Presidents often offer campaign contributors with thin foreign policy résumés first dibs at top diplomatic posts, but the guy President Obama nominated to be ambassador to Norway has the small but proud Norwegian-American community steaming over his lack of qualifications.
In Minnesota, home to the largest Norwegian population in the U.S., Norwegian organizations and public officials reacted with alarm to a series of bumbling answers and non-answers that George Tsunis, a Long Island businessman who raised $850,000 for the president’s reelection campaign, gave to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in response to basic questions about the Nordic nation’s economy, culture and political system.
Tsunis, who has never been to Norway, blanked in response to a question from Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin, about how to increase trade with the oil-rich Nordic nation. And when Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, asked him what he thought about the anti-immigration Progress Party that is now a member of the governing coalition in parliament, Tsunis claimed that the party was a fringe element that the government had been “quick to denounce.”
Representatives of the Norwegian-American Chamber of Commerce and the Sons of Norway, both of which are based in Minneapolis, as well as Minnesota’s two U.S. Senators, Al Franken and Amy Klobucher, have voiced dismay at Tsunis’ apparent unfamiliarity with the nation in which he hopes to represent American interests.
And a stop by the Norwegian-American Genealogical Center on W. Main St. in Madison revealed no shortage of disappointment from the local Norwegian community to the perceived slight.
“It doesn’t sound like he knows anything about the culture,” said Solveig Quinney, the head librarian at the center, which keeps records on Norwegian immigration to the U.S. and holds classes on Norwegian culture. “He kept referring to the prime minister as ‘president.’”
Why would a multimillionaire with no experience in Norway seek a job there?
“Well it’s a beautiful country,” responded Quinney, who was born in Stavanger, Norway on the day the Nazis invaded in 1940, but has lived in the midwest since she was nine.
“Well it’s also the richest country in the world,” added David Wright, the group’s director of development and membership, referring to rankings that show Norway among the top countries in per capita income. “So there’s a lot of business, a lot of international exchange with Norway and America, a lot of business going on about oil. So it’s a big deal.”
Julie Allen, a UW-Madison professor of Scandinavian Studies, noted that standards of “cultural familiarity” are already low for U.S. ambassadors, but that the case of George Tsunis demonstrates the opportunity that presidents squander by not appointing more knowledgeable diplomats.
“The fact is that the U.S. does have significant Scandinavian-American communities, particularly in the Midwest and Northwest, and many of the members of those communities are very familiar with Norway and would be much more sensitive to Norway's cultural and domestic political issues than Tsunis has shown himself to be so far,” said Allen.
“It's hard to know what other qualifications make a good ambassador and it is possible that Tsunis has those in spades, but it wouldn't have been hard for President Obama to find someone well-qualified among the Scandinavian-American community, for example, if he had cared to.”
For instance: Tom Loftus, the former Wisconsin Assembly Speaker and native of the Norski haven of Stoughton, who served as ambassador to Norway from 1993 to 1997 under President Bill Clinton.