Diplomatic rank

Diplomatic rank

Diplomatic rank is the system of professional and social rank used in the world of diplomacy and international relations. Over time it has been formalized on an international basis.


Traditional European diplomacy


Until the early 19th century, each European nation had its own system of diplomatic rank. The relative ranks of diplomats from different nations had been a source of considerable dispute, made more so by the insistence of major nations to have their diplomats ranked higher than those of minor nations, to be reflected in such things as table seatings.

In an attempt to resolve the problem, the Congress of Vienna of 1815 formally established an international system of diplomatic ranks.[1]

The four ranks within the system are:

  1. Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary. An Ambassador is a diplomatic representative with plenipotentiary powers (i.e. full authority to represent the head of state). An Ambassador representing the Holy See is known as the papal nuncio. As they formally represent the head of state, they are entitled to use the title "His/Her Excellency".
    • Among Commonwealth countries, the equivalent title that is normally used is High Commissioner, who represents the government rather than the head of state.
  2. Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary. Usually just referred to as a Minister, an Envoy is a diplomatic representative with plenipotentiary powers (i.e. full authority to represent the head of state), but ranking below an Ambassador. As they formally represent the head of state, Envoys are also entitled to use the title "His/Her Excellency".
  3. Minister Resident or Resident Minister (or simply "Minister"). Introduced by the Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle (1818), this is the lowest rank of full chief of mission, above only chargé d'affaires (who are considered as substitutes or acting chiefs of mission).
    • Note that both the Envoy (Minister Plenipotentiary) and the Minister Resident are diplomatic ministers, which are not the same thing as government ministers or religious ministers. A diplomatic mission headed by either type of Minister would be called a Legation. Both ranks of Ministers have become effectively obsolete after World War II.
  4. Chargé d'affaires ("chargé")[p]. As the title (meaning "charged with affairs" in French) suggests, a chargé d'affaires is in charge of the affairs of a diplomatic mission in the usually temporary absence of a more senior diplomat. A chargé d'affaires ad interim or simply "a.i." is generally serving as chief of mission during the temporary absence of the head of mission, while the chargé d'affaires e.p. or en pied maintains the same functions and duties as an ambassador, and is accredited not to the head of state but to the foreign minister of the receiving state.

As it turned out, this system of diplomatic rank created its own set of problems regarding the nations' precedence. The appropriate diplomatic ranks used would be determined by the precedence among the nations; thus the exchanges of ambassadors (the highest diplomatic rank) would be reserved among major nations, or close allies and related monarchies. In contrast, a major nation would probably send just an envoy to a minor nation, who in return would send an envoy to the major nation. As a result, the United States did not use the rank of ambassador until their emergence as a major world power at the end of the 19th century. Indeed, until the mid-20th century, the majority of diplomats in the world were of the rank of envoy.

After World War II, it was no longer considered acceptable to treat some nations as inferior to others given the United Nations doctrine of equality of sovereign states; therefore most legations were upgraded to embassies, and the use of the rank of Minister for diplomatic missions' highest-ranking officials gradually ceased. The last U.S. Legations, in Sofia, Bulgaria, and in Budapest, Hungary, were upgraded to an Embassy on November 28, 1966. Where those ranks still exist, their incumbents usually act as embassy section chiefs or Deputy Chief of mission.


  • Any diplomat who heads a diplomatic mission is known as chief of mission or head of mission. Chiefs of mission in nearly all cases hold the rank of ambassador, high commissioner, papal nuncio, envoy, or minister resident.
  • The term deputy chief of mission or deputy head of mission refers to the chief deputy to the chief of mission—the second-highest post at the diplomatic mission.
  • Ambassadors and high commissioners are given the title "His Excellency" or "Her Excellency", often abbreviated as H.E.
  • A diplomatic mission headed by an ambassador is known as an embassy. A diplomatic mission headed by a high commissioner is called a high commission.
  • The body of diplomats and foreign policy officers maintained by the government of a country to communicate with the governments of other countries is referred to as the diplomatic service or foreign service.
  • All the diplomats that are assigned to a nation are known collectively as the diplomatic corps (French: corps diplomatique). One of these diplomats is often recognized as the primus inter pares (first among equals). This diplomat is referred to as the dean of the diplomatic corps. Traditionally, this is the most senior diplomat in the country, as determined by date of arrival in country or presentation of credentials, although in some Catholic nations it is automatically the papal nuncio.

Modern diplomats

Bilateral diplomacy

The distinction between managers and officers is not necessarily as apparent. Senior officers (such as first and second secretaries) often manage junior diplomats and locally-hired staff.

