Ambassadors, Executive Agents, and Special Representatives

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Ambassadors, Executive Agents, and Special Representatives

Kenneth J. Grieb

International relations involve negotiations between the governments of nation-states, which are conducted by their executive branches under the auspices of their heads of government. Since each state is sovereign, agreement is reached only when the parties involved in an issue reach unanimous agreement among themselves. Those nations that do not agree with the consensus among the participants do not sign the resulting agreement and hence are not bound by its provisions. Diplomatic negotiations are difficult and time-consuming, since all those involved must agree on every aspect and word of the agreement. When the General Assembly of the United Nations (UN) adopted the Universal Declaration on Human Rights in 1948 amid the tensions following the Second World War, over 1,400 separate votes were required before the full declaration was adopted.

Achieving unanimous consensus requires extensive, constant, and precise communications between the heads of government of the nations involved. Such communications are conducted through a variety of representatives. The number and types of such representatives have proliferated throughout history and in particular during the twentieth century, when rapid communications increased the need for speedy and ongoing contacts. The end of colonialism during the second half of the twentieth century meant that many more nations and peoples were involved in global and regional issues.

These trends increased the need for representatives abroad as the United States became a global power and then a superpower during the twentieth century, and then the sole global superpower in the last decade of that century. During this period the United States found itself involved in virtually every major issue in international affairs, regardless of the part of the world in which it occurred. Not surprisingly, the increasing complexity of American foreign relations necessitated increased numbers of envoys and new forms of representation.

Ambassadors, executive agents, and special representatives are different categories of envoys conducting the constant negotiations between the governments of the world's nations. The type of envoy that is appropriate varies with the circumstances of each issue and the parties involved. Use of each type has evolved through modifications since the founding of the United States. Technically, each of these types of envoys serves as the representative of the president to foreign governments.


Ambassadors (the official title is ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary) have been utilized since the beginning of international relations as the principal representative of one government to another. Ambassadors normally reside in the state to which they are accredited, and serve as the head of the resident mission, called an embassy if it is headed by an ambassador. Technically, an ambassador reports to the president, though in fact he or she does so through the secretary of state. Ambassadors are accredited as representatives from one head of government to another. Consequently, they are part of a system designed to deal with bilateral relations between the governments of two nations.

The widespread use of ambassadors is also a phenomenon of the second half of the twentieth century, with most nations employing that rank extensively only from the era of World War II. In the early days of the republic, the title of ambassador was rarely used. Even the European nations posted individuals with the exalted title of ambassador only to the capitals of the most important nations, which in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries meant the principal European powers. Most of the diplomatic missions throughout the world were headed by ministers and were referred to as legations. (Minister is a standard rank that is one level below ambassador; a legation is one level below an embassy.) Indeed, it was not unusual for the chief representative in any given nation to hold a lesser title such as consul or to be designated as the temporary chief of mission, known as a chargé d'affaires, while holding a rank below that of minister. The United States frequently followed this pattern from its early existence well into the nineteenth century since throughout most of this period, it was involved in only a limited range of interchange with other nations.

It was nearly the end of the nineteenth century before the United States began to bestow the title of ambassador on envoys, and then only in European capitals. Only in 1893 was the status of U.S. representatives in such pivotal nations as England, France, Italy, and Germany raised to the level of ambassador. Gradually, additional European posts were raised to embassies during the years prior to World War I, but even by the start of that conflict, ambassadors were posted to fewer than ten European capitals. Prior to World War I, the only nations outside Europe in which the United States was represented by an ambassador were Japan and Mexico. This pattern followed the then-prevailing diplomatic practice. Indeed, the U.S. envoy to Mexico was the only representative of ambassadorial rank in that capital, making the U.S. ambassador automatically the dean of the diplomatic corps no matter how new he was, since he outranked all other envoys. The sending of an envoy with the rank of ambassador was regarded as a sign that the government regarded relations with the host nation as of particular importance.

While the president may select any individual as an ambassador, the United States has developed a formal system and a standing diplomatic corps from which most ambassadors are drawn. This system was not formalized until the twentieth century. In the early days of the nation, Congress adopted legislation establishing separate diplomatic and consular services, in 1790 and 1792 respectively. Yet there were few precise criteria for envoys, and presidents were free to appoint individuals of their choosing to either.

In the twentieth century it became evident that, since the United States was becoming increasingly involved in world affairs, the nation needed a corps of highly skilled negotiators to represent it abroad so it could effectively reach agreement with other governments. The Rogers Act of 1924, later amended in 1963, established set ranks and provided for selection based on merit through competitive exams. This legislation, and the Foreign Service Act of 1946, combined the diplomatic and consular services, although full integration of the personnel involved into a single corps of professionals that comprise the Department of State and the Diplomatic Corps was accomplished only in the mid-1950s. As a result, the formal establishment of a diplomatic corps is a relatively recent development.

Since the establishment of the U.S. Foreign Service, presidents have been able to draw on a body of specialists, selected on the basis of merit and apart from politics. The overwhelming majority of ambassadors are selected from the skilled professionals of the Foreign Service who serve all administrations. Usually, ambassadors are experienced envoys who have come through the diplomatic ranks, giving them considerable expertise and familiarity with several different nations and cultures. This is especially important in multilateral negotiations, which require skilled and detailed negotiations to achieve the necessary consensus among all the nations concerned with a particular question.

The president, however, may also select individuals from private life with sufficient expertise. These are called political appointees, since they normally serve only for a single presidency. While such appointments include political contributors, they also include distinguished former senators, representatives, governors, cabinet members, and military officers, as well as prominent industrialists and businessmen, cultural figures, and journalists. For example, the U.S. ambassadors to the UN have included a past presidential candidate, a chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, a former secretary of state, a former senator, and distinguished individuals from private life, in addition to a number of career diplomats. The existence of a pool of career diplomats makes it possible for the president to utilize experts both within the administration and as special representatives. A significant number of ambassadors have served as presidential advisers and as assistant and under secretaries of state.

Political appointees are used regularly in certain posts by all administrations, especially at embassies in Europe. This is necessitated by the very limited funding provided for American diplomatic missions by Congress, which renders it virtually impossible to appoint regular foreign service officers to U.S. missions in European capitals where the cost of living, including the cost of receptions that are mandatory for national holidays and diplomatic occasions, is extremely high. The entire annual entertainment allowance for most U.S. embassies would not pay the cost of the single reception or party. Therefore, presidents appoint independently wealthy individuals to European posts, since only individuals with the wherewithal and willingness to spend large amounts of their own funds can entertain in the style expected. For this reason, U.S. embassies in Europe are invariably staffed with wealthy presidential supporters and contributors to presidential campaigns, regardless of the administration in power.

The appointment of ambassadors requires confirmation by the Senate, and ambassadors serve at the pleasure of the president. The head of any mission normally holds the rank of ambassador for protocol purposes, regardless of whether or not he or she has been appointed as a permanent envoy and confirmed by the Senate.

Ambassadors head a regular diplomatic mission residing in the country to which they are accredited, and are expected to report regularly on all aspects of the governance and life of that country, to assist the president and his cabinet in understanding the concerns of that nation and the factors that influence its government. Daily and other periodic reports are expected to deal with all facets of activity in the host country, including its political and economic circumstances. Ambassadors are also expected to assist American citizens and protect their interests. The embassy staff, finally, is counted upon to provide routine information to American citizens, investors, and businessmen working in the country.

Accordingly, the ambassador and the staff he heads serve as the official observers and sources of information about the nation to which they are accredited, and maintain a wide range of contacts with the host government, opposition political figures, and private citizens of that nation. An embassy staff includes specialists in a number of areas in which the two governments are cooperating, including investigative, security, scientific, artistic, and cultural liaison. The embassy staff also invariably includes specialists in trade, agriculture, political affairs, law, administration, and finance, as well as military representatives and consular officers. The ambassador thus serves as the normal channel of communication and information between the two governments. Ambassadors are also expected to conduct negotiations regarding pending matters with the host government. In addition, the ambassador and the embassy staff are responsible for helping the government and citizens of the host nation understand the United States and its concerns. To do this they provide information regarding the United States and promote cultural events and official visits by American citizens from many walks of life.

