|The ability to practice diplomacy
is one of the defining elements of a state, and diplomacy has been
practiced since the formation of the first city-states. Originally
diplomats were sent only for specific negotiations, and would return
immediately after their mission concluded. Diplomats were usually
relatives of the ruling family or of very high rank in order to give
them legitimacy when they sought to negotiate with the other state.
One notable exception involved the relationship between the Pope
and the Byzantine Emperor. Papal agents, called apocrisiarii, were
permanently resident in Constantinople. After the 8th century,
however, conflicts between the Pope and the Emperor (such as the
Iconoclastic controversy) led to the breaking down of these close
Modern diplomacy's origins are often traced to the states of
Northern Italy in the early Renaissance, with the first embassies
being established in the thirteenth century. Milan played a leading
role, especially under Francesco Sforza who established permanent
embassies to the other cities states of Northern Italy. It was in
Italy that many of the traditions of modern diplomacy began, such as
the presentation of an ambassador's credentials to the head of
The practice spread from Italy to the other European powers.
Milan was the first to send a representative to the court of France
in 1455. Milan however refused to host French representatives
fearing espionage and possible intervention in internal affairs. As
foreign powers such as France and Spain became increasingly involved
in Italian politics the need to accept emissaries was recognized.
Soon all the major European powers were exchanging representatives.
Spain was the first to send a permanent representative when it
appointed an ambassador to the Court of England in 1487. By the late
16th century, permanent missions became the standard.
Many of the conventions of modern diplomacy developed during this
period. The top rank of representatives was an ambassador. An
ambassador at this time was almost always a nobleman - the
rank of the noble varied with the prestige of the country he was
posted to. Defining standards emerged for ambassadors, requiring
that they have large residences, host lavish parties, and play an
important role in the court life of the host nation. In Rome, the
most important post for Catholic ambassadors, the French and Spanish
representatives sometimes maintained a retinue of up to a hundred
people. Even in smaller posts, ambassadors could be very expensive.
Smaller states would send and receive envoys who were one level
below an ambassador.
Ambassadors from each state were ranked by complex codes of
precedence that were much disputed. States were normally ranked by
the title of the sovereign; for Catholic nations the emissary from
the Vatican was paramount, then those from the kingdoms, then those
from duchies and principalities. Representatives from republics were
considered the lowest envoys.
Ambassadors at that time were nobles with little foreign or
diplomatic experience and needed to be supported by a large embassy
staff. These professionals were sent on longer assignments and were
far more knowledgeable about the host country. Embassy
staff consisted of a wide range of employees, including some
dedicated to espionage. The need for skilled individuals to staff
embassies was met by the graduates of universities, and this led to
an increase in the study of international law, modern languages, and
history at universities throughout Europe.
At the same time, permanent foreign ministries were established
in almost all European states to coordinate embassies and their
staffs. These ministries were still far from their modern form. Many
had extraneous internal responsibilities. Britain had two
departments with frequently overlapping powers until 1782. These
early foreign ministries were also much smaller. France, which
boasted the largest foreign affairs department, had only 70
full-time employees in the 1780s.
The elements of modern diplomacy slowly spread to Eastern Europe
and arrived in Russia by the early eighteenth century. The entire
system was greatly disrupted by the French Revolution and the
subsequent years of warfare. The revolution would see commoners take
over the diplomacy of the French state, and of those conquered by
revolutionary armies. Ranks of precedence were abolished. Napoleon
also refused to acknowledge diplomatic immunity, imprisoning several
British diplomats accused of scheming against France. He had no
patience for the often slow moving process of formal diplomacy.
After the fall of Napoleon, the Congress of Vienna of 1815
established an international system of diplomatic rank. Disputes on
precedence among nations (and the appropriate diplomatic ranks used)
persisted for over a century until after World War II, when the rank
of ambassador became the norm.