In modern diplomatic practice there are a number of diplomatic ranks below Ambassador. Since most missions are now headed by an Ambassador, these ranks now rarely indicate a mission's (or its host nation's) relative importance, but rather reflect the diplomat's individual seniority within their own nation's diplomatic career path and in the diplomatic corps in the host nation:

  • Ambassador (High Commissioner in Commonwealth missions); Ambassador at large
  • Minister
  • Minister-Counselor
  • Counselor
  • First Secretary
  • Second Secretary
  • Third Secretary
  • Attaché
  • Assistant Attaché

Chargé d'affaires

Chargé d'affaires[p] and "chargé d'affaires, ad interim" (or simply a.i.) are separate titles used when an Ambassador (or other head of mission) is not present, has not been appointed, or is otherwise not able to discharge duties in a specific location. Generally, the ad interim (temporary) "chargé" (as they are often known) is another staff member (usually the second-most senior officer) accredited in the host country for the head of mission's temporary absences. In such cases, the diplomatic mission advises the local government (usually the foreign ministry) by means of a diplomatic note that a specific individual has been appointed chargé for a specific or indefinite period of time. In contrast to an Ambassador, the specific agreement of the host government is not required.


The term "attaché"[p2] is used for any diplomatic agent who does not fit in the standard diplomatic ranks, often because they are not (or were not traditionally) members of the sending country's diplomatic service or foreign ministry, and were therefore only "attached" to the diplomatic mission. The most frequent use is for military attachés, but the diplomatic title may be used for any specific individual or position as required. Since administrative and technical staff benefit from only limited diplomatic immunity, some countries may routinely appoint support staff as attachés. Attaché does not, therefore, denote any rank or position (except in Soviet and post-Soviet diplomatic services, where attaché is the lowest diplomatic rank of a career diplomat). Note that many traditional functionary roles, such as press attaché or cultural attaché, are not formal titles in diplomatic practice, although they may be used as a matter of custom.

Multilateral diplomacy

Furthermore, outside this traditional pattern of bilateral diplomacy, as a rule on a permanent residency basis (though sometimes doubling elsewhere), certain ranks and positions were created specifically for multilateral diplomacy:

  • An Ambassador at Large is equivalent of an Ambassador and assigned specific tasks or region in which he is assigned various assignments aimed at multi track diplomacy.
  • A permanent representative is the equivalent of an ambassador, normally of that rank, but accredited to an international body (mainly by member—and possibly observer states), not to a head of state.
  • A resident representative (or sometimes simply representative) is the equivalent—in rank and privileges—of an ambassador, but accredited by an international organization (generally a United Nations agency, or a Bretton Woods institution) to a country's government. The resident representative typically heads the country office of that international organization within that country.
  • A special ambassador is a government's specialist diplomat in a particular field, not posted in residence, but often traveling around the globe.
  • The U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) is an ambassador of cabinet rank, in charge of U.S. delegations in multilateral trade negotiations (since 1962). The USTR's Special Agricultural Negotiator also typically holds an ambassadorial appointment.

Special envoys

Special Envoys have been created ad hoc by individual countries, regional powers and the United Nations. A few examples are provided below:

  • Belgium: In 2005, former cabinet member, Pierre Chevalier served as Special Envoy of the OSCE presidency to mediate in the Gazprom natural gas-pipeline crisis involving Russia, Ukraine and the EU.
  • India: During the 2006 democracy movement in Nepal, India sent on April 18 Karan Singh, who is related to royalty in both predominantly Hindu countries, as Special Envoy to neighbouring Nepal where increasingly violent opposition started its successful challenge of the king's autocratic rule
  • The UK has appointed special envoys from time to time.[2]
  • The EU has appointed various Special Representatives (some regional, some thematic); e.g. in 2005—as a response to events in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan—the Council of the EU appointed Jan Kubis as its "Special Representative for Central Asia".
  • The United States has appointed numerous special envoys including a Special Envoy for Northern Ireland with the diplomatic rank of Ambassador to help with the Northern Ireland peace process. As of 2008, the position was occupied by Paula Dobriansky. Special Envoys have been appointed for Sudan, Middle East Peace, Eurasian Energy, Climate Change, and Human Rights in North Korea. Other posts include Special Representative, Special Advisor, and Special Coordinator.[3]

Usage worldwide

Most countries worldwide have some form of internal rank, roughly parallel to the diplomatic ranks, which are used in their foreign service or civil service in general. The correspondence is not exact, however, for various reasons, including the fact that according to diplomatic usage, all Ambassadors are of equal rank, but clearly Ambassadors of more senior rank are sent to more important postings. Some countries may make specific links or comparisons to military ranks.

In the United States Foreign Service

In the United States Foreign Service,the personnel system under which most U.S. diplomatic personnel are assigned, a system of personal ranks is applied which roughly corresponds to these diplomatic ranks. Personal ranks are differentiated as "Senior Foreign Service" (SFS) or "Member of the Foreign Service".[5]

The SFS ranks, in descending order, are:

  1. Career Ambassador, awarded to career diplomats with extensive and distinguished service;
  2. Career Minister, the highest regular senior rank;
  3. Minister-Counselor; and
  4. Counselor.

In U.S. terms, these correspond to four-, three-, two- and one-star general and flag officers in the military, respectively. Officers at these ranks may serve as ambassadors and occupy the most senior positions in diplomatic missions.