In addition to reporting, ambassadors are expected to recommend policy actions, and their recommendations are often very influential in the determination of American foreign policy. This reflects the fact that resident ambassadors are often in the best position to understand the outlook of the government and nation to which they are accredited. Often, helping policymakers in Washington understand the domestic situation in the host nation is one of the ambassador's most important duties. Because ambassadors provide Washington with their host nation's perspective, they are often accused of identifying with that nation and adopting its viewpoint. Yet in fact they are simply performing their duty to be sure that the views and concerns of the country in which they are stationed be taken into consideration prior to action. Career ambassadors acquire a broad viewpoint through service in many nations. For example, from 1974 to 1996 Ambassador Thomas R. Pickering served as United States ambassador in Jordan, Nigeria, El Salvador, Israel, India, and Russia and to the UN.

During the second half of the twentieth century, when the United States emerged as a global superpower, the United States maintained embassies in virtually every nation of the world. This reflected the involvement of the United States in a wide range of issues, particularly economic and security issues, in every region of the world. This engagement widened even further after the end of the Cold War, when the United States emerged as the sole global superpower. Less than 10 percent of the nations of the world maintain as extensive a representation in all nations as the United States. The governments that do so are primarily the industrialized nations. Most countries can afford to maintain only a limited number of diplomatic posts abroad, and conduct most of their relations with a small number of neighbors and trading partners or through global organizations where all nations are represented.

The twentieth century has also witnessed an increase in the number of independent nations, especially with the virtual end of colonialism during the 1960s. The increasing number of nations resulted in a corresponding increase of multilateral issuesthat is, issues involving or of concern to a number of nations, and sometimes even of interest to all nations. Throughout the twentieth century multilateral negotiations have become increasingly frequent. This, in turn, has resulted in the need for new types of representation to supplement the permanent system of embassies, which was designed to facilitate bilateral rather than multilateral negotiations.

Throughout its history the United States has been served by a dedicated corps of diplomatic representatives. Many exercised considerable influence in policymaking, though a large number served prior to the extensive use of the title of ambassador. Since the appointment of ambassadors initially served to enhance the importance of missions to those nations with which diplomatic interaction was most frequent, the list of influential envoys includes many ambassadors.

Mexico has provided several instances of influential ambassadors playing key roles in settling troublesome questions peacefully. For example, ambassador to Mexico Josephus Daniels was one of the ambassadors who were instrumental in resolving disputes that averted conflict and launched a new era of friendship at a crucial moment. Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Daniels in 1933, a time when relations with Mexico were extremely sensitive as a result of the role of the United States during the turmoil of the civil war that had characterized the Mexican Revolution some twenty years earlier. The subsequent revolutionary policies that led to expropriations of large landholdings impacted foreign landowners. These included many prominent Americans, including some who were influential in politics. More important, the expropriations affected the operations of several large mineral extracting corporations, which demanded intervention by the United States government to protect their property.

Daniels proved to be just the right person to represent the United States in Mexico during the regime of General Lázaro Cárdenas, when tensions reached their highest. In 1937, after a prolonged dispute with the oil companies operating in Mexico, Cárdenas nationalized the oil fields in an immensely popular move in Mexico. This immediately created a new crisis with the United States and Britain, whose oil companies were involved, while the delicate negotiations regarding the land claims continued. The nationalization of the oil fields and the land redistribution, which constituted the defining moments of the Mexican Revolution, nearly brought Mexico and the United States to war.

Ambassador Daniels, who had worked diligently to dispel the ill feeling toward the United States remaining from the intervention in Mexico during its Revolution, redoubled his efforts to explain each nation's viewpoint to the other. He carried on an extensive personal correspondence with President Roosevelt throughout his tenure in Mexico. At one point, Washington sent a harshly worded note to Daniels for transmission to the Mexican government, a note that would surely have led to deadlock. Daniels, however, saved the situation by simply refusing to deliver the note. Only his close friendship with President Franklin D. Roosevelt enabled him to do this. His action made it possible for negotiations to continue, and despite domestic outcries in both countries, they contributed significantly to the eventual settlement. The importance of a settlement with Mexico became clear when, just a few months later, Pearl Harbor plunged the United States into World War II; then Mexico's support was essential to enable the United States to focus on the war effort. Daniels's actions played a major role in restoring friendly relations between the United States and Mexico, and dissipating the mutual mistrust. His efforts made him genuinely popular in Mexico by the time his tenure ended in 1941.

Another influential ambassador to Mexico who prevented a break in relations and helped settle pressing disputes in the aftermath of the revolutionary turmoil was Dwight W. Morrow, who served in the post from 1927 to 1930. A Wall Street banker, Morrow was an unlikely envoy in the midst of disputes regarding land seizures that raised compensation issues and angered the business community in the United States. Yet he proved the perfect individual for the job. Like Daniels, Morrow genuinely liked Mexico and understood Mexican sensitivities and nationalism. He began the process of overcoming the unfavorable image of the United States in Mexico by befriending its leaders, particularly Plutarco Elias Calles, the former president who headed the governing party. Morrow worked to find solutions that were acceptable to Mexican sensitivities. It was his efforts in working with Calles that produced the solution to the initial stage of the land and oil issues. Morrow suggested that the Mexican government's interpretation of the provisions of the Mexican Constitution regarding those issues be submitted to the Mexican Supreme Court. Since at that time Calles controlled the court, this suggestion made it possible for Mexico to alter its stance without offending Mexican nationalism or appearing to bow to United States pressure, while retaining its position. Since the government would be responding to a decision of its own Supreme Court, nationalism was satisfied and the United States protest eliminated without any Mexican concession, because the court remained free to reconsider its decision, which it did several years later, enabling the government to revive the issues at a more propitious time when relations with the United States were more cordial. This was precisely the formula needed to alleviate a crisis.

Given the importance of relations with the Soviet Union and later Russia, it is scarcely surprising that several ambassadors serving there played pivotal roles in developing U.S. policy towards Moscow. Policymakers in Washington often found it necessary to rely heavily on the recommendations and judgments of envoys in Moscow, since they provided necessary insights into a closed society. Among the influential ambassadors in Moscow, Charles E. Bohlen during the 1950s and Jack F. Matlock during the late 1980s and early 1990s stand out. Both were specialists in Russia and Eastern Europe, having completed many tours of duty in Moscow as junior officers before heading the embassy. This meant that they had detailed knowledge of the obscure functioning of the Soviet and Russian governments and good Russian language skills. Other ambassadors are particularly influential because of their previous political service and their relationship with presidents. Notable among these was Ambassador Michael J. (Mike) Mansfield, a former Senate majority leader, who served as ambassador to Japan from 1977 to 1988.

Ambassador Joseph C. Grew, who served as ambassador to Japan from 1932 until the start of World War II in 1941, had the thankless and ultimately impossible task of attempting to prevent war between two mutually suspicious nations during the period of Japanese military expansion. Grew devoted considerable effort to building a basis of understanding between the United States and Japan, a difficult task at a time when few in Washington understood Japanese ambitions. United States communications to Japan were often written for domestic consumption, which exacerbated disagreements. Although Grew repeatedly managed to stave off conflict by insisting on rewording notes in a more diplomatic manner that would be acceptable to the Japanese, eventually his efforts proved futile despite the accuracy of his warnings and explanations of the Japanese outlook. His efforts delayed war at a time when the United States was not yet prepared for conflict, although the divergent ambitions of the two nations and the fact that all eyes in Washington were focused on Europe ultimately prevented further negotiations.

Ambassador Grew was disappointed when the United States abandoned neutrality in the Far East by adopting the Stimson Doctrine, named after Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson, which announced that the United States would not recognize the Japanese conquest of Manchuria. While this stance seemed inevitable to most Americans in view of the Japanese actions, Grew recognized that it placed the United States on a collision course with Japan without having any real effect on the situation in Manchuria. In actuality, the Stimson Doctrine and its ultimate adoption by the League of Nations led to Japanese withdrawal from the League, removing an important channel of diplomatic negotiations with Japan. In addition, the fact that nonrecognition changed nothing on the ground, leaving the Japanese in control of Manchuria, caused the Japanese to view this as an indication that the powers of the world would not act meaningfully to contest military expansion in Asia. Throughout the years leading up to the war, Grew worked tirelessly to promote a negotiated settlement, and even proved willing to risk a summit conference in an effort to seek a solution. But the viewpoints of the two nations were simply incompatible, and eventually Japan made the decision to attack the United States. Given the circumstances, it is doubtful if any efforts at a negotiated settlement would have succeeded.

