Diplomatic Hierarchy

Diplomatic Hierarchy

History of the Development of the Diplomatic Hierarchy

The history of the diplomatic body (the term corps diplomatique originated about the middle of the 18th century. “The Chancellor Furst,” says Ranke (xxx. 47, note), “does not use it as yet in his report (1754) but he knows it,” and it would appear that it had just been invented at Vienna. “Corps diplomatique, nom qu’une dame donna un jour à ce corps nombreux de ministres étrangers à Vienne.”) is, like that of other bodies, that of the progressive differentiation of functions. The middle ages knew no classification of diplomatic agents; the person sent on mission is described indifferently as legatus, orator, nuntius, ablegatus, commissarius, procurator, mandatarius, agens or ambaxator (ambassator, etc.). In Gundissalvus, De legato (1485), the oldest printed work on the subject, the word ambasiator, first found in a Venetian decree of 1268, is applied to any diplomat. Florence was the first to make distinction; the orator was appointed by the council of the republic; the mandatorio, with inferior powers, by the Council of Ten. In 1500 Machiavelli, who held only the latter rank, wrote from France urging the Signoria to send ambasiadori. This was, however, rather a question of powers than of dignity.

But the causes which ultimately led to the elaborate differentiation of diplomatic ranks were rather questions of dignity than of functions. The breakdown of feudalism, with the consequent rise of a series of sovereign states or of states claiming to be sovereign, of very various size and importance, led to a certain confusion in the ceremonial relation between them, which had been unknown to the comparatively clearly defined system of the middle ages. The smaller states were eager to assert the dignity of their actual or practical independence; the greater powers were equally bent on “keeping them in their place.” If the emperor, as has been stated above, was too exalted to send ambassadors, certain of the lesser states were soon esteemed too humble to be represented at the courts of the great powers save by agents of an inferior rank. By the second half of the 16th century, then, there are two classes of diplomatists, ambassadors and residents or agents, the latter being accounted ambassadors of the second class. Thus Charles V. would not allow the representatives of the duke of Mantua, Ferrara, &c., to style themselves “ambassadors,” on the ground that this title could be borne only by the agents of kings and of the republic of Venice, and not by those of states whose sovereignty was impaired by any feudal relation to a superior power. (See Krauske p. 155.)

At first the difference of rank was determined by the status of the sovereign by whom or to whom the diplomatic agent was accredited; but early in the 16th century it became fairly common for powers of the first rank to send agents of the second class to represent them at courts of an equal status. The reasons were various, and not unamusing. First and foremost came the question of expense. The ambassador, as representing the person of his sovereign, was bound by the sentiment of the age to display an exaggerated magnificence. His journeys were like royal progresses, his state entries surrounded with every circumstance of pomp, and it was held to be his duty to advertise the munificence of his prince by boundless largesses. Had this munificence been as unlimited in fact as in theory, all might have been well, but, in that age of vaulting ambitions, depleted exchequers were the rule rather than the exception in Europe; the records are full of pitiful appeals from ambassadors for arrears of pay, and appointment to an embassy often meant ruin, even to a man of substance.

To give but one example, Sir Richard Morison, Edward VI.’s ambassador in Germany, had to borrow money to pay his debts before he could leave Augsburg (Cal. State Pap. Edw. VI., No. 467), and later on he writes from Hamburg (April 9, 1552) that he could buy nothing, because everyone believed that he had packed up in 299 readiness to flit secretly, for “How must they buy things, where men know their stuff is ready trussed up, and they fleeting every day?” (ib. No. 544). But the dignity of ambassador carried another drawback besides expense; his function of “honourable spy” was seriously hampered by the trammels of his position. He was unable to move freely in society, but lived a ceremonial existence in the midst of a crowd of retainers, through whom alone it was proper for him to communicate with the world outside. It followed that, though the office of ambassador was more dignified, that of agent was more generally useful.

Yet a third cause, possibly the most immediately potent, encouraged the growth of the lesser diplomatic ranks: the question of precedence among powers theoretically equal. Modern diplomacy has settled a difficulty which caused at one time much heart-burning and even bloodshed by a simple appeal to the alphabet. Great Britain feels no humiliation in signing after France, if the reason be that her name begins with G; had she not been Great, she would sign before. The vexed question of the precedence of ambassadors, too, has been settled by the rule, already referred to above, as to seniority of appointment. But while the question remained unsettled it was obviously best to evade it; and this was most easily done by sending an agent of inferior rank to a court where the precedence claimed for an ambassador would have been refused.

Thus set in motion, the process of differentiation continues until the system is stereotyped in the 19th century. It is unnecessary to trace this evolution here in any detail. It is mainly a question of names, and diplomatic titles are no exception to the general rule by which all titles tend to become cheapened and therefore, from time to time, need to be reinforced by fresh verbal devices. The method was the familiar one of applying terms that had once implied a particular quality in a fashion that implied actually nothing. The ambassador extraordinary had originally been one sent on an extraordinary mission; for the time and purpose of this mission his authority superseded that of the resident ambassador. But by the middle of the 17th century the custom had grown up of calling all ambassadors “extraordinary,” in order to place them on an equality with the others.

The same process was extended to diplomatists of the second rank; and envoys (envoyé for ablegatus) were always “extraordinary,” and as such claimed and received precedence over mere “residents,” who in their day had asserted the same claim against the agents—all three terms having at one time been synonymous. Similarly a “minister plenipotentiary” had originally meant an agent armed with full powers (plein-pouvoir); but, by a like process, the combination came to mean as little as “envoy extraordinary” —though a plenipotentiary tout simple is still an agent, of no ceremonially defined dignity, despatched with full powers to treat and conclude. Finally, the evolution of the title of a diplomatist of the second rank is crowned by the high-sounding combination, now almost exclusively used, of “envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary.” The ultimate fate of the simple title “resident” was the same as that of “agent.” Both had been freely sold by needy sovereigns to all and sundry who were prepared to pay for what gave them a certain social status. The “agent” fell thus into utter discredit, and those “residents” who were still actual diplomatic agents became “ministers resident” to distinguish them from the common herd.

The classification of diplomatic agents was for the first time definitively included in the general body of international law by the Règlement of the 19th of March 1815 at Vienna20; and the whole question was finally settled at the congress of Aix-la-Chapelle (November 21, 1818) when, the proposal to establish precedence by the status of the accrediting powers having wisely been rejected, diplomatic agents were divided into four classes:

  • Ambassadors, legates, nuncios;
  • Envoys extraordinary and ministers plenipotentiary, and other ministers accredited direct to the sovereign;
  • Ministers resident;
  • Chargés d’affaires.

With a few exceptions (e.g. Turkey), this settlement was accepted by all states, including the United States of America. (1)


Notes and References

  1. Encyclopedia Britannica (1911)

See Also

Further Reading