Department of State, United States

Department of State, United States


The Department of State is a cabinet-level division of the United States government concerned with the planning, conduct, and management of U.S. foreign policy and foreign relations. The secretary of state is the highest-ranking member of the cabinet, and traditionally, secretaries of state have been among the most powerful members of the government. The State Department includes six major sections, each headed by an under secretary of state, concerned with Political Affairs; Economic, Business, and Agricultural Affairs; Arms Control and International Security; Global Affairs; Management; and Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. The department manages some 250 diplomatic posts worldwide, along with a number of special offices, bureaus, and agencies tasked to address issues such as counterterrorism, arms control and proliferation, organized crime, and narcotics trafficking. Also notable is the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), through which the United States extends assistance to nations recovering from disasters or trying to improve their political and/or economic conditions.


Oldest executive department of the federal government, the State Department grew out of the Committee of Secret Correspondence, established by the Continental Congress in 1775. Its first chairman was Benjamin Franklin. Over the next 14 years, the office went through a number of name changes until, on September 15, 1789, Congress designated it the Department of State.

Initially, the department had a range of domestic responsibilities, such as operation of the mint, issuing of patents, and regulation of immigration, that have long since passed on to other departments and bureaus. John Jay, who had served as secretary for foreign affairs (as the title of the chief American diplomat was called between 1781 and 1789) served as acting secretary until President George Washington's appointee, Thomas Jefferson, took office as secretary of state in 1790.

For the next 80 years, appointment as secretary of state tended to be set aside for persons distinguished in politics or government, but not necessarily diplomacy. These included future presidents Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, and James Buchanan, as well as other notable leaders, mostly from Congress, including Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, John C. Calhoun, and William H. Seward.

In those early years, America remained largely isolated from the rest of the world, and the State Department saw little activity except in times of war, or when the federal government sought to acquire lands. In the years leading up to the Civil War, Washington sought to ensure European support for the union, a critical matter since Great Britain and France depended to a large degree on cotton from the South.

The State Department only emerged as a vital component of U.S. policy after the Spanish-American War of 1898, as the United States acquired territories overseas and became increasingly involved in foreign affairs. The first modern secretary of state was John Hay, who, during his tenure (1898–1905), negotiated several treaties toward the building of the Panama Canal, and promoted open access to trade in China.

The fact that President Woodrow Wilson went personally to Paris to serve as U.S. negotiator at the post-World War I peace conference shows that even in 1919, the State Department had yet to acquire its present significance. Only in the wake of World War II did the United States, having fully left isolationism behind, begin to place a heavy emphasis on its State Department.

In the early years of the Cold War, three strong secretaries of state—George C. Marshall (1947–49), Dean Acheson (1949–53), and John Foster Dulles (1953–59)—helped forge the framework of U.S. policy. Among the components of that policy were containment of Communism, support for liberal democracies in Europe, and promotion of U.S. interests in the third world. The latter strategy involved not only alliances with pro-American movements, but also assistance. In service of this aim, President John F. Kennedy and Secretary of State Dean Rusk (1961–69) in 1961 created USAID and the Peace Corps. (The latter became an independent agency in 1981.)

Since the Kennedy era, the importance of the secretary of state has risen or fallen depending on the administration. The power of Henry Kissinger's (1973–77) influence was substantial, and was derived from his position as national security advisor, an office he held concurrent with his appointment at state for some time. Among the more active secretaries of State are two from the turn of the twentieth century: Madeleine Albright (1997–2001) and Colin Powell (2001—), who were also the first female and African American, respectively, to hold the position.

Duties and Structure

The State Department has its headquarters in a marshy area, nicknamed Foggy Bottom, near the Potomac River in Washington, D.C. Hence the name "Foggy Bottom" is sometimes used as a metonym for the department itself. The Department's entire foreign affairs budget—including U.S. representation overseas, foreign assistance programs, foreign military training, and efforts against international crime—comprised just one percent of the federal budget, and cost each American citizen about twelve cents a day.

To promote and protect U.S. interests abroad, the State Department works to assure peace and stability in regions of vital interest; to create jobs at home by opening markets overseas; to help developing nations establish stable economies that encourage growth and opportunities; and to bring nations together in order to address global issues such as disease, terrorism, humanitarian crises, environmental threats, weapons proliferation, and nuclear smuggling.

As the lead U.S. foreign affairs agency, the State Department has the primary role in leading interagency coordination in developing and implementing foreign policy; managing the U.S. foreign affairs budget and other foreign affairs resources; leading and coordinating U.S. representation abroad; conducting negotiations and concluding agreements; and coordinating and supporting the international activities of U.S. agencies and officials.