While ambassadors and the embassies they head have remained the principle instruments through which American foreign relations with other nations are conducted, other categories of representatives have also been employed throughout the history of the United States. The use of these alternative channels increased as the nation's role on the world stage grew larger. Delicate situations and the need to be constantly involved in multiple, simultaneous negotiations, particularly those regarding sensitive security matters, led increasingly to the practice of employing types of representatives outside the normal channels provided by embassies to address special matters and separate them from routine negotiations. This practice is utilized to indicate the importance of particular questions, to separate negotiations regarding particular matters from other issues, and to enable the appointment of specialists or individuals particularly close to the president to handle specific questions. Such an approach provides additional flexibility to the president and to the conduct of American foreign relations. These alternate forms of representations include executive agents and special representatives.


Executive agents have been employed in the conduct of American foreign policy throughout the history of the nation. The term "executive agent" denotes an individual appointed by the president, acting without legislative consultation or sanction, for the purpose of carrying out some specific function, often of limited duration. In some instances, executive agents have received instructions from and were directly responsible to the chief executivethat is, they reported directly to the president rather than through the secretary of state. The use of executive agents derives indirectly from the constitutional stipulation that the appointment of heads of regular diplomatic missions requires Senate approval, a procedure that frequently proves cumbersome and time-consuming and is especially inconvenient when politically sensitive issues are involved. As a result, even delegations including members of the Senate are routinely appointed without Senate confirmation, particularly for missions of short duration. This approach can be particularly valuable when the Senate is controlled by the opposition party. Distinct procedures are required for special missions responding to temporary situations, such as conferences, that necessitate prompt action. Congress recognized this fact by providing the president with a contingent fund for special expenses, and salaries of agents are normally drawn from this fund.

In practice, such individuals are sometimes considered to be the personal representatives of the president, as distinct from regularly accredited diplomats who are responsible to the secretary of state (though theoretically to the president through the secretary) and are regarded as representatives of the government of the United States. This may be a fine distinction that appears somewhat technical to the layperson, but it is an important differentiation in terms of function and operation, and one to which diplomats and governments are closely attuned.

That executive agents are employed for a wide variety of purposes, sometimes to make contacts possible outside regular diplomatic channels, reflects the flexibility of the office. In the strictest sense, the use of an executive agent rather than a regular ambassador is a pragmatic device available to the chief executive whenever expediency requires some fresh or supplemental channels. Consequently, the functions of agents and the nature of their office vary with circumstances and with presidents.

Given the flexible nature of the instrument and its dependence on presidential initiative, it is scarcely surprising that executive agents tend to be employed most extensively by strong chiefs of state. Presidential dynamics is thus a key element in the use of agents and their powers, for chief executives who prefer to act independently and conduct their office in a vigorous manner utilize this device to assume some degree of personal control of foreign policy. Consequently, the greatest use of such envoys has occurred under Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt, both rated as strong executives by historians. Whether the agents supplement or supersede regularly accredited diplomats depends upon the president, and is generally indicative of his vigor and the nature of his relations with the State Department.

It is no accident that the two presidents making the most extensive use of agents, Wilson and Roosevelt, sought to conduct personal diplomacy, attempted to circumvent relatively weak secretaries of state appointed because of domestic political considerations, and mistrusted the personnel of the regular Foreign Service. Both employed executive agents as a means of placing the conduct of key aspects of foreign policy directly in presidential hands, effectively circumventing the regular diplomatic corps and the State Department. Since there is obviously a limit to the number of situations to which a president can effectively devote personal attention, the appointment of this class of envoys can also provide an indication of the importance attached to a particular problem, nation, or region.

The type of individuals presidents appoint and the basis of their selection affect not only the operation of the institution, but also the degree of controversy surrounding its use. Since the very nature of the position renders it a dependency of the president, the chief executive is free to select the individuals according to any criteria he chooses. Full congressional debates regarding the constitutional powers involved have been rare, although a notable exception occurred in the Senate in 1831. Even in this discussion, the question was not whether the president had the right to appoint such agents, but rather what functions they could perform and their relation to regular diplomatic representatives. If the president seeks simply to secure the temporary services of an individual with recognized expertise in a given realm, whose talents would not otherwise be at the disposal of the government and whose abilities are especially suited to a specific task, little dispute will ensue. Similarly, agents assigned to discrete or minor tasks seldom breed controversy.

It is a different matter, however, when the chief of state sends a personal representative to supersede a regularly accredited head of mission. In such instances, the agent clearly displaces an individual appointed with the consent of the legislature, allowing more direct control by the executive. If the agent is dispatched to an important theater of foreign policy on a highly visible or sensitive mission, the likelihood that such an action will arouse the ire of Congress is increased. A president also assumes a greater risk of controversy when relying upon agents because of suspicion about the objectives of the regular diplomatic personnel or as a means of placing the matter in the hands of an individual more ideologically compatible with his own views. This is particularly true if the individuals employed as agents are political figures associated with the chief executive or political contributors. These agents are likely to be controversial figures whose employment can be expected to antagonize the opposition party. Although the resultant disputes often focus on the agents, the basic issue involves the policies pursued by the president.

The controversy regarding the activities of Wilson's surrogates in Mexico provides an example of such a situation. The issue was not the use of agents per se, but rather the uses to which they were put. Wilson was clearly employing executive agents to circumvent the regular diplomatic officers, who disagreed with his policy. This was particularly evident in the type of individuals he dispatched on such missions, for they were invariably "deserving Democrats" who were politically associated with the president or Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan. Wilson felt that the most important qualifications for a prospective appointee were loyalty and similarity of outlook, which he considered more significant than knowledge of the area involved or the possession of any diplomatic skills. It is scarcely surprising that the appointment of partisans to carry out partisan policies provoked political controversy. Franklin D. Roosevelt, by contrast, although he also employed executive agents extensively and was himself scarcely less of a storm center than Wilson, managed to minimize such disputes through the selection of men of stature and experience who were clearly well qualified, and by employing them only on missions that obviously required special procedures.

Early Examples One of the most common uses of executive agents has been in dealing with nations or governments with which the United States did not at the time maintain normal diplomatic relations. In these circumstances, recourse to some special type of temporary representative is plainly necessary for the transaction of any business, including the inauguration of formal diplomatic contact. Inevitably, such agents were common during the early days of the Republic, when the United States had not yet been accorded recognition by many of the world's nations, and during the nineteenth century when the United States maintained regular diplomatic missions in only a small portion of the world's capitals. Indeed, the first representatives of the United States in the immediate aftermath of independence had the status of simple diplomatic agents. Technically, the initial representatives were congressional rather than executive agents, since they were dispatched during the days of the Continental Congress and the Articles of Confederation, prior to the existence of a separate executive branch. These individuals were appointed by the Committee of Secret Correspondence and later the Committee for Foreign Affairs, and only appointments to regular diplomatic missions were considered by the full Congress. Thus, the use of agents whose designation was not subject to confirmation by Congress actually predated the existence of the executive branch.

Four of the nation's first five chief executivesGeorge Washington, John Adams, James Madison, and James Monroefound it necessary to employ executive agents extensively. Among the earliest agents was Colonel David Humphrys, whom President Washington dispatched in 1790 to conduct negotiations leading to the establishment of diplomatic relations with Portugal. A series of similar emissaries was employed during the 1820s to arrange the nation's first treaty with Turkey. Executive agents were also utilized extensively in the intermittent negotiations with the Barbary states of North Africa from the 1790s to the 1820s, an instance where piracy in the Mediterranean required negotiations prior to the establishment of formal diplomatic relations. Similar appointees were also employed during the early nineteenth century in establishing initial contact with the newly independent former Spanish colonies in the Western Hemisphere. In Latin America, individuals such as Joel R. Poinsettan appointee of President James Madisonconducted reconnaissance missions and represented U.S. interests during the period when the ability of the new republics to maintain themselves was still in doubt and when formal recognition was delayed by negotiations with Spain regarding the purchase of Florida. Temporary representatives proved convenient for this type of mission and have served as the instrument of this class of exchanges throughout the existence of the United States. In the 1970s Henry A. Kissinger played a pivotal role in establishing relations with the People's Republic of China while serving as President Richard M. Nixon's national security adviser.

