Government representatives who are sent by one country to live and work in another, to serve as intermediaries between the two countries.
The concept of diplomatic agents residing in another country dates to the fifteenth century, but the role of diplomats has evolved with the passage of time. Originally, agents were asked to help to work out specific negotiations between countries. Nowadays, their duties include cultivating a relationship between their native country and the host country; serving as intermediaries by relaying each country's positions to the other; and trying to ensure the best possible treatment for their home countries.
The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (Apr. 18, 1961, 23 U.S.T. 3227, 500 U.N.T.S. 95) contains the most widely accepted description of the international law on diplomacy. The convention splits the functions of diplomatic agents into six categories: representing the sending state; protecting the sending state's nationals within the receiving state; negotiating with the receiving state; notifying the sending state of conditions and developments within the receiving state; promoting friendly relations between the two states; and developing economic, cultural, and scientific relations between the two states.
Historically, the nomination of U.S. ambassadors to foreign countries is based on the recommendation of the president and is subject to approval by the Senate. It has also been a U.S. tradition that nominations are often given to acquaintances of the president or to those who have contributed heavily to political campaigns. The United States is the only major country that assigns ambassadorships as political rewards.
Despite legislation passed by Congress in 1980 stating that "contributions to political campaigns should not be a factor in the appointment" of an ambassador (22 U.S.C.A. § 3944), this practice of political spoils continues. Former president george h. w. bush nominated six Republicans as U.S. ambassadors in 1989. Each was a member of Bush's Team 100, contributors who had given more than $100,000 to the GOP.
The practice did not change when Democrat bill clinton first won the presidency in 1992. According to an Associated Press review, by the end of Clinton's first year in office, he had nominated five $100,000-plus donors as foreign ambassadors. However, Clinton was able to deflect some of the criticism following these appointments by shifting the focus to the qualifications of his appointees. He stressed that his recommendations extended beyond campaign participation and that they required some real expertise that suited the demands of the appointments. For example, the Japanese regarded Clinton's pick for ambassador to Japan, Walter F. Mondale, as a well-qualified diplomat who would help to steady U.S.-Japanese partnership. Investment banker Nicholas A. Rey was chosen as ambassador to Warsaw on the basis that he spoke fluent Polish and that he had previously led an effort to stimulate private investments in Poland.
President george w. bush similarly rewarded contributors with ambassador positions, but he came under heavier criticism due to the number of contributors who had received these appointments. Bush set a fundraising record during the 2000 presidential election, receiving more than $100 million from individual donors. He later appointed 43 "elite" fundraisers—those who donated at least $100,000 to the campaign.
Another topic involving diplomatic agents that has come under scrutiny in the 1990s involves a shift toward commercialism. Promoting exports and assisting U.S. businesses with their foreign dealings has become a top priority for the U.S. embassies. Since Deputy secretary of state Lawrence Eagleburger took office in 1989, all new foreign service officers and ambassadors have studied commerce as part of their basic training. Eagleburger has emphasized a necessity for diplomats to understand the needs of U.S. businesses and ways to help them to make the right connections abroad. This transition toward trade diplomacy is not new: Diplomats have always tried, in one way or another, to increase U.S. exports. The trend now is for diplomats to help specific companies to obtain specific contracts overseas and to help to find buyers for U.S. exports.
U.S. ambassadors direct, supervise, and coordinate a body of representatives in the country to which they have been assigned. This body of representatives from the sending government is referred to as a diplomatic mission. Under the Vienna Convention, both the property and the employees of a diplomatic mission are considered inviolable. However, the convention leaves to the receiving state the decision of how to protect a resident diplomatic agent from assault.
In the United States, specific legislation outlines the penalties that will be imposed if someone attacks a diplomatic officer residing in the United States. The penalties apply to anyone who "assaults, strikes, wounds, imprisons, or offers violence to a foreign official, official guest, or internationally protected person, his official premises, private accommodation, or means of transport or attempts to commit any of the foregoing" (Act of Oct. 24, 1972, Pub. L. No. 92-539, 18 U.S.C.A. § 112(a)). This statute criminalizes acts or attempts to "intimidate, coerce, threaten or harass a foreign official" (18 U.S.C.A. § 112). This section applies to any conduct outside the District of Columbia, which has somewhat different laws that penalize certain conduct directed at foreign embassies (see Boos v. Barry, 485 U.S. 312, 108 S. Ct. 1157, 99 L. Ed. 2d 333 (1988) [striking down part of the D.C. law as violating freedom of speech]).
The United States is among a number of signatories to two separate conventions that are intended to protect visiting dignitaries. These include the Organization of American States Convention to Prevent and Punish the Acts of Terrorism Taking the Form of Crimes against Persons and Related extortion That Are of International Significance, and the united nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Crimes against Internationally Protected Persons, Including Diplomatic Agents. Both conventions require host countries to take measures to prevent terrorist acts, and to make efforts to arrest and to punish the offenders should an attack occur.
The Vienna Convention grants special privileges and immunities to diplomats, on the grounds that these are necessary to allow performance of official duties without outside interference or constraint. Some examples of privileges are exemption from customs on goods that diplomats import for their own or their family's use, from property taxes on mission property, from income taxes for pay received for their diplomatic duties, and from military obligations. Diplomatic agents and their families are also immune from civil or criminal prosecution. If a diplomat is accused of committing a crime, the state department takes specific steps, including notifying the diplomat's home country and asking to have the diplomat's immunity waived so that the case can advance to the U.S. judicial system. Diplomatic agents are also exempt from serving as witnesses in civil or criminal proceedings, unless their country waives their immunity if the agents feel their testimony is essential to the case. For example, in 1881, Venezuela asked its minister to the United States to testify in the trial of Charles J. Guiteau for the assassination of U.S. president james garfield.