About the US State Department

Person holding a US Passport
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The United States Department of State also referred to as “the State Department” or simply “State,” is the executive branch department of the United States federal government primarily responsible for administering U.S. foreign policy and consulting with the President of the United States and Congress on international diplomatic issues and policies.

The mission statement of the State Department reads: “To advance freedom for the benefit of the American people and the international community by helping to build and sustain a more democratic, secure, and prosperous world composed of well-governed states that respond to the needs of their people, reduce widespread poverty, and act responsibly within the international system.”

The primary functions of the State Department include:

  • Provide protection and assistance for U.S. citizens traveling or living abroad;
  • Assist U.S. businesses and industries operating in the global marketplace;
  • Coordinate and provide support for international activities of other U.S. agencies, official visits overseas and at home, and other diplomatic efforts;
  • Inform the public about U.S. foreign policy and relations with other countries and provide feedback from the public to administration officials.

Similar the foreign ministries in other nations, the State Department conduct international diplomatic relations on the part of the United States by negotiating treaties and other agreements with foreign governments. The State Department also represents the United States in the United Nations. Created in 1789, the State Department was the first executive branch department established after final ratification of the U.S. Constitution.

Headquartered in the Harry S Truman Building in Washington, D.C., the State Department currently operates 294 U.S. embassies around the world and oversees compliance of more than 200 international treaties.

As an agency of the president’s Cabinet, the State Department is led by the Secretary of State, as nominated by the president and confirmed by the U.S. Senate. The Secretary of State is second in the line of presidential succession after the Vice President of the United States.

In addition to assisting with the international activities of other U.S. government agencies, the State Department provides many important services to U.S. citizens traveling and living abroad and to foreign citizens trying to visit or immigrate to the United States.

In perhaps its most publicly noticeable role the State Department issues U.S. Passports to U.S. citizens allowing them to travel to and return from foreign countries and travel visas to U.S. citizens and non-citizen residents.

In addition, the State Department’s Consular Information Program informs the American public of conditions abroad that may affect their safety and security while traveling abroad. Country-specific travel information and global Travel Alerts and Warnings are vital parts of the program.

The State Department also oversees all U.S. foreign aid and development programs such as the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.

All activities of the State Department, including foreign assistance programs, representing the U.S. abroad, countering international crime and human trafficking, and all other services and programs are paid for through the foreign affairs component of the annual federal budget as requested by the president and approved by Congress. On average, the total State Department expenditure represents just over 1% of the total federal budget, projected to exceed $4 trillion in 2017.  

Brief History of the State Department

On July 27, 1789, President George Washington singled a bill passed by the House of Representatives and Senate on July 21, 1789, creating the Department of Foreign Affairs as the first federal agency created under the new Constitution. A law enacted on September 15, 1789, changed the name of the agency to the Department of State and assigned it oversight of a variety of domestic, rather than foreign issues. For example, the law made the Department of State responsible for running the United States Mint and conducting the decennial U.S. census. During the 19th century, these and most of the Department of State’s other domestic duties were turned over to other federal agencies and departments.

Appointed by President Washington on September 29, 1789, Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, then serving as Minister to France became the first Secretary of State. Appointed before Washington had taken office, John Jay had been serving in as Secretary of Foreign Affairs and continued to function as de-facto Secretary of State until Jefferson returned from France several months later.

Until the late 19th century, the State Department was made up of only the diplomatic service, which oversaw staffing of the U.S. embassies, and the consular service, which promoted American commerce abroad. Lacking sufficient funding to provide for lasting careers, the two services developed separately, each staffed mainly by people wealthy enough to afford to live abroad. Suffering from the then-common practice of appointing employees based on patronage, rather than ability, the department favored the politically well-connected and the wealthy, rather than those with applicable skill and knowledge.

Reform began in 1924 with the passage of the Rogers Act, which combined the diplomatic and consular services into the Foreign Service, staffed by professional diplomats under a Secretary of State authorized to assign diplomats abroad. Potential diplomats were required to pass an extremely difficult Foreign Service examination. The Rogers Act also implemented a merit-based system of promotions along with a Board of the Foreign Service which advises the Secretary of State on managing the Foreign Service.

The post-World War II period saw record growth in State Department funding and staffing in keeping with America’s emergence as a superpower and its competition with the Soviet Union. Between 1940 to 1960, the number of domestic and overseas employees grew from roughly 2,000 to over 13,000. In 1997, Madeleine Albright became the first woman appointed Secretary of State.

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Longley, Robert. "About the US State Department." ThoughtCo, Apr. 8, 2021, thoughtco.com/about-the-us-state-department-3319884. Longley, Robert. (2021, April 8). About the US State Department. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/about-the-us-state-department-3319884 Longley, Robert. "About the US State Department." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/about-the-us-state-department-3319884 (accessed April 17, 2021).