Purposes and Functions Agents are often employed as a means of dealing with nations or governments with which formal diplomatic contacts have been severed or temporarily suspended. This is another situation in which agents are well suited to a particular need, for preliminary negotiations are often a necessary prelude to the renewal of formal ties. When used in this manner, agents can serve as a vehicle to conduct negotiations regarding the legitimacy of the new government and the conditions attached to formal recognition. Such exchanges are obviously of temporary character and must be handled through some vehicle other than a regularly accredited representative, for the appointment of an individual with the latter status would in itself constitute de facto recognition of the government in question. This also applies in instances when it proves necessary to negotiate with the leaders of rebel movements. Talks with rebel leaders must take place outside normal diplomatic channels, since diplomatic relations with a rebel movement would constitute an unfriendly act toward the government of the nation involved.

This last circumstance became common in the latter quarter of the twentieth century when the United States, and indeed all the principal powers of the world, increasingly found it necessary to deal with civil wars in order to prevent conflicts from spreading and becoming full-scale international wars. The distinction between internal affairs and the maintenance of international peace and security became blurred in the twentieth century, and especially since the end of the Cold War. That is because modern conflicts, which involve weapons that are far more destructive than those employed in earlier centuries, often start as internal rebellions and then spread across borders to affect neighboring nations.

Missions of this type have included efforts to protect American citizens and their rights in areas controlled by unrecognized governments or rebel factions, simple negotiations regarding the procedures for the renewal of regular relations with new governments resulting from internal uprisings, and attempts to impose preconditions as a price for full recognition. In cases involving new governments resulting from civil war or revolution, if the break in relations is of recent origin and short duration, the appointment of a special agent is often unnecessary, since members of the regular diplomatic service still on the scene can serve as the vehicle for such exchanges. In instances where the use of such individuals proves inconvenient or where they have been withdrawn as part of the break, the appointment of an executive agent is essential.

Agents of this nature also date from the initial days of the nation, when President George Washington dispatched Gouverneur Morris to England in 1790 in a futile effort to open negotiations seeking a commercial treaty and the establishment of regular diplomatic relations. Since at this time there was no foreign service, the designation of agent was a matter of title and indicated a less formal status and a temporary mission. In the twentieth century, executive agents were most often employed in dealing with the newly emerging nations of the so-called Third World, where governmental instability and internal turmoil is more frequent. This is particularly true in the Western Hemisphere, where the United States is more likely to attempt to exact concessions as a precondition for recognition. Such efforts have frequently included attempts to secure pledges of elections or the resignation of a government that has recently seized power. Wilson's dispatch of John Linda former Democratic governor of Minnesota and a political associate of Bryanto Mexico in 1913 was one example of this type of mission. Lind, who had no prior diplomatic experience and no previous contact with Mexico, was appointed "adviser to the American Embassy in Mexico City," but in reality served as the personal representative of the president of the United States. In this manner he superseded the regularly accredited diplomats in that country. Acting as Wilson's spokesman and "confidential agent," Lind conducted negotiations with the incumbent government of General Victoriano Huerta, which included the presentation of demands that stipulated Huerta's surrendering his office. This is an instance in which Wilson, who was suspicious of the regular foreign service personnel, chose to employ his own representative because he preferred an adherent of his policies as his instrument. While controversial at the time, such situations have become far more common in the postCold War era.

In some instances more formal negotiations are employed prior to recognition. One such cased was the so-called Bucareli Conference in 1923, when executive agents designated as commissioners representing the United States and Mexico held an extended "exchange of impressions" whose "sole object" was "to report afterwards to their respective high officials." The use of the title "commissioners" served to allow negotiations with a government that had seized power through a coup d'état and had not yet been recognized officially by the United States. Because the conferees were executive agents, the sessions did not technically constitute recognition of the Mexican government of General Álvaro Obregón, but they did prove to be the vehicle for eventual recognition through a resulting memorandum of understanding that enabled the satisfactory settlement of the questions regarding damage claims and oil land. Executive agents are frequently used in comparable situations, but it must be noted that although they are a useful vehicle for this type of negotiations, such envoys are but one mechanism for completing the necessary arrangements.

At times, executive agents have even been employed to conduct negotiations for an early peace with nations with which the United States was at war. Executive agents are the only appropriate vehicle for such delicate discussions. The outstanding example of this type of mission was that of Nicholas P. Trist, chief clerk of the State Department. He was dispatched by President James K. Polk to Veracruz in 1847 to accompany the military expedition of General Winfield Scott, which had landed at that port and was advancing toward the Mexican capital. Since the United States had entered the war for limited and clearly delineated objectives and had already established effective control of the territory it desired, Polk hoped that Trist's presence would enable negotiations to be conducted simultaneously with the military campaign and possibly render the completion of the latter unnecessary. The use of an executive agent was essential because Mexican reaction was uncertain and because it was necessary to maintain secrecy as a means of circumventing a mounting domestic sentiment to extend the original war aims. Trist's mission resulted in an incongruous combination of intermittent combat and negotiations that failed to produce results until after the military expedition had fought its way into Mexico City.

During the early twentieth century, executive agents were frequently employed as the instruments of intervention in the domestic affairs of Latin American nations, a practice extended to other regions of the world during and after the Cold War. In numerous instances this constituted a conscious attempt to avoid military intervention through mediation between internal factions or the imposition of a political settlement. Admittedly this entailed political intervention, but such action was far less controversial than the landing of troops to terminate an internal conflict or to protect American citizens. Such roles were particularly prominent in the Caribbean and Central American regions, with which the United States was especially concerned because of their significance for the security of the nation and because of the necessity of protecting the approaches to the Panama Canal.

The mission of Henry L. Stimson to Nicaragua in 1927 illustrates the use of an agent to mediate between internal factions. Civil war broke out in that Central American republic within a few months of the withdrawal of a U.S. Marine detachment that had kept the peace while serving officially as a legation guard. The United States considered it necessary to act to preserve peace in Nicaragua, owing to the potential in that country for an alternative canal route. Stimson went to Nicaragua as the personal representative of President Calvin Coolidge to mediate between the Liberal and Conservative Party forces in an effort to secure an agreement providing for a cessation of hostilities and the transfer of the dispute from the battlefield to the ballot box. The special envoy negotiated with the leaders of both factions, notwithstanding the fact that this entailed dealing with both the rebels and the incumbent government, which had been installed with the support of the United States and was still recognized.

The mission of General Enoch H. Crowder to Cuba from 1921 to 1923 constituted a similar effort to substitute political intervention for military action. Crowder was dispatched to Cuba in 1921 by the Wilson administration in an effort to forestall hostilities over a disputed election when Liberal ex-president José Miguel Gómez challenged the reported victory of his former vicepresident, Alfredo Zayas y Alfonso, who now had the support of the Conservative Party. Crowder was continued in his position as the president's personal representative by Warren G. Harding. Crowder's open intervention and the implied threat of force prevented a civil war but failed to satisfy the opposition. When a compromise agreement proved impossible, Crowder remained in Cuba as a virtual viceroy, in effect an American governor of Cuba, overseeing and dictating to that nation's government. Such methods prevented an insurrection but constituted forceful intervention. It is interesting to note that Crowder's position became far less imposing when in 1923 his title was changed from the "president's personal representative" to ambassador to Cuba.

In addition to mediation and political intervention, executive agents have been employed as a means of establishing and maintaining contact with rebel movements during times of turmoil, when it is apparent that such factions have established effective control of substantial territory. Although such agents often participate in mediation efforts, in some instances the primary purposes are to protect American lives and property within rebel-controlled territory, exert some influence upon the policies of the insurrectionist leaders, and gather and report to Washington information regarding the revolution and its leaders. The most notable example of this practice occurred in Mexico during the Wilson administration. While Mexico was torn by civil war, Wilson dispatched numerous personal representatives and confidential agents to that country, usually stationing such individuals at the headquarters of two or three of the factions simultaneously. This practice resulted in a confusing welter of overlapping jurisdictions, with agents at times reporting on each other's activities, yet it also served to promote contacts between the rebel factions for the purpose of ending the conflict. It was necessary to utilize executive appointments because only in this manner could Wilson maintain representatives in more than one of the camps and attempt to influence the factions without technically conferring recognition upon them.

