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 government—that is, the bureaucracy as represented by the State Department—rather 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 deal—separately from the regular interchanges involved in bilateral relations between governments—with 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 post–World 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.