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 issues—that 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.