Foreign Service

The Foreign Service

Introduction to the Foreign Service

Today, most nations staff their foreign services with career civil servants who are selected on the basis of competitive examinations. Until recent times, however, foreign service personnel were political appointees, often from noble or wealthy families, who could afford the considerable expense that a life of diplomatic activity entailed.


In the 1850s Great Britain and France instituted competitive examinations for posts in the diplomatic corps, but low salaries restricted the number of persons who could afford to enter the service. In Great Britain all candidates had to guarantee a personal income of sterling 400 for at least the first two years. The examinations employed by the European powers were extremely difficult, requiring fluency in at least two foreign languages. Since World War II, salaries and allowances have been increased so that persons of all means may enter the diplomatic service.

The spoils system dominated the U.S. Foreign Service until 1924, when the Rogers Act combined the consular and diplomatic services, established difficult competitive examinations for entry into the Foreign Service, and instituted a system of promotion on merit. Each year approximately 25,000 people take the Foreign Service examination; about 250, or 1 percent, pass it and are accepted in the service. About 10,000 persons are in the Foreign Service; some 2000 work in the U.S., and 8000 serve in foreign countries or international organizations.

Although career officers dominate the diplomatic corps, there is usually room for some noncareer personnel. In the United States, for example, highly skilled specialists may be recruited as Foreign Service Reserve officers, although their tenure may be limited to five or ten years.


Many nations appoint distinguished citizens who are not career officers to serve as ambassadors. American administrations have long used ambassadorships in leading countries as political rewards. Usually, however, ambassadors are distinguished men and women from business, law, politics, or academic life. Career officers predominate numerically; in the U.S. about two-thirds of all ambassadors are career diplomats.

As a result of the meetings in the Convention on Diplomatic Relations in 1961, diplomats were divided into three classes:
(1) ambassadors, legates, and papal nuncios who are always accredited to heads of state (only members of this class represent their nation’s leader);
(2) envoys, ministers, and other persons accredited to heads of state; and
(3) chargés d’affaires who are accredited to ministers of foreign affairs.

Source: “Diplomacy” Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia

Further References about Diplomacy

Privileges and Immunities information.
Department of Foreign Affairs information.
Department of State information.
Diplomatic Missions information.
Diplomatic Negotations information


See Also

  • Foreign Policy
  • Foreign Relations
  • Trade Regulation
  • Public Policy
  • International Relations


See Also

Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations
MPEPIL: Diplomacy and consular relations
History of Diplomacy
Treaties resources
Vienna Convention on Consular Relations
International Law

Further Reading

Diplomacy and peace. Bibliography
Diplomacy and Coffee (Book)



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