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Foreign Service


FOREIGN SERVICE. Diplomacy was critically important to the success of the American Revolution (1775–1783) and the founding and early growth of the United States. Because most citizens of the young republic looked with suspicion on the European monarchies, official governmental relations were kept to a minimum until well into the nineteenth century. The American diplomatic service, made up of a very few citizens appointed by the president, expanded slowly. In 1790, the United States sent ministers plenipotentiary to only two countries: France and Great Britain. In 1830, there were still only fifteen U.S. foreign missions; the number increased to thirty-three by 1860 and forty-two by 1900. Isolationism was the prevailing foreign policy of the United States throughout these decades. Congress kept tight control over the expansion of diplomatic relations, authorizing only minimal resources for representation abroad.

Diplomacy became increasingly important during the Civil War (1861–1865) when both sides sought the support of the European powers. It was also vital in securing European acceptance of U.S. leadership under the Monroe Doctrine in the western hemisphere as the nation completed its territorial expansion to the Pacific. Presidents used appointments to overseas diplomatic missions as rewards for political support. A corps of career diplomats––a Diplomatic Service––was slow to emerge. Lower level diplomats were rare throughout the nineteenth century. In a major reform in 1856, Congress agreed to provide for a limited number of secretaries of legation to assist chiefs of mission. But as late as 1881, Congress allowed public funding for secretaries at only twelve of thirty legations. Most appointed ministers provided their own assistants. In 1893, however, Congress finally acknowledged that the United States had come of age diplomatically when it authorized the appointment of ambassadorial rank representatives to Great Britain and other major powers. The need for staff support was grudgingly acknowledged.

While a small Diplomatic Service began to emerge in the last decades of the nineteenth century, the Consular Service—including consuls, consular agents, and commercial agents whose mission it was to protect American ships and crews abroad and promote American commerce—had become an important instrument in the search for export markets for America's booming industries. In 1860, there were 480 U.S. consulates, commercial agencies, and consular agencies abroad, and by 1890 this number had risen to 760. In 1895, at a time when reforms were strengthening the expanding civil service in Washington, D.C., President Grover Cleveland issued regulations requiring the filling of vacancies on the basis of written examinations, including language tests. Other measures were adopted to deal with salaries and inspections of consular posts. The need for greater efficiency in the Consular Service resulted in a combination of Congressional and presidential actions in the first decade of the twentieth century to blunt the politics of appointments and move the Consular Service and, to a lesser extent the Diplomatic Service, toward a full merit system.

A Modern Foreign Service Develops

Expanding U.S. international responsibilities and interests after World War I (1914–1918) precipitated the establishment of a modern Foreign Service. The small Diplomatic Service, which in 1924 numbered 122 men serving mostly in Europe, was an exclusive group, scarcely dependent upon token salaries, whose standards of behavior and performance were drawn from upper-class educations. In contrast, the 511 (in 1924) members of the Consular Service in 256 overseas posts served under professional regulations and enjoyed a generous pay scale. The State Department closely oversaw the Consular Service but had little real control over the Diplomatic Service; the two systems were quite separate and there were only rare cases of interchange between them. The Foreign Service Act of 1924 amalgamated the Diplomatic and Consular Services into a new Foreign Service; established pay and retirement to make the service attractive and accessible to a much broader portion of the population; professionalized the oversight, recruitment, and training of officers; and instituted interchangeability between diplomatic and consular assignments as well as between assignments abroad and at home in the State Department. The establishment of the Foreign Service opened the way for the appointment of career officers as Chiefs of Mission. But the importance of political appointments to such positions persisted for the remainder of the twentieth century, and career officers rarely made up more than half of the total.

The United States emerged from World War II (1939–1945) as the most powerful nation in the world, with expanding economic and security interests around the globe. Diplomacy became far more vital to the nation than it ever had been. In many places around the world, U.S. Foreign Service officers became the principal agents of American presence and interests. The Foreign Service was expanded substantially to meet the diplomatic aspects of the nation's growing global responsibilities. From a mere 840 officers in 1940, the service numbered more than 1,300 in 1953 and 3,400 in 1957 after the integration of many Civil Service officers into the Foreign Service.

U.S. Interests Abroad Become More Complex

The Cold War and the revolution in international relations gave rise to a series of international crises during the latter half of the twentieth century as well as the growing globalization of politics, economics, and culture. The global scope of American interests and commitments made the representation of American interests abroad increasingly complex. As the boundaries of traditional diplomacy faded, the Foreign Service soon had many rivals. Other federal agencies became deeply involved in the preparation and execution of foreign policy. A conglomerate "foreign affairs community" came to dominate the formulation and execution of foreign policy: the National Security Council, the Defense Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and other intelligence agencies, the U.S. Information Agency, and various foreign assistance agencies.

To improve its performance with the growing scope and complexity of foreign affairs, the Foreign Service underwent a series of reforms and studies. The Foreign Service Act of 1946 established the structure for a modern, efficient service with a consolidated classification system, promotion and retirement programs, and improved allowances and assignment policies. The Foreign Service Institute was established and sought to provide officers throughout their careers with a variety of specialized training, particularly area and language training. The Senior Seminar program, begun in 1958, gave small groups of the most promising mid-level officers, as well as some military officers and officials of other agencies, an extended experience in advanced professional development. The 1954 Wriston Report mandated the merger of the Foreign Service with many of the specialists in the State Department. The rotation between overseas posts and the government in Washington was accelerated, and by 1959, more than 1,500 Foreign Service officers held positions in the State Department. The 1962 Herter Report, the 1968 American Foreign Service Association Report, and the 1970 State Department Task Force Report sought to find management and personnel solutions that would ensure a Foreign Service equal to its challenges. As anti-American terrorism abroad intensified toward the end of the twentieth century, the danger of Foreign Service life grew and prompted new programs and procedures to protect U.S. diplomatic and consular establishments.