Other agents have been employed on similar missions. For example, William M. Churchwell was dispatched late in 1858 to confer with Mexican leader Benito Juárez in the midst of civil war. He arrived early in 1859, at a point when several factions claimed control of the nation and Juárez had been driven from the capital. Churchwell's mission paved the way for formal U.S. recognition of the Juárez regime.

In conducting negotiations or investigations of special delicacy it may be inexpedient for the president to inform Congress and the public in advance by requesting confirmation of a formal appointment. In such cases, presidents have found executive agents a convenient device. The mission of Robert D. Murphy to French North Africa during World War II is an example. Although ostensibly an American consul, Murphy was in fact dispatched as Roosevelt's personal representative to determine whether French officials in North Africa were loyal to the German-dominated Vichy government, and to conduct negotiations to arrange for their cooperation with an Anglo-American invasion of North Africa. Clearly, the success of a mission of this character depended on secrecy, which could not be maintained through a congressional confirmation proceeding.

Executive agents are also useful to the president when a disagreement with Congress precludes a request for advance approval. President Grover Cleveland's dispatch of former Representative James H. Blount on an investigatory mission to Hawaii in 1893 was such an instance. A revolution had led to the installation of a new government, dominated by American landowners and settlers, that promptly negotiated a treaty of annexation with the United States. Despite considerable sentiment for approval of the treaty, Cleveland withdrew it from the Senate and dispatched Blount, whose report confirmed that U.S. naval forces had aided the rebellion. The knowledge that the United States had been implicated in the revolt led to rejection of the annexation accord.

President Ulysses S. Grant's use of his private secretary, General Orville E. Babcock, as his personal representative and special agent in Santo Domingo in 1869 constituted one of the first instances of the executive employing a member of his personal staff to conduct confidential negotiations in the face of congressional disapproval. Grant was convinced of the advisability of acquiring Samaná Bay as a naval base, and dispatched Babcock ostensibly on a mission of investigation. Babcock negotiated a series of protocols providing for a lease on the bay and a virtual protectorate over the Dominican Republic, even though this action exceeded his instructions. The accords meticulously stipulated that they constituted merely the "basis" for a "definitive treaty" to be negotiated subsequently by a duly accredited envoy. Consequently, the accords had the character of an agreement between the two presidents acting personally, rather than between their respective governments. Grant later sent his secretary back to Santo Domingo to sit in on the formal treaty negotiations as an unofficial observer who was "fully possessed of the President's views." Despite the fact that the negotiating powers were technically vested in the regularly accredited American minister in Santo Domingo, Babcock conducted the negotiations while the minister merely signed the accord. The effort proved futile, as the resulting treaty was rejected by the Senate.

Executive agents also serve as channels of direct communication with other heads of state in instances when particular circumstances require the bypassing of normal diplomatic channels, either as a matter of expediency or as a means of emphasizing the special importance of the talks. Usually, this involves the dispatch of a prominent individual of considerable stature who is closely associated with the chief executive. Frequently, the envoy is one of the president's principal advisers. This indicates that the emissary is speaking for the president; consequently, his or her mere appearance as a negotiator demonstrates the importance attached to the matter at hand.

Woodrow Wilson resorted to this type of agent to bypass normal diplomatic channels when he sent Colonel Edward M. House to Europe in 1916. House's mission was to offer a plan designed to terminate World War I or, failing in that, to bring the United States into active participation in the war. The dispatch of House made possible direct negotiations with the British secretary of state for foreign affairs, Sir Edward Grey, while also ensuring that only the two executives and the emissary were aware of the precise contents of the proposal until the completion of the negotiations. This was vital, because had the Germans learned of the talks, the result would have been immediate United States involvement in the war at a time when it was not yet ready to enter the conflict. Since House was a close ally of Wilson, his dispatch on a mission automatically endowed it with considerable importance, for in this instance the president's personal representative was indeed an individual who could be presumed to speak fully for him.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt also employed a close personal associate as a special envoy when he sent Harry Hopkins to Moscow to initiate discussions regarding Lend-Lease aid to the Soviet Union shortly after Nazi Germany invaded Russia in 1941. The president chose to use a separate channel both to ensure confidentiality and to demonstrate, through the selection of an individual so closely associated with him, his desire that the envoy's mere appearance on the mission be regarded as a symbolic commitment. This approach succeeded in assuaging the suspicions of Soviet premier Joseph Stalin.

Roosevelt used a similar method in dealing with Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek of China, who proved highly resistant to pressures exerted through normal diplomatic channels. Roosevelt resorted to a number of special officials in addition to the regular ambassador, ranging from Owen Lattimore, a political adviser to Chiang, to General Patrick J. Hurley, a personal representative. Hurley later became ambassador to China, although his influence as special representative was greater. President Harry S. Truman resorted to similar tactics when he dispatched former chief of staff General George C. Marshall to China during 1945 in an unsuccessful effort to convince the nationalist and communist factions to negotiate an agreement to terminate their civil war. President Richard M. Nixon sent his personal foreign policy adviser and head of the National Security Council staff, Henry A. Kissinger, on several missions, in particular in 1969 for negotiations in Moscow regarding the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty. President James Earl Carter employed a special envoy, Sol Linowitz, to deal with the negotiations regarding the future of the Panama Canal.

Executive agents have also been utilized in dealing with international organizations, where they function as unofficial observers rather than as full delegates. Harding employed such individuals to establish contact with some agencies of the League of Nations and several other European conferences as a means of circumventing the isolationist sentiment in the United States. This procedure was necessary sinceas a consequence of isolationismthe United States was not officially a member of the League and therefore could not appoint an ambassador to it. Such unofficial observers are usually members of the regular diplomatic service who are stationed at nearby posts, and function in a dual role.

The principal variables in the institution of executive agents are the type of mission, the particular individual involved, and the method of reporting to the chief executive. Of necessity, the purpose of the mission is one of the primary determinants of the activities of the agent and the importance of the effort. The personality and prominence of the agent are other significant factors. Dispatch of a prominent individual who also functions within the government, particularly if he is closely associated with the chief executive, endows the mission with significance. It is scarcely surprising that such individuals are most frequently employed in missions to the heads of governments of important powers or allies. The use of members of the regular Foreign Service can also affect the institution. Although such individuals come to their missions with greater diplomatic expertise, their appointment has less dramatic force, and consequently less impact, than the dispatch of a prominent individual or political figure. Accordingly, regular diplomatic officers tend to be employed as executive agents principally on missions requiring some degree of secrecy, as their movements are less conspicuous.

The channels through which executive agents file their reports and receive their instructions are also significant determinants of their activities. Some agents are of such stature, or are so closely associated with the chief executive, that they report directly to him, bypassing the Department of State. Such individuals obviously have greater latitude, and acquire the stature of spokespersons for the chief executive. Yet the impact of their labors is somewhat limited by this very fact, since the Department of State and its diplomats in the field are often unaware of the details of the mission until after the fact. In some instances this lack of communication has caused serious difficulties. At the least, it prevents the regular diplomatic officers from providing assistance or advice, and it can also delay the implementation of the resulting agreements. On the other hand many agents, usually those from the regular diplomatic corps or those not closely associated with the president, file their reports through the Department of State. Indeed, some of these individuals, although executive agents, are not in fact the president's personal representatives, but rather officials on special mission under the control of the Department of State, just as regular diplomats are.

During the second half of the twentieth century, the employment of executive agents has become increasingly institutionalized, reflecting a trend throughout the government. The growth of the Washington bureaucracy, which has expanded rapidly as the government assumes more extensive functions, has necessitated a formal and complex structure that has affected even so flexible an institution as that of executive agents. The formalization of a White House staff with distinct foreign policy advisers has been a gradual development occurring primarily after World War II. Many presidents have employed their own advisers since Woodrow Wilson's use of Colonel Edward House, but these were ad hoc arrangements until World War II. Then, their use was formalized so that foreign policy advisers became an ongoing presence in the White House in all administrations.


