill, may enter into the choice. The best known of such appointments in Mr. Obama's first term was Jon Huntsman, former Utah governor, later Republican candidate for president, fluent in Mandarin Chinese, to Beijing. Ms. Kennedy, the daughter of President John F. Kennedy, is a case of not only celebrity but also faithful campaign service to Mr. Obama. She supported him early in the 2008 campaign, against Hillary Clinton. She was one of his co-chairpersons in the 2012 campaign.
Whether Ms. Kennedy would serve America well as its ambassador to Japan is hard to say. Her qualifications as a lawyer, the author of 10 books and the first woman to occupy that post are relevant to a degree. She is not of the stature of some of her better-known predecessors, who included former Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, Vice President Walter F. Mondale and Speaker of the House Thomas F. Foley.
There are major issues pending between the United States and Japan, including the continuing American military presence on Japanese soil, its sensitive relations with China and North Korea, serious trade issues, its growing remilitarization and its general economic trajectory, having fallen from the world's second-largest economy to third, behind China. Ms. Kennedy would have excellent professional staff in the American Embassy in Tokyo, but the ambassador nonetheless will play an important role in conducting U.S. relations with a very important country.
It will now be up to Mr. Obama to nominate her and to the Senate to pass on his nomination. A roll of the dice is involved in any political-financial nomination to an important ambassadorial post. Sending Ms. Kennedy to Tokyo is questionable at best.