Washington Examiner: Private donors for foreign embassies should be embraced by a cash-strapped federal government
A wonderful analysis in the Washington Examiner from my friend and former speechwriter for George H.W. Bush, Jennifer Grossman.
“I remember visiting my friend Ambassador Nancy Brinker in Budapest back in the early 2000s, when she was serving as U.S. ambassador to Hungary….America’s flagship presence in this former Eastern Bloc country outpost was in sad shape. Nancy invested…her own time and money to bring the residence up to a level of splendor that served as a gracious face to the Hungarian people and international diplomatic community, while not serving as an insult to the American taxpayer.”
President Trump may not be able to build his border wall by making Mexico pay for it, but he may be able to build new American embassies by getting rich donors to pay for them.
As the Associated Press reported last week, billionaire casino mogul and GOP megadonor Sheldon Adelson has offered to help pay for the construction of America’s new embassy in Jerusalem, which is slated to cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Some are aghast at the idea that the U.S. would accept money from a rich, politically active billionaire for such an important, and, in some circles, controversial, project.
Far from pooh-poohing private investment in ambassadorial infrastructure overseas, we should enthusiastically embrace it and even invite it.
At a time when our government is running deficits that are now projected to soon reach $1 trillion, the government ought not be turning down generous voluntary donations from Americans. Some wealthy Democrats whine about their taxes being too low. If they are so concerned about how little their tax bill is, they ought to take a cue from Adelson’s playbook.
Why doesn’t the U.S. government offer wealthy Irish-Americans, Greek-Americans, whatever-country-Americans the opportunity to brand some part of American embassies abroad in exchange for a rather hefty donation to the State Department? It makes perfect sense. You don’t have to name the embassy itself after the donor, but many ultra-wealthy Americans would gladly give millions of dollars, if not more, to the U.S. government to get the naming rights to a library, ballroom, or garden at a U.S. embassy in the country where their ancestors came from.
In fact, many wealthy Americans would probably be willing to donate enormous sums just for the temporary naming rights of part of an embassy. For instance, you could have the naming rights expire after a presidential administration ends or after a set time period, like 10 years. This happens in the charity world. David Koch gave $100 million for the naming rights of the New York State Theater with the understanding that after 50 years they could sell the naming rights to another donor. Doing this for U.S. embassies would allow the U.S. government not only to raise huge sums of money, but repeatedly to raise huge sums of money for the same project.
The U.S. government is reportedly weighing whether to accept Adelson’s offer and looking into whether it would even be legal. It’s not clear to me whether Adelson’s offer is really “a significant departure from historical practice,” as the AP claimed.
I remember visiting my friend Ambassador Nancy Brinker in Budapest back in the early 2000s, when she was serving as U.S. ambassador to Hungary. The ambassador’s residence had not been updated in decades, and America’s flagship presence in this former Eastern Bloc country outpost was in sad shape. Nancy invested a fortune of her own time and money to bring the residence up to a level of splendor that served as a gracious face to the Hungarian people and international diplomatic community, while not serving as an insult to the American taxpayer.
C. Boyden Gray, who served as chief legal counsel in the George H. W. Bush administration and as U.S. ambassador to the European Union in the George W. Bush administration, subsidized the meager budget for entertaining and decoration at the residence in Brussels, where he served in the mid-2000s. Gray told me that the secretary of state has statutory authority to accept funds for foreign service buildings, so the gift is very likely to be OK, assuming Secretary of State Rex Tillerson gives his approval.
Tillerson should. My guess is that he will.
The secretary of state, who listed Atlas Shrugged as his favorite book in a 2008 feature for Scouting Magazine, fearlessly embraced innovation in the oil business. I hope he’ll do the same in the diplomacy sphere. He’s advocated for U.S companies to have the scale and financial strength to make investments and build out new technologies. He should embrace the potential to do the same for U.S. embassies, as flagships perhaps most importantly of the U.S. economy on foreign soil, without soaking the taxpayers in the process.
Beyond embassies, there are probably many other areas the U.S. could monetize by temporary naming rights. If you are worried various government buildings will soon look like NASCAR cars, fret not. Charities do things like this on a regular basis and manage to keep it classy.
Jennifer Grossman is CEO of the Atlas Society and a former speechwriter for President George H. W. Bush.