diplomatic service

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diplomatic service

diplomatic service, organized body of agents maintained by governments to communicate with one another.


Until the 15th cent. any formal communication or negotiation among nations was conducted either by means of ambassadors specially appointed for a particular mission or by direct correspondence among heads of states. This procedure was not always satisfactory, however, and by the mid-16th cent. several countries had established permanent representatives in foreign states. One of the first powers to do this was Venice, which in 1496 appointed two merchants as representatives in London because the journey to England was “very long and very dangerous.” Other countries later followed suit.

The Modern Diplomatic Service

The Members of the Service

By the end of the 17th cent. permanent legations had become widespread in Europe. There was no uniformity in titles and status among various ambassadors, however, and agents operating below the ambassadorial level, although influential, were often corrupt. At the Congress of Vienna (1815) this system was corrected, and a classification of diplomatic ranks was adopted. Four grades of diplomatic representatives were recognized: ambassador, papal legate, and papal nuncio; minister plenipotentiary and envoy extraordinary; minister; and chargé d'affaires. This codification went far toward professionalizing the diplomatic service and established it as a branch of the public service in each nation.

As the diplomatic service became a regularized institution, its functions began to grow. While the ambassadors themselves continued to act as personal representatives of their particular heads of state, their staffs necessarily expanded as various types of attachés were assigned to the embassies. Today secretaries, military, cultural, and commercial attachés, clerical workers, and various experts and advisers are all part of the diplomatic corps. Diplomatic business is generally conducted according to forms long established by custom, including memorandums, informal oral or written notes, or formal notes. Although French was once the universal language of diplomacy, both French and English are used today.

Diplomatic Service of the United States

In the United States, ambassadors are appointed by the President and are subject to the approval of the Senate. Although the consular service and the diplomatic service were once separate in the United States, the Rogers Act of 1924 combined the two branches into the Foreign Service. The Foreign Service Act of 1946 reorganized the Foreign Service, raising salary levels and introducing the merit system for promotions to all but appointive positions. Today the Foreign Service is under the control of a Deputy Undersecretary of State, assisted by the Foreign Service Institute.

Diplomatic Immunity

The persons of diplomats enjoy diplomatic immunity, i.e., they are exempt from search, arrest, or prosecution by the government to which they are accredited. This immunity, which derives from the concept of extraterritoriality, is deemed necessary for diplomats to properly carry out their official duties. They are allowed communications and transportation without interference, and their embassy and residence enjoy similar privileges of extraterritoriality. This tradition of diplomatic immunity was violated by Iran during the Iran hostage crisis.

Diplomatic Relations

The larger countries of the world have permanent diplomatic relations with scores of other nations, whether those nations are considered friendly or unfriendly. If two countries have no diplomatic relations, their interests may be represented by diplomats of other powers, and when two states are at war their interests are usually represented by neutral states. In the event that a nation refuses to admit a diplomat from a foreign nation or demands his or her recall, the diplomat's government must either comply or break off relations.

Recent Developments

In the 20th and 21st cent. there have been numerous meetings of heads of state and foreign ministers and various types of international conferences, all of which have tended to lessen the traditional diplomatic function. Moreover, some claim that modern communications have also changed diplomacy greatly by removing whatever autonomy diplomats may once have had in making policy decisions. The possibility of telephone or other direct contact with a superior has allegedly reduced diplomats to a quasi-messengers. Even if this may appear true, diplomats continue to serve as expert advisers, and while not empowered to make final decisions, they greatly influence the decision-making process.


See G. Mattingly, Renaissance Diplomacy (1955); Sir Ernest Satow, Guide to Diplomatic Practice (4th ed. 1957); H. Nicolson, Diplomacy (3d ed. 1963); F. J. Merli and T. A. Wilson, ed., Matters of American Diplomacy (1974); R. F. Schulzinger, The Making of the Diplomatic Mind (1975); H. Jones, The Course of American Diplomacy (1986); A. K. Henrikson, ed., Negotiating the World Order (1986); C. V. Crabb, Jr., American Diplomacy and the Pragmatic Tradition (1989).

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