The department maintains embassies in about 180 nations, or all but about a dozen countries (among which are states such as Cuba, Iran, and North Korea), and also has representation with non-governmental organizations such as the United Nations (UN) or NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization). Among the services provided by the department, both as a whole and through its various embassies, are protection and assistance for U.S. citizens living or traveling overseas; assistance for U.S. businesses in the international marketplace; coordination and support for international activities of other U.S. agencies, as well as other diplomatic efforts, including official visits overseas and at home; and keeping the public informed regarding U.S. foreign policy and international relations.

State Department leadership. The significance of the secretary of state, from an official standpoint, is indicated by the fact that he or she is fourth in the line of succession for the presidency, after the Speaker of the House, vice president and president pro tempore of the Senate. As chief diplomat, the secretary of State is the president's principal advisor on foreign affairs, and sits on the National Security Council (NSC) and other important committees. In practice, the importance of the secretary's position depends on the significance accorded to the office, or its holder, by the President. The secretary's relationship with Congress is also important to his or her success, because all authorization of funding for foreign policy initiatives comes from Capitol Hill. Additionally, the Senate must approve all treaties and ambassadorial appointments.

The Office of the Secretary of State includes a number of key positions and personnel, among them the Deputy Secretary and Executive Secretariat. The latter is responsible for inter- and intradepartmental coordination on foreign policy initiatives. Additionally, attached to the Secretary's office are a number of important bureaus, including the Policy Planning Staff, which provides the Secretary with independent policy planning and analysis; the Office of Protocol, whose duties include planning and hosting diplomatic events; the Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism, which works to improve coordination of U.S. counterterrorism efforts with those other governments; and a variety of other offices.

There are other bureaus that, while not attached to the Office of the Secretary, report directly to the Secretary. These include the Office of the Permanent Representative to the United Nations; the Bureau of Legislative Affairs; the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, part of the State Department's participation in the U.S. Intelligence Community; the Office of Inspector General, which independently audits Department activities; the Office of the Legal Adviser; and the Counselor of the Department, who advises the secretary on major foreign policy problems.

Under secretaries and their responsibilities. There are six under secretaries in the State Department. The under secretary of political affairs manages international crises, and is responsible for looking after U.S. political, economic, and security interests in the nation's bilateral relations. The section has six geographic bureaus—for African, East Asian and Pacific, European and Eurasian, Near Eastern, South Asian, and Western Hemisphere affairs—headed by assistant secretaries. Also within Political Affairs is the Bureau of International Organization Affairs, which coordinates U.S. policy within organizations such as the UN and NATO.

The under secretary for Economic, Business, and Agricultural Affairs is the senior economic official at the State Department, and addresses issues involving economics and trade. Duties include coordination of State Department efforts on behalf of U.S. businesses, as well as working with the Commerce Department to promote American economic interests abroad.

Within the purview of the under secretary for Arms Control and International Security are the Bureau of Arms Control, the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, the Nonproliferation Bureau, and the Bureau for Verification and Compliance. As a whole, this section of the State Department is concerned with global U.S. security policy, primarily in the areas of nonproliferation, arms control, regional security and defense relations, arms transfers, and security assistance.

The under secretary for Management oversees a number of offices responsible for management improvement, security, information technology, support services, consular affairs, training, and other personnel matters. Among its sections is the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, which manages the Counterterrorism Rewards Program and the Overseas Security Advisory Council.

Included under the heading of the Global Affairs Group, headed by another under secretary, are offices that address a variety of global issues. Among these are the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor; the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs; the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs; and the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration.

Finally, the under secretary for Public Democracy and Public Affairs is concerned with cultural and educational exchanges, as well as international information programs. Its Bureau of Public Affairs helps Americans understand U.S. foreign policy, while the Bureau of Economic and Cultural Affairs attempts to foster mutual understanding between the Untied States and other nations. The Office of International Information Programs sponsors a variety of information and strategic communication initiatives involving print, electronic media, and the Internet.



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Gore, Albert. Department of State and U.S. Information Agency: Accompanying Report of the National Performance Review. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1993.

Plischke, Elmer. U.S. Department of State: A Reference History. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999.

Principal Officers of the Department of State and United States Chiefs of Mission, 1778–1990. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of State, 1991.

"Reinventing Government": Change at State. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Management, 1993.

State 2000: A New Model for Managing Foreign Affairs: Report of the U.S. Department of State Management Task Force. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1993.


U.S. Agency for International Development. < > (April 25, 2003).

U.S. Department of State. < > (April 25, 2003).


Coordinator for Counterterrorism, United States Office
Department of State Bureau of Intelligence and Research, United States
Diplomatic Security (DS), United States Bureau
FEST (United States Foreign Emergency Support Team)
International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL), United States Bureau
Terrorist Organization List, United States

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