The United States Department of State was created on July 27, 1789 as the Department of Foreign Affairs and given responsibility for assigning and managing diplomatic personnel and US foreign affairs. On September 15, 1789 Congress passed legislation that changed the name to the Department of State and assigned it the tasks of receiving, publishing, distributing, and preserving the laws of the US. It was also made responsible for the custody of the Great Seal of the United States, for authenticating documents containing Presidential appointments (such as Supreme Court justices), and for preserving and protecting the papers and records of the Continental Congress. On September 29, 1789, President George Washington appointed Thomas Jefferson as the first United States Secretary of State.

Today's Department of State continues this mission, operating embassies and consulates in most states the US has diplomatic relations with, managing dozens of smaller governmental agencies with specific areas of responsibility, and leading the process of forming and implementing American foreign policy. The Department employees tens of thousands of people in the US and abroad and had a 2001 budget appropriation of just under $10 billion.

The State Department is organized into a large number of individual bureaus and offices, some of them reporting to the Secretary of State and some reporting to one of six undersecretaries that has responsibility for a certain functional area.

Bureaus and offices of the State Department reporting to the Secretary of State

Office of the Secretary
Comprises the Secretary of State, the Secretary's Chief of Staff, Deputy Chief of Staff, and other administrative personnel. This office is responsible for managing the day-to-day activities of the Secretary of State. This includes scheduling, political function planning, and travel.
Executive Secretariat
Responsible for co-ordination of internal Department affairs and relations with the White House, Cabinet agencies, and the National Security Council. Reports to the Secretary of State
Policy Planning Staff
Independent policy analysis for the Secretary of State.
Office of Resources, Plans, and Policy
Manages the international budget of the Department of State and allocates State Department resources according to official State Department priorities.
Office of Protocol
Advises the Secretary and the President on matters of international protocol. Assists in planning, hosting, and officiating of ceremonial events for foreign dignitaries. Also manages Blair House, the President's official guesthouse.
Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism
Development and implementation of US international terrorism and counterterrorism policy.
Office of the Permanent Representative to the United Nations
Responsible for developing, implementing, and supporting US policy at the United Nations.
Bureau of Legislative Affairs
Liaison between State Department and Congress.
Office of the Inspector General
Independent auditor of all activities of the State Department.
Office of the Legal Advisor
Provides advice on all legal matters, whether domestic or international, that arise as part of the State Department's mission.

In addition to the offices listed above there are six undersecretaries that report to the Secretary of State. Each of them manages a particular functional area and is in charge of a broad array of offices and bureaus designed to support their particular mission.

  • Political Affairs
  • Economic, Business, and Agricultural Affairs
  • Arms Control and International Security
  • Global Affairs
  • Management
  • Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs

Under Secretary of Political Affairs

This office provides crises management and limited intelligence to the State Department. It is organized into seven bureaus, six broken out along geographic lines and one focusing on international organizations.

Bureaus and offices reporting to the Undersecretary of Political Affairs

Under Secretary of Economic, Business, and Agricultural Affairs

This under secretary is the senior economic official at the State Department. He advises on international economic policy and manages the Department's efforts on trade, agriculture, and bilateral economic relations.

Bureaus and offices reporting to the Under Secretary of Economic, Business, and Agricultural Affairs

  • Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs

Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security Affairs

Manages US policy in several security related areas including nonproliferation, arms control, defense relations, and arms transfer (selling of munitions and items categorized as munitions, such as cryptography software).

Bureaus and offices reporting to the Under Secretary of Arms Control and International Security

Under Secretary for Management

Administrative support for the State Department. Responsible for IT infrastructure, support services for domestic and overseas staff, recruitment, personnel, benefits, and other human resources functions.

Bureaus and offices reporting to the Under Secretary of Management

  • Office of Management Policy and Planning
  • Chief Information Officer
  • Foreign Service Institute
  • Director of Human Resources
  • Bureau of Administration
  • Bureau of Consular Affairs
  • Bureau of Diplomatic Security
  • Bureau of Financial Management and Policy

Under Secretary for Global Affairs

Coordinates, develops, and plans US foreign relations on issues including human rights, narcotics control, environmental issues, and population, refugees and migration.