Members of the Foreign Service consist of two groups, Foreign Service Officers and Foreign Service Specialists. Ranks descend from the highest, FS-1, equivalent to a full Colonel in the military, to FS-9, the lowest rank in the U.S. Foreign Service personnel system.[6] (Most entry-level Foreign Service members begin at the FS-5 or FS-6 level.) Personal rank is distinct from and should not be confused with the diplomatic or consular rank assigned at the time of appointment to a particular diplomatic or consular mission.

In a large mission, several Senior Foreign Service Officers may serve under the Ambassador as Minister-Counselors, Counselors, and First Secretaries; in a small mission, an FS-2 may serve as the lone Counselor of Embassy.

British Diplomatic Service

As in the U.S. Foreign Service, Her Majesty's Diplomatic Service differentiates between officers in the "Senior Management Structure" (SMS; equivalent to the Senior Civil Service grades of the Home Civil Service) and those in the "delegated grades". SMS officers are classified into three pay-bands, and will serve in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London as (in descending order of seniority) Permanent Under-Secretary, Directors-General, Directors, or Heads of Department; overseas they will be Ambassadors (High Commissioners in Commonwealth countries), or Consuls-General, Deputy Heads of Mission or Counsellors for larger posts. (Deputy Heads of Mission at the historically most significant Embassies, for example those in Washington and Paris, are known as Ministers.)

In the "delegated grades", officers are graded by number from 1 to 7; the grades are grouped into bands lettered A–D (grades 1 and 2 are in Band A; 3 in B; 4 and 5 in C; and 6 and 7 in D). Overseas, A2 grade officers hold the title of Attache, B3-grade officers are Third Secretaries; C4s are Second Secretaries; and C5s and D6s are First Secretaries. D7 officers are usually Deputy Heads of Mission in medium-sized posts or Heads of Mission in small posts.

In the British Civil Service grades rank from 7 up to 1, with grade 1 being Permanent Secretary. Grade 7 was formerly known as Principal Officer, grade 6 as Senior Principal Officer. Equally pay band A is the most senior, with B, C and D following. The 1 to 7 grading system in the UK is the reverse to that of the US where higher numbers denote higher seniority.

If Head of Mission and Deputy Head of Mission is senior to First Secretary followed by Second and Third Secretary then these ranks should logically follow the seniority of grades in the Home Civil Service.

In the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

Officers from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) are graded into four broadbands (BB1 to BB4), with the Senior Executive Service (SES Band 1 to SES Band 3) following above.

Ambassadors, High Commissioners and Consuls-General usually come from the Senior Executive Service, although in smaller posts the head of mission may be a BB4 officer. Generally speaking (and there are variation in ranking and nomenclature between posts and positions), Counsellors are represented by BB4 officers; Consuls and First and Second Secretaries are BB3 officers and Third Secretaries and Vice Consuls are BB2 officers. DFAT only posts a limited number of low level BB1 staff abroad. In large missions an SES officer who is not the head of mission could be posted with the rank of Minister.

Consular counterpart

Formally the consular career (ranking in descending order: Consul-General, Consul, Vice-Consul, Consular Agent; equivalents with consular immunity limited to offcial acts only include Honorary Consul-General, Honorary Consul, and Honorary Vice-Consul) forms a separate hierarchy. Many countries do not internally have a separate consular path or stream, and the meaning of "consular" responsibilities and functions will differ from country to country. Other titles, including "Vice Consul-General", have existed in the past. Consular titles may be used concurrently with diplomatic titles if the individual is assigned to an embassy. Diplomatic immunity is more limited for consular officials without other diplomatic accreditation, and broadly limited to immunity with respect to their official duties.

At a separate consular post, the official will have only a consular title. Officials at consular posts may therefore have consular titles, but not be involved in traditional consular activities, and actually be responsible for trade, cultural, or other matters.

Consular officers, being nominally more distant from the politically sensitive aspects of diplomacy, can more easily render a wide range of services to private citizens, enterprises, et cetera. They may be more numerous since diplomatic missions are posted only in a nation's capital, while consular officials are stationed in various other cities as well. However, it is not uncommon for individuals to be transferred from one hierarchy to the other, and for consular officials to serve in a capital carrying out strictly consular duties within the 'consular section' of a diplomatic post, e.g. within an embassy. Some countries routinely provide their Embassy officials with consular commissions, including those without formal consular responsibilities, since a consular commission allows the individual to legalize documents, sign certain documents, and undertake certain other necessary functions.

Depending on the practice of the individual country, "consular services" may be limited to services provided for citizens or residents of the sending country, or extended to include, for example, visa services for nationals of the host country.

Sending nations may also designate incumbents of certain positions as holding consulary authority by virtue of their office, while lacking individual accreditation, immunity and inviolability. For example, 10 U.S.C. §§ 936 and 1044a identify various U.S. military officers (and authorize the service secretaries to identify others) who hold general authority as a notary and consul of the United States for, respectively, purposes of military administration and those entitled to military legal assistance. A nation may also declare that its senior merchant sea captain in a given foreign port—or its merchant sea captains generally—has consulary authority for merchant seamen.

See also


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