In the movies, U.S. ambassadors often appear to come to the aid of jailed foreigners in inhospitable prisons. In the press, they’ve been vilified for not spending all of their time in the country they’ve been assigned to represent or for not being fluent in the language. Some critics have even referred to their appointment as a kind of payola scheme, with positions being awarded in exchange for campaign contributions to the sitting president.

Ambassadors for the United States seem to wear a variety of faces, but which of them is accurate?

“It varies widely from country to country,” Dennis Jett, a former U.S. ambassador to Peru and Mozambique and current professor of international affairs at Penn State University, tells mental_floss. “France will be very different from Russia. But generally, ambassadors have two functions, one internal and one external.”

The internal function is managing the U.S. embassy itself and all of its employees, which can number from one to 1000 and involve several representatives from the Treasury Department, the CIA, and other government branches. The external function is dealing with the native government, missionaries, and local press in representing the President of the United States.

“You explain what Washington is thinking,” Jett explains, “and explain to Washington what the other government is thinking. You have a lot of people wanting a lot of your time.”

For Jett, that meant getting involved in Mozambique’s highly volatile civil war that resulted in the country's first free and democratic election in 1994. He had to live up to his diplomat label, encouraging democracy while being careful not to agitate the sitting government with criticism as the press swarmed around him.

On one occasion in Peru, Jett arrived for a social engagement and left early. A half-hour later, terrorists from the country's Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement stormed the event and kept hostages—including several of Jett's embassy employees—for 126 days.

Those incidents cast a long shadow over the stereotype that ambassadors do little but arrange parties and entertain foreign dignitaries. “The Middle East is hard,” Jett says. “Pakistan, places like that.” Depending on the conditions of the territory in question, ambassadors may even be eligible for danger pay on top of their regular salary. “It can be as little as 5 percent [extra] or up to 40 percent. If you’re going into a place with malaria or what’s called a 'hardship post'—a place with a threat of terrorism—you’ll be paid more than if you were going to the Caribbean.”

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Jett was a career foreign affairs officer, rising through the ranks of the U.S. Foreign Service as a diplomat and later a Senior Director of African Affairs before securing a post as an ambassador, the top-ranking diplomat. Traditionally, career employees will make up roughly 70 percent of the 180-odd ambassador posts at any given time, with the remaining 30 percent filled by political appointees who contributed to a presidential campaign or have another personal connection to the president.

While these individuals typically get assigned low-risk posts in cushy, tourist-friendly places like Europe or the Caribbean and the standard free lodging, there’s still opportunity for them to risk embarrassment. Mark Austad, Ronald Reagan’s appointee to Norway, was fired for overt womanizing; other appointees quizzed by the Senate before their official hiring have expressed only minimal fluency in the requisite foreign language. In one instance, one wannabe Ambassador to Argentina admitted he had never actually been to the country.

The argument for such reciprocation is that donors are typically wealthy and can afford to bolster weak Congressional spending when it comes to an embassy’s "representational entertaining"—the bureaucratic term for "lavish parties." But Jett feels that it’s a poor excuse for a tired and unfair system. “We need capable, competent people who speak the language and can carry out the job, regardless of whether they’re rich,” he says.

Ambassadors typically resign following a new president taking over the Oval Office. Appointees typically slip back into the private sector, while career diplomats either return to Washington or consider another ambassadorship.

As for those dramatic interventions on behalf of jailed Americans: Don’t expect to see Jett or his peers stage a spirited rally on your behalf.

 “We don’t have the ability to bring that kind of pressure,” he says. “You’re subject to the laws of that area. We can get you the names of some lawyers. Maybe some better food. That's about it.”

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