The use of specific presidential foreign policy consultants and personal envoys expanded during World War II and the postwar years. Franklin Roosevelt's use of Harry Hopkins and a "brain trust" of advisers contributed to the development of a separate White House office distinct from the existing cabinet departments such as the Department of State, although in large measure its emergence merely reflected the growth of the government that came with the increasing complexity of its functions in the modern world. It was Roosevelt, regarded as a strong chief executive, who initiated the development of the Executive Office of the president. By the 1950s there was an entirely separate White House staff of considerable size. Although only a small portion of it dealt with foreign policy, this portion was expanded under later presidents, eventually evolving into a sizable National Security Council (NSC).

The NSC, originally established as a small office in 1947, grew to importance during the administration of Richard M. Nixon. It has continued throughout all subsequent administrations as part of the White House staff, becoming virtually an alternate State Department functioning wholly under the president's control. While officially functioning as a coordinating body to assemble the recommendations of different agencies involved in foreign relations, it has provided the chief executive with a separate foreign affairs staff and enabled him to act independently in foreign affairs. Its power derives from proximity to the president and the ability to set agendas by providing the chief executive with daily morning security briefings that cover important international events. The NSC proved especially important during the height of the Cold War, when security and national defense matters assumed precedence over other aspects of foreign policy. The prominence of the NSC, however, has continued beyond the end of the Cold War.

The existence of White House foreign policy advisers, and the creation of the National Security Council within the Executive Office as a separate body, provides the president with a staff of specialists of his own, distinct from the State Department and the regular Foreign Service. This has strengthened the hand of the president in foreign affairs, enabling him to conduct his own policy through what virtually amounts to an alternate foreign office. That it is housed in the building formerly occupied by the State Department is symbolic both of the increased size of the two institutions (the State Department moved to larger quarters) and of the change in the relationship between the chief executive and the State Department.

The process of utilizing special representatives in the conduct of foreign affairs accelerated in the years after World War II, reflecting the increasing complexity of world affairs; the increasing interconnectedness of the world, known as globalization; and the larger involvement of the United States in international affairs. Security cooperation on global and regional scales expanded, and economic interchange between nations and across borders accelerated greatly. In the 1960s the demise of colonialism doubled the number of independent nations in the world and the number continued to increase afterward. In addition, more rapid communications and transportation links enabled rapid movement of goods, business, and citizens, which meant that governments needed to remain in much closer contact. It also meant that individual citizens and organizations interacted constantly with their counterparts in other nations, in addition to the interaction between their governments. Issues formerly regarded as exclusively domestic were now considered part of the international system, and many previously domestic concerns extended beyond borders and were regarded as global or regional problems to be addressed jointly and cooperatively by many nations. Many problems had to be addressed at the global level, since they affect peoples in many nations, regardless of borders.


After World War II, a new range of multilateral international institutions developed, leading to increased interaction between nations and a consequent need for new types of representatives beyond those in traditional embassies. The emergence of the United Nations, a series of specialized agencies associated with it, and other international organizationsranging from regional security groups to free trade areas to military alliances resulted in an extensive series of regularly scheduled meetings at which the United States needed to be represented. The increasing multilateralism of world affairs and the increasing importance of global issues necessitated dealing with groups of nations rather than addressing issues bilaterally with individual governments, which is the function of embassies.

Reflecting the fact that the UN system required a different level of representation than do individual nations, the U.S. representative to the UN was usually given cabinet rank to make possible his or her participation in policymaking. Hence, although the UN representative received instructions from the Department of State, she or he also ranked well above other ambassadors. While representatives from all nations at the UN held the rank of ambassador, their responsibilities were far more extensive than those of traditional ambassadors, since they dealt with envoys from all other governments in the world. In recognition of this fact, each nation's head of mission at the United Nations was called a permanent representative.

Individuals with the rank of ambassador, often drawn from the regular Foreign Service ranks, were assigned to represent the United States at a number of other permanent regional multilateral organizations. These included intergovernmental organizations such as the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Other individuals with ambassadorial rank were sent to observe the meetings of regional organizations.

An increasing number and range of issues were addressed as global questions during the last quarter of the twentieth century. This required U.S. representation at many organizations, conferences, and meetings dealing with topics on a worldwide, multilateral basis. These sessions cover a wide range of vital subjects. Specialized agencies, commissions, and programs of the United Nations dealt with human rights, the environment, trade, drug trafficking, crime, corruption, food, agriculture, health, air and maritime trade, postal and telegraph linkages between nations, intellectual property rights and protections, refugees, population, and many additional issues. All were problems that spanned national boundaries, and hence required international cooperation, which necessitated negotiations and agreements by national governments. In addition, the UN convened a series of world conferences to deal with topical issues, particularly the various aspects of development. The annual meetings of organizations formed by treaties to enforce or monitor the enforcement of treaty provisions often dealt with vital issues of international peace and security, such as arms proliferation; weapons of mass destruction including nuclear, chemical and biological weapons; and the rights of civilians in wartime.

These meetings and conferences required representatives with particular expertise regarding the particular issues under discussion. The representatives involved came from a range of governmental agencies, in addition to the diplomatic corps. Such meetings were often covered by special representatives. Even when the delegation was headed by the Foreign Service officer, the members of the delegation included specialists and even members of Congress. These representatives were appointed on a short-term basis by the president, without confirmation by the Senate.


Many of these international issues achieved such importance that regular offices dealing globally with these matters have been established, usually within the Department of State. The United States now hadin addition to the regular regional geographic bureausspecial officers, or assistant secretaries of state, dealing with various topical themes. These included drug control, human rights, the environment, scientific affairs, and communications and information policy. The administration of President George H. W. Bush established such a special representative for religious freedom. Such offices proliferated in response to domestic lobbying, and many citizens have come to believe that an issue is not receiving high priority unless a special office is established to deal with it. These offices served to provide the necessary expertise and monitoring for negotiations and conferences, just as such separate organizations as the Central Intelligence Agency and the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency do in their fields.

Economics and trade grew in importance, resulting in the development of a series of international organizations to establish rules to regulate and facilitate the exchange of goods and services between nations, and to settle disputes regarding the internationally accepted rules. These organizations required not only special representatives, but the establishment of new governmental offices to deal with these economic and trade issues. The organizations, all of which have regular meetings, included the International Monetary Fund; the World Bank; the Group of Seven (which became the Group of Eight in the 1990s), the nations with the largest economies in the world; and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The meetings of these groups usually involved representatives of the Treasury and Commerce Departments as well as the State Department. Some were held at the summit level.

Trade and international economic matters became so vital that it proved necessary to establish a separate office to deal with these matters. The Office of the United States Trade Representative within the Executive Office of the president was established in 1962 and given broader status by the Omnibus Trade Competitiveness Act of 1988. The trade representative's office was responsible for the negotiation of agreements relating to international trade; it conducted all global, multilateral, and bilateral trade discussions, both for the establishment of global and bilateral accords and for the effective implementation of such agreements. Its responsibilities encompassed the World Trade Organization (WTO)which evolved from the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffsthe North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and all bilateral trade disputes and agreements. Globalization increased the importance of these economic matters, and the Office of the Trade Representative played an increasingly central role in U.S. foreign relations from the time it was established.

The use of executive agents and special representatives greatly increased in the late twentieth century as new issues emerged and as all of them became more global in their impact. The result was a proliferation of offices that often created confusion as to which had ultimate responsibility; this resulted in rivalry between agencies. So many issues came to involve multiple offices and departments that the making of foreign policy increasingly involved interagency task forces to coordinate the efforts of the many agencies involved. These groups gained considerable importance under the administrations of Presidents Jimmy Carter and the senior George Bush. This created new problems, but also assured that experts with the appropriate knowledge are consulted regarding all issues.


The use of special representatives also expanded, during the 1980s and 1990s, in dealing with regional crises involving international peace and security. Increasingly, it became normal for all presidents to appoint so-called special envoys to deal with crises regarded as important to the preservation of peace.