Bureaus and offices reporting to the Under Secretary of Global Affairs

  • Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
  • Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs
  • Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs
  • Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration

Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs

Responsible for cultural, diplomatic, and educational exchange with other nations.

Bureaus and offices reporting to the Under Secretary of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs

  • Bureau of Public Affairs
  • Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs
  • Office of International Information Programs

Secretaries of State

  1. Thomas Jefferson, 1789-1793
  2. Edmund Randolph, 1794-1795
  3. Timothy Pickering, 1795-1800
  4. John Marshall, 1800-1801
  5. James Madison, 1801-1809
  6. Robert Smith, 1809-1811
  7. James Monroe, 1811-1817
  8. John Quincy Adams, 1817-1825
  9. Henry Clay, 1825-1829
  10. Martin Van Buren, 1826-1831
  11. Edward Livingston, 1831-1833
  12. Louis McLane, 1833-1834
  13. John Forsyth, 1834-1841
  14. Daniel Webster, 1841-1843
  15. Abel P. Upshur, 1843-1844
  16. John C. Calhoun, 1843-1845
  17. James Buchanan, 1845-1849
  18. John M. Clayton, 1849-1850
  19. Daniel Webster, 1850-1852
  20. Edward Everett, 1852-1853
  21. William L. Marcy, 1853-1857
  22. Lewis Cass, 1853-1860
  23. Jeremiah S. Black, 1860-1861
  24. William H. Seward, 1861-1869
  25. Elihu B. Washburne, 1869
  26. Hamilton Fish, 1869-1877
  27. William M. Evarts, 1877-1881
  28. James G. Blaine, 1881
  29. Frederick T. Frelinghuysen, 1881-1885
  30. Thomas F. Bayard, 1885-1889
  31. James G. Blaine, 1889-1892
  32. John W. Foster, 1892-1893
  33. Walter Q. Gresham, 1893-1895
  34. Richard Olney, 1895-1897
  35. John Sherman, 1897-1898
  36. William R. Day, 1898
  37. John Hay, 1898-1905
  38. Elihu Root, 1905-1909
  39. Robert Bacon, 1909
  40. Philander C. Knox, 1909-1913
  41. William Jennings Bryan, 1913-1915
  42. Robert Lansing, 1915-1920
  43. Bainbridge Colby, 1920-1921
  44. Charles Evans Hughes, 1921-1925
  45. Frank B. Kellogg, 1925-1929
  46. Henry Lewis Stimson, 1929-1933
  47. Cordell Hull, 1933-1944
  48. Edward R.Stettinius, Jr., 1944-1945
  49. James F. Byrnes, 1945-1947
  50. George C. Marshall, 1947-1949
  51. Dean G. Acheson, 1949-1953
  52. John Foster Dulles, 1953-1959
  53. Christian A. Herter, 1959-1961
  54. Dean Rusk, 1961-1969
  55. William P. Rogers 1969-1973
  56. Henry A. Kissinger, 1973-1977
  57. Cyrus Vance, 1977-1980
  58. Edmund Sixtus Muskie, 1980-1981
  59. Alexander Meigs Haig, Jr., 1981-1982
  60. George P. Shultz, 1982-1989
  61. James Addison Baker, III, 1989-1992
  62. Lawrence S. Eagleburger,1992-1993
  63. Warren M. Christopher, 1993-1997
  64. Madeleine K. Albright, 1997-2001
  65. Colin L. Powell, 2001-


Traditionally speaking, the State Department is supposed to be the primary component of the international relations of the United States of America. This is not, however, the case: a variety of bureaucratic units have claimed turf from State ever since World War II. These would include the Department of Defense, Department of Commerce, United States Trade Representative, and Central Intelligence Agency.

