Department of State: Furthering Foreign Policy


Lian’s neighborhood is planning a party for the summer, and they want to use the nearby park for space. However, the neighborhood behind them is planning a baseball game for the same day and wants to use that space as well. To negotiate, Lian’s mother goes over and explains her neighborhood’s side of things, attempting to reach a compromise. 


Like Lian’s neighborhood, the United States has to maintain relations with other countries in the international community. And like Lian’s mother, the Department of State is the one that tries to advance U.S. foreign policy interests, working with other countries to ensure that people in the U.S. are safe and secure. However, the Department of State has more responsibilities than just foreign policy. It also works to promote American interests, such as by protecting U.S. businesses in the international market and assisting U.S. citizens living abroad. 

Department of State

The Department of State is a federal executive department, a unit of the executive branch that is responsible for carrying out U.S. foreign policy, advancing U.S. interests and objectives, and international relations. George Washington established the Department in 1789, and it is led by the Secretary of State, whom the President nominates. It works as the diplomatic branch of the federal government and often deals with representatives from other countries, including ambassadors and world leaders.

History and Responsibilities

On July 27, 1789, President George Washington signed an act that established the Department of Foreign Affairs, the first federal agency created under the new U.S. Constitution. In September of that year, the name of the department was changed to the Department of State, and it was given some domestic tasks, like managing the United States Mint and taking the census. Most of these tasks were later reassigned to other agencies so that the Department could focus more heavily on foreign policy and international relations.

The Secretary of State leads the Department of State and also serves in the Cabinet, a group made up of the vice president and various heads of federal executive departments who advise the president. Washington appointed Thomas Jefferson to be the first Secretary of State, and he led the Department of State from March 22, 1790 to December 31, 1791. It wasn’t until 1997 that Madeleine Albright served as the first woman Secretary of State.

The Department of State has many responsibilities, and while advancingU.S.foreign policy is one of those responsibilities, it is far from the only one. The Department is also responsible for protecting U.S. citizens traveling and living abroad, helping U.S. businesses within the international market, informing the public about U.S. foreign policy, and providing support for other federal agencies’ international activities. It is also the Department that issues passports and travel advisories. If you’ve ever applied for a passport, the Department of State processed and approved your application. 

Embassies and consulates also fall under the purview of the Department of State. An embassy is the central location for the American diplomatic presence in another country, usually located in the host country’s capital, and it handles the primary political and diplomatic relations. A consulate is a branch office of the embassy, and helps with work and immigration issues for U.S. citizens traveling abroad, as well as cultural exchange. 

The Department of State also sponsors various programs, like the Fulbright Program. The Department sponsors merit-based grants for international educational exchange for students, scientists, teachers, and professionals. Each year, the program provides 8,000 grants and operates in 160 countries. The Department is also involved in the Jefferson Science Fellows Program, which was established in 2003 to serve as a model for engaging the fields of science, technology, engineering, and medicine in foreign policy and international relations. Professors apply to spend a year as an adviser on issues related to their field in foreign policy issues, as these rapidly advancing fields often play a role in foreign policy.

There are numerous agencies, bureaus, and sub-offices that report to the Department of State, such as the Office of Global Women’s Issues, which works to ensure that the rights of women and girls are integrated into U.S. foreign policy. The Department also has state branches, which work on a local level to license professionals, oversee elections, and register businesses and charities.

Applying It

The Department of State has a little under 70,000 employees operating in state branches, federal branches, and around the world. Though it may seem like a department dedicated to foreign policy doesn’t have much effect on your everyday life, it plays a significant role in ensuring the U.S. maintains ties to other countries. These ties allow the U.S. to import goods and helps U.S. citizens who travel to different countries. Additionally, the state branches of the Department of State have direct impacts on local communities. The programs the Department sponsors also help scholars to engage in the international community and use that knowledge to help inform American policy.

Think Further

  1. What foreign policy issues can you think of? Do you know what the United States’ stance on the issue is?
  2. If you could make a recommendation to the Department of State about their operations, what would it be?
  3. How do you think the Department of State interacts with other Departments of government, like the Department of Education and the Department of Justice? Where might the different Departments overlap?


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Learn More

  1. “About This Collection | Frontline Diplomacy: The Foreign Affairs Oral History Collection of the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training | Digital Collections | Library of Congress.” Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. 20540 USA.,
  2. Administrative Timeline – Department History – Office of the Historian.
  3. McAllister, William B., et al. Toward “Thorough, Accurate, and Reliable”: A History of the Foreign Relations of the United States Series. Preview Edition, US Government Printing Office, 2014,
  4. “U.S. Department of State.” United States Department of State.,