The New Face of the Foreign Service

In the last twenty-five years of the twentieth century, new generations of Foreign Service officers served in Washington, D.C. and around the world. These officers were different from the elite corps that existed before World War II. Recruited from around the nation, the new generations of Foreign Service officers reflected more closely the general makeup of the American population in terms of the proportions of women and minorities. Overcoming longstanding racial, sexual, and religious prejudice and discrimination in the State Department and the Foreign Service was a difficult process. As early as the 1920s, a few women and African Americans entered the Foreign Service. World War II contributed to more open recruitment and promotion, but it was not until the 1950s that purposeful recruitment of women and minorities began to alter the profile of the service. Only persistent resort to the courts by dissatisfied officers brought greater fairness in promotions and appointment to leadership positions by the 1980s. The Foreign Service Act of 1980 sought to establish more rigorous standards for recruitment and promotion, improve the rewards of service, and deal with the problems that were sapping the once high morale of the service.

The Foreign Service not only gained a leading role in America's wide-ranging activities abroad, but it was also drawn into the often intense domestic battles over the direction of foreign policy. Ideologues in high positions in government often complained about the liberal tendencies of some American diplomats, and other political leaders regarded the Foreign Service as unwilling to adapt to political agendas. The Cold War emphasis on security and loyalty had poisonous side effects that threatened the effectiveness of the Foreign Service and compromised its morale. Accusations of treasonous activity leveled against the State Department and many distinguished Foreign Service officers in the late 1940s and in the 1950s by Senator Joseph McCarthy and other members of Congress caused dismissals and needlessly destroyed promising careers. Policies pursued during the Vietnam War (1955–1975, American involvement 1964–1975) caused stresses between the Department leadership and many junior officers. Secretary of State Dean Rusk's Open Forum was begun in 1967 to enable Foreign Service and Department officers to generate alternative policy ideas, and differences with official policy came from the field in a special "dissent channel."

By the last decades of the twentieth century, the Foreign Service had lost its leadership role in representing the United States abroad. The measures of success of the Foreign Service grew more elusive as Americans, through electronic media, came to have heightened concerns and expectations about U.S. interests and citizens abroad. Terrorism, nuclear proliferation, international crime, nationalistic conflicts, and economic competition and crises appeared to be beyond diplomatic solution. Frequent attempts at reform of the conduct of American diplomacy and reorganization of the Foreign Service were vitiated by recurrent budget cuts and resource reductions. State Department resources were reduced by 50 percent during this period, despite steadily increasing responsibilities, especially after the fall of the Soviet Union and the emergence of new post-communist states in Eastern Europe. The State Department and the Foreign Service grew little after 1960, when there were about 7,000 domestic and 6,000 overseas American personnel. In the emerging global economy of the twenty-first century, the role of diplomats tended to be increasingly overshadowed by the representatives of other government agencies, individual states, and, above all, multinational corporations and international organizations. Some observers wondered if the Foreign Service had a future nearly as impressive or extensive as its history.


Barnes, William, and John Heath Morgan. The Foreign Service of the United States. Washington, D.C.: Department of State, Historical Office, Bureau of Foreign Affairs, 1961.

Herz, Martin F., ed. The Modern Ambassador: The Challenge and the Search. Washington, D.C.: Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University, 1983.

Ilchman, Warren F. Professional Diplomacy in the United States, 1779–1939. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961, 1974.

Mayer, Martin. The Diplomats. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1983.

Plischke, Elmer. Conduct of American Diplomacy. Princeton, N.J.: Van Nostrand, 1967.

Rubin, Barry. Secrets of State: The State Department and the Struggle Over U.S. Foreign Policy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Stuart, Graham H. The Department of State: A History of its Organization, Procedure, and Personnel. New York: Macmillan, 1949.

William Z.Slany

See alsoDiplomatic Missions ; State, Department of .

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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 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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consular service

consular service, organized body of public officers maintained by a government in the important ports and trade centers of foreign countries to protect the persons and interests of its nationals and to aid them in every possible way. Consuls are officially recognized by a foreign state through the issuance of an authorization known as an exequatur, which may be revoked by the admitting state at any time. The many duties of U.S. consuls in foreign states include promoting and protecting American commercial interests; issuing passports and verifying citizenship; certifying the sanitary conditions of the cargo, crew, and passengers of vessels leaving for U.S. ports; and mediating with local officials in cases of legal matters involving American citizens. The consular service was once strictly distinguished from the diplomatic service, but because of the interrelated duties of the two branches, the Rogers Act of 1924 consolidated both into the Foreign Service of the Department of State. The Department of Commerce and the Department of the Treasury may place commercial attachés at a consulate office to aid in gathering statistics and promoting trade. The persons of consuls enjoy immunity and extraterritoriality in all matters pertaining to their official functions, and the premises of consulates are likewise privileged. Such privileges are granted either by courtesy or through special consular treaties.

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foreign service

foreign service: see diplomatic service; consular service.

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