So what, exactly, does the State Department do? dg has done an excellent job in describing its structure, but its function is another matter entirely. Let's look at the people involved in the State Department, starting with its backbone:

The Foreign Service Officer

Several thousand FSO's are employed by State. Many work at the department's headquarters in Foggy Bottom, Washington, DC: many more are stationed at embassies in the hundred-some countries with which the United States has formal relations. They staff all of the bureaus already mentioned in this node.

FSO's are an intellectual elite within the government. Most are male, most are Caucasian, and most are graduates of an Ivy League institution. All have passed the State Department's Foreign Service Examination, which includes a written portion and an in the flesh, boot camp-style crisis management portion. Almost all are fluent in a foreign language, or two, or ten.

These guys in suits are absolute experts on diplomacy, as well they should be. In Washington, their jobs consist mainly of intelligence analysis for their big boss in the White House... intelligence that is often ignored in favor of the CIA or DIA's data, but that is often heeded.

In the field, many FSO's spend most of their time in shuttle diplomacy, meeting with officials of their host government to explain what the United States want, using the necessary kowtowing procedures that an untrained American agent wouldn't. When coups or civil unrest are going on, as they are going on in a quarter of the world at any given moment, an FSO's job can be especially difficult. More on that later. (Other overseas FSO's have similar jobs to their desk jockey counterparts back home.)

Let's look at another animal:

The Ambassador

Ambassadors are appointed directly by the President, and come in two basic varieties. Most American ambassadors in the developing world are aging FSO's who have been promoted from the line of duty. Virtually all American ambassadors in the developed world, on the other hand, are either friends of, or major contributors to the last campaign of, the sitting President (Terry McAuliffe and James C. Hormel are two infamous examples from the Clinton administration).

This makes sense, if you think about it. Ambassadorships are a great patronage gift after a successful campaign: who wouldn't want to be the U.S. Ambassador to France, Japan, or Germany? The intergovernmental links between these countries are so strong that the State Department doesn't have to do much, anyway, except organize white tie balls. Islands in the Caribbean are also popular ambassadorships for presidential benefactors: think of it as a paid vacation in Jamaica.

At the same time, no wealthy Americans want to be sent to Nicaragua or Zimbabwe, and even if they did go there, they wouldn't have the slightest clue about how to deal with the locals. So the elder FSO's are excellent candidates for these tough jobs, as they already have a great deal of experience in foreign relations and diplomacy.

Some other outsiders with specialized knowledge occasionally receive ambassadorships under extraordinary circumstances: the only one I can name off the top of my head is Edwin O. Reischauer.

Our Hands Are Tied

My inspiration for noding this is a spur of the moment one. Today, we had a former distinguished FSO turned ambassador, who is now a dean at our university, speak to our foreign policy class. He delivered a mundane, professorial lecture for half an hour or so, and then answered a couple of equally mundane questions before getting one from out of nowhere. One girl in the back of the room asked, in paraphrase, "What was the most difficult decision you had to make as an FSO?"

The old dean thought for a moment about that, and then answered (also in paraphrase):

I suppose it was when I was working at the embassy in Liberia. Back then, there was a civil war going on. They said that 200,000 people died in the war, but nobody really knows to this day: you could say 50,000 or 500,000 and still prove that your numbers are right.

The military didn't want to intervene to stop the violence, and so I had to go to the leaders and tell them that the Marines wouldn't be coming to save the day. Now, Liberia was founded by freed slaves, and they've always been close to the United States. One of the men burst out in anger, saying—if you'll excuse the term, because this was the term he used—that we thought the Liberians were a bunch of worthless niggers.

The rebel forces were only four days away from the capital, and the leaders knew that once they were found, they would be killed. We had to sign their death warrant.

Incidentally, before my next class, I was flipping through the school paper, and happened across an article about foreign graduate students protesting a new INS fee that was leaving financial holds on their accounts. The same dean who spoke to us was quoted in the article as saying there wasn't much that could be done about it.

The moral of the story?

Like life itself, the State Department is a bitch.

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