For example, the United States had a special envoy on a continuing basis to deal with the disputes between Israelis and the Palestinians. In this way, a single individual was placed in charge, making it possible for shuttle diplomacy to replace separate negotiations with the parties. This approach was particularly important since the United States did not officially recognize Palestine as a state, and consequently had no ambassador to Palestine, despite the fact that reaching any settlement required the inclusion of the Palestinians in the negotiations. Recognizing Israel's sensitivity to an extension of American recognition prior to a final peace agreement, the United States withheld recognition of Palestine until implementation of such an agreement, using recognition as a means of pressuring the Palestinians.

Yet the volatile situation between Israel and Palestine constituted one of the situations in the world most likely to lead to full-scale war. Because of the lack of trust between the two parties, it was essential that the United States continue to pursue actively a settlement in order to avert conflict, and hence, the appointment of a special U.S. envoy. Only an envoy accredited to both sides could engage in the necessary shuttle diplomacy, negotiating separately with both parties to the conflict. The service of Dennis Ross in such a capacity during the administration of President William Jefferson Clinton played a key role in the Madrid peace process during the 1990s. The existence of a special envoy became so common that both sides protested if none was appointed, since they viewed the absence of such a representative as an indication that the United States was not devoting appropriate attention to the conflict. Usually, the official appointed was a regular Foreign Service officer, often also serving as assistant secretary of state for Middle Eastern affairs or as ambassador to a state in the region. In other instances, the special representative came from another of the Washington bureaucracies. Indeed, on two occasions the director of the Central Intelligence Agency mediated arrangements for temporary cease-fire agreements between Israel and the Palestinians.

This approach was also used in the Balkans during the 1990s after the collapse of Yugoslavia. The United States needed the ability to talk to all parties involved in the conflict that followed the collapse, even before the new states were recognized, and to continue discussions with ethnic factions within these states. Even after ambassadors were designated, a "super envoy" able to engage in shuttle diplomacy was essential to convince the parties, and NATO allies as well, that the United States regarded the situation as particularly critical. The Dayton Peace Accords of 1995 that ended the conflict between Serbia and Croatia in Bosnia-Herzegovina and at least temporarily stabilized the internal situation in the latter nation were negotiated in advance and then pressed upon the parties to the dispute by the special representative, Ambassador Richard C. Holbrooke. African civil wars were also often addressed through such envoys. Under the Reagan administration, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Chester Crocker developed a reputation for facilitating the settlements that ended long-standing conflicts on the continent, particularly in Mozambique.

The appointment of a special envoy to deal with conflict situations made it possible to separate the negotiations to settle disputes from all other aspects of ongoing relations between the United States and the countries involved in the conflict. Consequently, such envoys proliferated. By the turn of the century, they were constantly appointed to deal with particular conflicts in Africa and with the situation in the Korean peninsula. Such appointments reflected worldwide trends, since crises throughout the world came to be often addressed by the principle powers working with global and regional organizations. United States special representatives invariably found themselves working in cooperation with a special representative of the UN secretary general, and often with similar envoys representing regional organizations such as the European Union or the Organization of African Unity. These practices reflected what globally is referred to as conflict prevention or preventive diplomacy, through which disputes and conflicts anywhere are addressed in their early stages by the international community to prevent them from spreading into a regional war involving several nations. In previous eras of slower communications, less interdependent economies, and less destructive weapons, civil wars were regarded as the internal affairs of states, and were addressed by the international community only after other nations had become involved. In the late twentieth century, however, localized conflicts were addressed before they spread. Once other nations and organizations dispatched special envoys, the appointment of a U.S. special representative was both expected and necessary. In this sense, the expanded use of such envoys in conflict situations was merely part of a global trend reflecting the greater interdependence of the era.

Use of the power to appoint executive agents and special representatives without the approval of the Senate, in addition to regular ambassadorial appointments, increased greatly during the latter decades of the twentieth century, though such appointments were employed by many presidents since the beginning of the nation. The extent to which this power was utilized varied with each chief executive. While the appointment of agents and representatives outside the regular diplomatic corps inevitably led to rivalry and controversy with the State Department, when combined with the emergence of a White House staff, it provided the president with a body of specialists at his disposal to serve as personal envoys who could speak for him in the conduct of negotiations and the direct execution of policy. During the twentieth century executive agents dispatched abroad were frequently drawn from the presidential staff.

The late-twentieth-century trend toward summitry, or personal negotiations between heads of state, rendered the use of executive agents to conduct direct negotiations not only convenient but highly desirable in dealing with key allies or important questions. The dispatch of such an agent in itself constituted an indication that the matter had been brought to the personal attention of the president, and hence assumed a certain symbolism of its own. Inevitably, the use of executive agents tended to downgrade the importance of regularly accredited diplomats, who were considered representatives of the governmentthat is, the bureaucracy as represented by the State Departmentrather than of the president himself.

This development was obviously fraught with difficulties, particularly since instant communications enabled regular envoys to be in constant touch with Washington. As the complexity and size of the Washington bureaucracy increased, the issue of whether communications to the Department of State reached the president became important in the perception of other governments. Many governments preferred to be dealing with envoys who reported directly to the White House staff rather than the State Department, since they believed that his views would be more likely to reach the president. This perception has endowed the special agent with a status as a demonstration of concern by the chief executive. In some respects, this pattern is an inevitable result of the burgeoning of bureaucracy caused by the complexities of the modern world. President Nixon's use of Kissinger to conduct important negotiations during his service as national security adviser constituted a clear example of other governments preferring to negotiate with what they considered a direct presidential envoy. Since heads of state felt neglected if approached by someone other than the person with the president's ear, the mere appearance of a special envoy tended to facilitate serious exchanges and promote accord. This is one of the reasons why the use of executive agents gradually expanded.

The institution was adapted to serve yet another purpose, that of signaling that a situation was regarded as particularly important and was receiving the direct attention of the president. Such appointments also made more rapid action possible by circumventing the necessarily complex channels of modern governmental bureaucracy.

The increasing use of executive agents and special representatives caused considerable controversy regarding their role in enlarging presidential control of foreign policy. Some commentators contended that reliance upon such agents led to the bypassing of the State Department and Congress, thereby contributing to the expansion of presidential power at the expense of the legislature. Although the Constitution clearly vests authority and responsibility for the conduct of foreign affairs in the president, it also provides for congressional controls by placing the sole war-making power in the hands of the legislature and the requirement of Senate "advice and consent" to treaties. Also, Senate approval is needed to confirm the appointment of the ambassadors and ministers who represent the nation abroad, as well as for the selection of the secretary of state. Hence, while the State Department is clearly part of the executive branch, the legislature has a greater say in its functioning than in the case of presidential advisers and agents.

The expanded use of agents other than regular ambassadors occurred at a time when Foreign Service officers felt that their role was being considerably diminished. During the early days of the nation, all relations with a given country were conducted through the ambassador, whose advice played a significant role in the determination of policy. Ambassadors were sent out with broad instructions that allowed for considerable discretion. They were expected to report only occasionally, and hence were able to focus on crises and issues of overriding importance. In the new age of instant communications, however, ambassadors were required to report constantly, sending many communications each day dealing with a wide range of items, and required as well to clear virtually all actions with Washington in advance. Many former ambassadors and Foreign Service officers felt that diplomats and ambassadors had consequently lost considerable authority and influence. Envoys of all types often felt that they were being micromanaged. They believed the requirement that all actions be authorized in advance reduced their role and authority, placing more power in the hands of the president's political aides and handlers. Retired Foreign Service officers complained about this situation for many years. They invariably commented that instant communications enabled domestic politics to interfere with foreign policy decisions.

Presidents have expressed concern regarding the diminishing role of professional diplomats in the making and conduct of foreign policy. President John F. Kennedy attempted to alleviate the difficulty by appointing the veteran diplomat Averell Harriman as a permanent executive agent, or roving troubleshooter, with the title ambassador-atlarge. The selection of a diplomat closely attuned to the State Department as the president's personal envoy provided a link between the two foreign affairs staffs. Yet the mere institutionalization of the position made it part of the bureaucracy, and this arrangement proved functional only because of the stature of Ambassador Harriman.

