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AMBASSADORS are the highest-ranking diplomats sent abroad to represent their country's interests. In the United States, the president appoints ambassadors to act as his representatives in other nations. Normally stationed in an embassy in the host nation's capital, an ambassador is responsible for overseeing all American government activities in that country to further foreign policy goals.

The men and women who serve as ambassadors for the United States are either "career" members of the Foreign Service or "noncareer" political appointees. Foreign Service officers who become ambassadors have risen through the ranks of the United States Foreign Service and have years of experience working as diplomats over-seas and at the United States State Department headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Political appointees are chosen to serve by the president from a variety of backgrounds. Sometimes the president appoints a noncareer ambassador because that person brings a unique talent or expertise to the particular ambassadorial post. The president also selects ambassadors based on their contributions, financial and otherwise, to his political campaigns or to his political party. Until the latter half of the twentieth century, most ambassadors were political appointees. Controversy surrounding the appointment of amateur diplomats has limited the practice so that they now comprise about 30 percent of the corps of ambassadors. However, noncareer ambassadors have tended to dominate the highest profile posts in Western Europe, Canada, the People's Republic of China, and the Soviet Union.

An ambassador's main function is to advance the interests of the United States. These interests include promoting trade and security, maintaining access to resources, facilitating cultural ties, and protecting the lives of American citizens. Ambassadors must be able to convey the president's goals to representatives of the host nation's government. Sometimes they are called upon to negotiate agreements on behalf of the president. Ambassadors are responsible for assessing the political climate in their host country and analyzing important events. At one time, ambassadors worked quietly behind the scenes, but the explosion of media outlets around the world has meant ambassadors are frequently in the public eye.

When ambassadors arrive at their post, they are required to present their credentials to the head of state in the host country. After this ceremony, they can begin their service at the embassy. In a small embassy, an ambassador may oversee just a few lower-ranking officials. In an embassy where the United States has a major presence, the ambassador must manage the work of a large staff and coordinate the activities of other government officials stationed in the host country. The officials who report to the ambassador are lower-ranking Foreign Service officers with expertise in economic, political, consular, and administrative work. Other members of the embassy team include employees of United States agencies with foreign affairs responsibilities. These include the Agency for International Development (AID), Defense Department, Peace Corps, Commerce Department, the United States Information Agency (USIA), and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

At the Congress of Vienna (1814) and the Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle (1818), diplomatic titles and ranks were first established. Ambassadors ranked highest, followed by ministers plenipotentiary and envoys extraordinary, ministers resident, and chargés d'affaires. All the great powers of Europe exchanged ambassadors to each others' capitals but not the United States. Although the Constitution gave the president the power to appoint "Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls," until the administration of Grover Cleveland no president chose to name a diplomat serving under the rank of ambassador. The title was considered a vestige of the aristocratic order Americans had overthrown in their revolution for independence. In addition, the United States had not reached the status of a great power, nor did it conceive of itself as having a major role in foreign affairs. Rather than naming ambassadors, the United States chose to send lower-ranking envoys abroad to the nation's missions and consular posts.

In 1893, the United States exchanged its first ambassadors with the world's dominant power at the time, Great Britain. The same year, the United States appointed ambassadors to France, Germany, and Italy. In 1898, Mexico and Russia received American ambassadors. In the twentieth century, President Franklin Roosevelt dramatically augmented the level of American representation abroad. By the end of his administration in 1945, the United States had forty ambassadors around the world. Roosevelt was responsible for raising the rank of U.S. diplomats to the ambassadorial level throughout Latin America, America's traditional sphere of influence, in most of the European countries allied with America during World War II, as well as in the countries that had been occupied by the Axis powers. The United States also exchanged ambassadors with Canada and China. America's rise to superpower status after World War II led successive presidents to name ambassadors to all countries with resident missions.

In the twentieth century, some of the United States' most distinguished career ambassadors have included George Kennan (Soviet Union and Yugoslavia), Charles Bohlen (Soviet Union, France), Loy Henderson (Iraq, India, Nepal, and Iran), and Walter Stoessel (Poland, Soviet Union, and the Federal Republic of Germany). Notable noncareer ambassadors were David K. E. Bruce (France, United Kingdom, Germany), William Bullitt (France), Henry Cabot Lodge (Germany, South Vietnam), and W. Averell Harriman (United Kingdom, Soviet Union).

Ambassadors, like other foreign envoys, are officially protected from harm by what is known as diplomatic immunity. The host government cannot detain or arrest ambassadors, but has the right to oust them from the country. Nevertheless, the job carries a certain degree of risk. Ambassadors sometimes find themselves in dangerous situations, either because the host country is hostile to the United States or is undergoing some sort of political upheaval or war. For example, five American ambassadors were assassinated in third world hot spots during the 1970s, in Guatemala, Sudan, Cyprus, Lebanon, and Afghanistan. The U.S. ambassador to Brazil was kidnapped in 1969.


Johnson, Richard A. The Administration of United States Foreign Policy. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1971.

Plischke, Elmer. United States Diplomats and their Missions: A Profile of American Diplomatic Emissaries since 1778. Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, 1975.

Ellen G.Rafshoon

See alsoDiplomatic Missions ; Embassies ; Foreign Service ; State, Department of .