George Tsunis, President Obama’s Norway ambassador nominee, had a rocky start to his diplomatic career before he’d even left the country. Tsunis, formerly the CEO of a hotel chain, received his appointment to the position despite having no previous diplomatic experience or ties in any way to the country of Norway. He then set about making those facts incredibly, painfully obvious to the general public through a series of political blunders that are leaving many questioning whether Obama is making his ambassadorial appointments for the right reasons.
Norway and the United States have a long-standing and friendly relationship, with ties that go all the way back to the American Revolution, whose constitution shaped the Norwegian constitution of 1814. Since then, the US and Norway have been mutually committed to stemming climate change and fighting terrorism, and Norway is an active and founding member of NATO.
All of this information is readily available on Wikipedia, which Tsunis would know if he had bothered to check. Tsunis referred to Norway’s centuries old parliamentary monarchy as a republic, and to Norway’s anti-immigration party, the Progress Party, which is a governing body in Norway’s coalition government, as a fringe party that Norway has been “very quick to denounce”. He was promptly corrected by Sen. John McCain. Tsunis was unable to answer questions from Sen. Ron Johnson about furthering trade opportunities with Norway, answering with, “there are…uh… there are a lot of things that will begin to — there are a lot of markets that will continue to open up… uh,” before being saved by Sen. Johnson when he moved onto another point.
If Tsunis isn’t much of an orator, he is certainly a skilled fundraiser. He raised almost 100,000 dollars for the Obama campaign in 2012. In what commentators are calling an alarming trend, Obama appointed around 37% of diplomatic positions to non-career diplomats. Only Reagan, Ford, and H.W Bush, who top the list at 38%, 38%, and 40%, respectively, have beaten Obama’s current appointment rate. The so-called “checkbook diplomacy” tactic has not won Obama much support among the already skeptical ranks of Republicans, who point Obama’s promise to stop appointing ambassadors with no diplomacy background.
With Norway being an important trade partner and a top oil-producer, Tsunis has the potential to severely damage US/Norway relations and damage the legacy of Obama’s administration in a country that awarded him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009.
T. Michael Davis, a longtime member of the Norwegian-American Chamber of Commerce-Minnesota and a former chairman of the Swedish-American Chamber of Commerce-Minnesota, wrote an impassioned article in Minnesota’s newspaper, the Star Tribune, imploring the Senate “not approve a nominee who clearly doesn’t understand the country to which he’s being sent”(Davis, 12/2/14). Three other prominent members of the Scandinavian-American community signed the article.