The use of such ambassadors continued under subsequent presidents, and became so institutionalized that at any given moment the United States had several individuals designated as ambassadors-at-large whose appointments were designed to dealseparately from the regular interchanges involved in bilateral relations between governmentswith particularly important topics or with global issues. Individuals holding this rank were invariably drawn from experienced career ambassadors. President Nixon's concern about the resulting dichotomy between the White House foreign affairs staff and the State Department was evident when he shifted Henry Kissinger from the White House to the State Department, though such a step was unusual.

The use of such special appointments originally reflected the proclivities of individual presidents to conduct their own foreign policy and assume personal management of certain questions. At the turn of the twenty-first century, the accelerating expansion of such appointments merely reflected the expanding role of the United States in world affairs, and also the need to deal with emerging issues resulting from increasing globalization and global interdependence. Also contributing to this trend were disputes with Congress and delays in Senate confirmations of ambassadorial nominees, which often resulted from opposition party control of the Senate. Congressional problems increased as a result of close elections and the razor-thin legislative majorities that resulted.

Clearly, the use of executive agents and special representatives greatly expanded and changed during the twentieth century, particularly during its latter half. Originally they were utilized as an ad hoc arrangement to enable strong presidents to bypass the regular State Department bureaucracy on a temporary basis. As the Executive Office evolved in the postWorld War II era, the president effectively had his own foreign policy advisers to oversee the bureaucracy. As that bureaucracy grew more complex, presidents found it even more necessary to utilize such agents to deal with situations requiring special attention. Increasingly, such agents and representatives were drawn from the regular bureaucracy; with growing frequency, they already held positions in either the State Department or on the White House staff. Thus, executive agents and specialized agents became part of the normal spectrum of representatives employed by presidents to deal with the increasingly complex international scene.

If such agents were employed to supplement normal diplomatic interchange and execute a policy upon which a broad national consensus existed, they aroused little concern. The institution became far more debatable, however, when a particular chief executive employed it on a large scale in an effort to concentrate control of foreign policy exclusively in his own hands or to bypass objections to a controversial policy. The result has been a decline in the morale of the State Department and its Foreign Service officers as their functions were partially usurped, leaving them with largely routine duties.

It is significant that as the use of special representatives and executive agents increased, at times becoming the seeming norm in multilateral situations, such representatives were increasingly drawn from the professional diplomatic corps. This reflects the fact that expert negotiating skills were especially important in multilateral meetings. The increasing use of assistant secretaries of state to deal with particular issues and the appointment of ambassadors-at-large within the State Department reflected this trend. It was particularly evident in the tendency during the 1990s to appoint as a special representative the ambassador to one of the countries involved in the conflict with which the representative was to deal. This was done both in the Middle East and in the Balkans. Hence, while professional diplomats often complained that ambassadors were now often limited to bilateral issues, and found themselves sharing responsibilities with others in multilateral matters, increasingly both were drawn from the same pool of expertise. It can be argued that despite the proliferation of special representatives, the centrality of ambassadors was gradually increasing because of the need to draw on the relatively limited pool of foreign relations specialists represented by the Foreign Service. In an era of multilateral diplomacy, it was necessary simply to supplement the position of ambassador with a new type of ambassador whose mandate extended beyond traditional bilateral relations.

Whatever the result of this continuing evolution, it is clear that executive agents have played and will continue to play an important role in American foreign relations. The institution has proven sufficiently flexible to adapt to a wide variety of uses and functions, and this has rendered it valuable. It remains primarily a supplement to normal diplomatic channels, to be employed in critical circumstances requiring special attention, or to make it possible to focus attention upon the multilateral issues that characterize diplomacy at the turn of the twenty-first century.


Bemis, Samuel Flagg. The Latin-American Policy of the United States. New York, 1943. A general survey, useful since agents were frequently employed in Latin America.

Bemis, Samuel Flagg, and Robert H. Ferrell, eds. The American Secretaries of State and Their Diplomacy. New York, 1928. An extensive, ongoing series containing a volume on each of the individuals who served as secretary of state throughout American history. Offers some comments on the relationship of special agents to the regular diplomatic establishment and brief descriptions of some of the missions.

Brzezinski, Zbigniew. Power and Principle: Memoirs of the National Security Adviser: 19771981. New York, 1983.

Destler, I. M., Leslie H. Gelb, and Anthony Lake. Our Own Worst Enemy: The Unmaking of American Foreign Policy. New York, 1984. Devotes special attention to the role of the National Security Council, while also providing an overall analysis of the delicate balance of powers and the offices involved in the making and conduct of American foreign policy.

George, Alexander L. Presidential Decisionmaking in Foreign Policy: The Effective Use of Information and Advice. Boulder, Colo., 1980.

Graebner, Norman A. An Uncertain Tradition: American Secretaries of States in the Twentieth Century. New York, 1961.

Grieb, Kenneth J. "Reginald Del Valle: A California Diplomat's Sojourn in Mexico." California Historical Society Quarterly 47 (1968). A full discussion of the mission to Mexico of an agent sent by Woodrow Wilson.

. The United States and Huerta. Lincoln, Nebr., 1969. Includes a detailed examination of an era during which Woodrow Wilson employed numerous agents in Mexico, with full discussions of the various missions.

Halperin, Morton H. Bureaucratic Politics and Foreign Policy. Washington, D.C., 1974.

Harriman, W. Averell, and Ellie Abel. Special Envoy to Churchill and Stalin: 19411946. New York, 1975.

Hastedt, Glen P. American Foreign Policy: Past, Present, and Future. 4th ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J., 2000. Offers a concise discussion of the various branches and offices of the government involved in the making of U.S. foreign policy.

Henkin, Louis. "Foreign Affairs and the Constitution." Foreign Affairs 66 (winter 19871988). Updates his earlier monograph.

. Foreign Affairs and the United States Constitution. 2d ed. New York, 1996. Provides a detailed examination of the constitutional provisions and the roles of the executive and the legislature.

Hill, Larry D. Emissaries to a Revolution. Baton Rouge, La., 1973. Examines Woodrow Wilson's use of agents in Mexico throughout his administration.

Inderfurth, Karl F., and Lock K. Johnson, eds. Decisions of the Highest Order: Perspectives on the National Security Council. Pacific Grove, Calif., 1988.

Kissinger, Henry. Diplomacy. New York, 1994.

Munro, Dana G. Intervention and Dollar Diplomacy in the Caribbean, 19001921. Princeton, N. J., 1964. Includes a brief consideration of some missions in this area.

. The United States and the Caribbean Republics: 19211933. Princeton, N.J., 1974.

Ripley, Randall B., and James M. Lindsay, eds. U.S. Foreign Policy after the Cold War: Processes, Structures, and Decisions. Pittsburgh, Pa., 1997.

Rosati, Jerel A. "United States Leadership into the Next Millennium: A Question of Politics." International Journal (spring 1997).

. The Politics of United States Foreign Policy. 2d ed. Fort Worth, Tex., 1999. Provides an effective overview of the evolution of foreign policy instruments and offices.

Rubin, Barry. Secrets of State: The State Department and the Struggle over U.S. Foreign Policy. New York, 1985. Gives an overview of the functioning of the Department of State, the role of political appointees, and the tensions between the Department and the National Security Council.

Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr. The Imperial Presidency. New York, 1989. Contains a detailed history of the evolution of the role of the president and Congress in foreign policy.

Scott, James M., ed. After the End: Making U.S. Foreign Policy in the PostCold War Era. Durham, N.C., 1998.

Seymour, Charles, ed. The Intimate Papers of Colonel House. 3 vols. Boston, New York, 1926. Provides the personal records of House's missions.

Sherwood, Robert E. Roosevelt and Hopkins: An Intimate History. 2d ed. New York, 1950. Details the relationship between the two title figures and contains chapters referring to Hopkins's service as an executive agent.

Smith, Jean E. The Constitution and American Foreign Policy. St. Paul, Minn., 1989.

Wriston, Henry M. Executive Agents in American Foreign Relations. Baltimore, Md., 1929; Gloucester, Mass., 1967. The most extensive study available, deals mainly with the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A rather cumbersome discussion because of a broad interpretation of the term, but useful for consideration of the reasons for agents, early precedents, and congressional debates.

See also Arbitration, Mediation, and Conciliation; Department of State; Intelligence and Counterintelligence; Intervention and Nonintervention; National Security Council; Presidential Advisers; Presidential Power; Recognition .