Secretary of State

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Secretary of State

Holding one of the ranking positions in the president's cabinet, the secretary of state is the president's principal foreign policy adviser. In this pivotal role, the secretary undertakes the overall direction, coordination, and supervision of relations between the United States and foreign nations. The position is fourth in line of presidential succession. Like other cabinet members who implement the president's policies, the secretary heads a federal department: the State Department. As its director, the secretary oversees a vast network of U.S. offices and agencies, conducts negotiations with foreign governments, and often travels in the role of chief U.S. representative abroad. In 1997 then-president bill clinton named madeleine k. albright as the first female secretary of state. Four years later, President george w. bush named Colin L. Powell as the first black person to hold the office.

The position of secretary of state developed shortly after the founding of the nation in the late eighteenth century. In 1781 Congress created the Department of Foreign Affairs but abolished it and replaced it with the Department of State in 1789. Lawmakers designated the secretary of state as head of the State Department with two principal responsibilities: to assist the president in foreign policy matters and to be the chief representative of the United States abroad. Nomination of the secretary was left to the president, but the appointment was made contingent upon the approval of the U.S. Senate. The first secretary of state, Thomas Jefferson, served under President George Washington from 1790 to 1793.

Since the end of World War II, the U.S. foreign policy apparatus has greatly expanded, and its principal body is the State Department. The United States maintains diplomatic relations with some 180 countries worldwide as well as ties to many international organizations, and most of this diplomatic business flows through the State Department. The secretary is aided by a deputy secretary and five undersecretaries who serve as key advisers in political affairs; economic, business, and agricultural affairs; arms control and international security affairs; management; and global affairs. Additionally, the secretary has general responsibility for the U.S. Information Agency, the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, and the Agency for International Development.

The secretary is very important. Under the U.S. Constitution, the president has most of the power to set foreign policy; some of this power is shared by the U.S. Senate, which approves treaties as well as diplomatic and consular appointments. In practical terms the secretary of state generally becomes the architect of U.S. foreign policy by implementing the president's objectives. Not all foreign policy advice is given by the secretary, however. In 1947 the creation of the National Security Council provided the president with an additional advisory board (National Security Act of 1947, 50 U.S.C.A. §§ 401–412 [1982]).

Some secretaries have exerted enormous influence on U.S. policy—largely as a reflection of the president under whom they served. henry kissinger, who served as secretary of state from 1973 to 1976 under presidents richard m. nixon and gerald r. ford, had a leading role in shaping the nation's participation in nuclear arms treaties and in the Vietnam War. By contrast, Secretary of State George Schultz found his influence eclipsed by that of the National Security Council during the iran-contra scandal that rocked the presidency of ronald reagan in the mid-1980s.

Powell has maintained a particularly high profile during his tenure. Nine months after taking office, on September 11, 2001, terrorists attacked targets within the United States, causing the destruction of the World Trade Center towers in New York City and severe damage to the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. The United States immediately embarked upon a war against Terrorism, leading to an attack on the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Powell played a pivotal role in foreign diplomacy by meeting with several world leaders regarding the United States' involvement in Afghanistan. Powell's presence was likewise visible in such controversies as the Palestinian uprising against Israel, where Powell called upon both the Palestinians and Israel to work for peace.

On February 5, 2003, Powell appeared before the United Nations, seeking to establish evidence that the nation of Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. The presentation was a precursor to the United States' eventual attack on Iraq, which resulted in the overthrow of the regime of Saddam Hussein. Powell is viewed as a realist among the members of the Bush cabinet, and his conservative views of military action are seen as a counterbalance to those of Bush and other cabinet members. In this sense, Powell maintains an unusual position as a secretary of state—a former military leader who promotes restraint in the use of military force to resolve disputes.

Further readings

Powell, Colin L. "Remarks to the United Nations Security Council." U.S. Department of State. Available online at <> (accessed August 26, 2003).

U.S. Department of State. Available online at <> (accessed August 26, 2003).


Ambassadors and Consuls; Arms Control and Disarmament; International Law; State Department.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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