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Vienna and the codification of diplomatic law

By: Randall Lesaffer

Among the legacies of the Congress of Vienna, the most enduring pertains to the organisation of permanent diplomacy. The regulation of the offices of diplomacy which were adopted by the powers convened at Vienna in 1815 remains valid 200 years later.

The 17th and final of the treaties and declarations which were signed at Vienna and incorporated into the Final Act of the Congress of Vienna of 9 June 1815 (64 CTS 453) was the Regulation on the Precedence of Diplomatic Agents of 19 March 1815 (64 CTS 1). Like the other major declarations and treaties from the Vienna Congress, the Regulation was an agreement between the eight great powers which dominated the Vienna Congress. Seven of these eight also signed the Final Act, whilst the eighth power Spain and some minor powers later acceded to it.

The Vienna Regulation introduced new rules about diplomatic organisation and precedence which thoroughly overhauled the traditions of the ancien régime. Article 1 of the Regulation distinguished between three hierarchical categories of diplomatic representatives: full ambassadors, legates, or nuntii; envoys or ministers who were accredited to heads of State; and finally chargés d’affaires who were accredited to minister of foreign affairs. To these three categories, the act of the Conference of Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle) of 21 November 1818 (69 CTS 385) added a fourth that fell between the second and the third. Article 4 of the Vienna Regulation of 1815 was the most innovative from the Regulation. It stipulated that the ranking of the members of the diplomatic corps of the same class would be determined by the date of the official notification of their arrival. 

The Vienna Regulation remains the basis for the organisation of modern diplomacy until today. Its classification of diplomatic offices and the principal rule about precedence were generally applied in Europe throughout the 19th century and were adopted by non-European States throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. When the customs and practices were codified in the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 18 April 1961 (500 UNTS 95), these rules were included as part of it.

To the great powers at Vienna in 1815 the Regulation was a major achievement with relation to a very sensitive issue. Its accomplishment lay as much as in what it abolished as in what it created. With Article 4, the great powers broke with the old rules about precedence, which had been a major cause for disputes among diplomats and their principals ever since the rise of early-modern diplomacy in the 16th century.

In Early-Modern Europe, the relative rank and precedence among diplomats had been a question of the highest note. As diplomats were representatives of their sovereigns, any mark of honour or dishonour was seen to reflect directly on the honour of the diplomat’s sovereign. In a context where honour and reputation were essential pillars of authority and government, the ceremony and rituals of diplomatic relations were laden down by the full weight of the constant competition between the princes and republics of Europe that marked early-modern international relations within Europe.

Traditions and customs dictated the order of precedence among princes and republic, which directly translated into the precedence which was given to their representatives in a diplomatic corps. But although some general rules were broadly accepted, complete consent eluded the governments of Europe at all times. By consequence, the history of early-modern European diplomacy is ripe with incidents about precedence between diplomats. It was generally recognised that, after the papal nuntii, the representatives of the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire held the first place. But beyond that point there was no universal agreement. After the Habsburg inheritance was split at the abdication of Charles V in 1555–1556, his son Philip II (1555–1598) and his successors as kings of Spain who had ceded the imperial title to the junior branch of the Habsburg house refused to grant precedence to the kings of France, thus starting a centuries-long dispute about who was the first among kings. At the imperial court of the Austrian Habsburgs, the Spanish ambassadors were henceforth given precedence over the French, leading the French king not to send a full ambassador but a representative of a lower rank to lessen the slight. That the Vienna Regulation aspired to make a clean break with past bickering is revealed by Article 6, which precludes receiving States from diverting from the new rule of precedence because of dynastic relations or family pacts.

The great powers at the Vienna Congress wanted a clean break from these past troubles once and for all. They did so at a time when sustaining the old system would have been very unpractical. The old sensitivity about rank had already lost much of its importance during the later 18th century, when more rational concerns about the balance of power pushed worries about ceremonial rank to the background. But more importantly, the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars had dramatically overhauled the order of Europe, making the traditional ranking of powers largely obsolete as so many old powers had disappeared – starting with the Holy Roman Empire – while other princes had been promoted and new powers created. Settling a new order of precedence would have been a delicate, if not downright impossible, task for the negotiators at Vienna.

The new rule of Article 4 replaced the old rules of precedence between States with the principle of ceremonial equality. This the great powers did at exactly the same time as they had claimed for themselves the leadership of the European society of States. Although the representatives of over 220 powers assembled at Vienna, the Congress was never a conference between all these. Its business was led by a committee of first the eight, and then the five great powers who were very vocal about claiming that they held responsibility and thus authority for settling the peace and creating a new political and legal order of Europe. Whilst their diplomatic regulation abolished the rules of precedence between all powers, its main purpose was to abolish those between themselves. The new principle of ceremonial equality overarched the more substantial distinction between great and other powers which became a hallmark of the order of Europe in the 19th century, and which would remain one until today through its institutional embedment in the structures of the League of Nations and the United Nations.



M.S. Anderson, The Rise of Modern Diplomacy 1450-1919 (London and New York: Longman, 1993).

Garrett Mattingly, Renaissance Diplomacy (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1955; reprint, New York: Dover Publications, 1988).

Ivor Roberts (ed.), Satow’s Diplomatic Practice (6th edn., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

Gerry Simpson, Great Powers and Outlaw States. Unequal Sovereigns in the International Legal Order (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004)