Diplomatic rank

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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 head of mission, formally representing the head of state, with plenipotentiary powers (i.e., full authority to represent the government). An Ambassador representing the Holy See is known as the papal nuncio. Diplomatic appointments in the Anglican Communion are usually episcopal commissary, commissary and envoy. Ambassadors are entitled to use the title "His/Her Excellency".
    • Among Commonwealth countries, which share a common head of state, 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. An Envoy is a head of mission, not considered a representative of the head of state, but nonetheless with plenipotentiary powers (i.e., full authority to represent the government). Envoys are also entitled to use the title "His/Her Excellency".
  3. Minister Resident or Resident Minister. Introduced by the Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle (1818), this is the lowest rank of full head of mission, above only chargé d'affaires (who are considered substitutes or acting chiefs of mission).
  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.

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 its 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 Budapest, Hungary, were upgraded to embassies on November 28, 1966. Where those ranks still exist, their incumbents usually act as embassy section chiefs or Deputy Chief of mission.


In accordance with the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, diplomats are not regarded as having officially taken up their duties until they receive diplomatic accreditation. This is done by means of a letter of credence (a formal letter from the head of state of the sending nation) which is presented by a new head of mission to the head of state of the receiving nation. (A chargé d'affaires is accredited not to the head of state, but to the foreign minister of the receiving state instead.)

  • Embassy: A diplomatic mission headed by an Ambassador
  • High Commission: A diplomatic mission headed by a High Commissioner
  • Legation: A diplomatic mission headed by an Envoy or a Minister Resident

Note that the building in which the diplomatic mission is housed is a "Chancery", and as such it is technically incorrect to refer to the building as an "embassy".

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 the country or presentation of credentials, although in some Catholic nations it is ex officio the papal nuncio.

Some of the job titles are French, as French used to be known as the language of diplomacy.[2]

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 to other Commonwealth countries); ambassador at large
  • Minister
  • Minister-Counsellor
  • Counsellor
  • 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 also a member of the diplomatic corps, but is below the rank of ambassador. A representative is 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:

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.

Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

Officers from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) are graded into four broad bands (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 Australian missions an SES officer who is not the head of mission could be posted with the rank of Minister.

British Diplomatic 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 in 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 United States 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.

French Diplomatic Service

There are four ranks in the French Diplomatic Service: (in ascending order)

  • Secrétaire des affaires étrangères or Secretaries
  • Conseiller des affaires étrangères or Counsellors
  • Ministre plénipotentiaire, the most common rank for heads of mission, but it also applies to some ministers-counsellors in important embassies
  • Ambassadeur de France, an honorary dignity

Brazilian Diplomatic Service

There are six ranks in the Brazilian Ministry of External Affairs (Itamaraty):

  • Terceiro-Secretário ("Third secretary")
  • Segundo-Secretário ("Second secretary")
  • Primeiro-Secretário ("First secretary")
  • Conselheiro ("Counsellor")
  • Ministro de Segunda Classe ("Minister, second class")
  • Ministro de Primeira Classe ("Minister, first class")

Embaixador is the honorary dignity conceded permanently when a Minister of First Class assumes a Post overseas. It can also be a temporary assignment, when carried on by a lower-rank diplomat or Brazilian politician of high level.

Spanish Diplomatic Corps

After the merger of the Consular and Diplomatic Corps, the current eight grades of Spanish career diplomats are (in ascending order):

  • Funcionario en prácticas, title held during the one-year training program at the Diplomatic School.
  • Secretario de Embajada de tercera clase or Secretary.
  • Secretario de Embajada de segunda clase.
  • Secretario de Embajada de primera clase.
  • Consejero or Concillor, lowest grade to be appointed Consul-General.
  • Ministro Plenipotenciario de tercera clase, commonly known as Minister, lowest grade to be appointed Ambassador.
  • Ministro Plenipotenciario de segunda clase.
  • Ministro Plenipotenciario de primera clase.
  • Embajador de España, not all Spanish Ambassadors hold this grade, which is limited by law to 3% of the total Corps.

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".[7]

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 (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 five groups, including Foreign Service Officers and Foreign Service Specialists.[8] Like officers in the U.S. military, Foreign Service Officers are members of the Foreign Service who are commissioned by the President.[9] As with Warrant Officers in the U.S. military, Foreign Service Specialists are technical leaders and experts, commissioned not by the President but by the Secretary of State.[10] 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.[11] (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 Diplomats may serve under the Ambassador as Minister-Counselors, Counselors, and First Secretaries; in a small mission, a diplomat may serve as the lone Counselor of Embassy.

Consular counterpart

Formally the consular career (ranking in descending order: consul-general, consul, vice-consul, consular agent; equivalents with consular immunity limited to official 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

Notes and references

  1. "Réglement du 19 Mars 1815 sur le Rang entre les Agents Diplomatiques" (original French text, English translation (footnote 6 on p. 135)), later appended to the "Acte du Congrès de Vienne du 9 Juin 1815", Article 118.17. Amended by a protocol signed at the Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle on 21 November 1818 (original French text (footnote 7 p. 152), English translation (footnote 7 on p. 136))
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