What Does The Secretary Of State Do?

Learn more about the State Department and the current Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo.
CIA Director Mike Pompeo, listens during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, May 11, 2017. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

CIA Director Mike Pompeo, listens during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, May 11, 2017. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

What is the role of the Secretary of State?

Appointed by the president with the advice and consent of the Senate, the Secretary of State is responsible for carrying out the United States’ foreign policy and conducting nation-to-nation diplomacy. The Secretary of State is also the head of the State Department, as well as the Office of Foreign Services which sends diplomats overseas to promote peace, protect American citizens, and apply current foreign policy. The Secretary of State is a Cabinet member and is the President’s official chief advisor on United States foreign policy. Depending on whom the president is closest to and trusts most, however, the Secretary of State doesn’t always get to be the chief advisor on foreign policy.

Under the Constitution, foreign policy is set by the president, and the Secretary of State is tasked with simply carrying out the president’s foreign policy agenda. The Secretary negotiates with other nations on behalf of the U.S. and acts as the president’s representative with foreign leaders. Even the president’s ability to execute his foreign policy agenda has limits under the Constitution, however. The Senate must approve treaties, as well as the appointment of ambassadors and consuls. Additionally, the power to declare war and the appropriation of funds for war belongs solely to Congress.

History of the State Department

The State Department was the first executive department to be created, on July 27, 1789, although it was originally called the Department of Foreign Affairs. The name was changed to the Department of State on September 15, 1789, and it was assigned domestic duties including publication of Acts of Congress, the keeping of the Great Seal of the U.S., the operation of the U.S. Mint, patents and copyrights issuance, as well as administering the census.

On September 26, 1789, President George Washington appointed Thomas Jefferson as the first Secretary of State. He also appointed twelve consuls and five vice consuls, preferably Americans engaged in trade in their assigned area. This was the seed from which a very large bureaucracy grew, as more and more needs were found to best be met by the State Department. Some highlights of how the Department grew:

  • On January 30, 1799, the Department of State was given by Congressional Act the exclusive right to negotiate with foreign governments.
  • In 1867, the State Department hired a telegraph operator and introduced its first code in sending telegraphic messages.
  • In 1924, the Foreign Service replaced the Diplomatic and Consular Bureaus within the State Department.
    A Division of Cryptography was established by departmental order.
  • In 1960, a Data Processing Staff was created in the Bureau of Administration to study potential departmental use of data processing techniques.
  • In 1961, the Under Secretary for Economic Affairs was made responsible for coordination of foreign economic policy.
  • Later that year, the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency was established by
  • Congressional Act, and made responsible for researching, advising, and participating in international negotiations in arms control.
  • In 1962, the State Department introduced an IBM 1401 computer with four magnetic tape drives.
  • In 1972, President Richard Nixon established a Committee to Combat Terrorism, chaired by the Secretary of State.
  • A Bureau of Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs was created in 1977.
  • In 1987, a State Department bureau instituted a new electronic mail system.
  • In 1994, the State Department modernized its computer systems.
  • In 2007, the State Department established a blog called DipNote.
  • In 2011, an Office of Coordinator for Cyber Issues was established.
  • In 2012, an Office of Chief Economist was created.
  • In 2018, the Department adopted a bureau-focused cloud.
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Who is the current Secretary of State?

Current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was born in Orange, California in 1963. He attended the United States Military Academy at West Point, graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree in 1986. He served in the Army as a captain from 1986 to 1991, During his first three years, he was the officer in charge of patrolling the border between West and East Germanies, as well as Czechoslovakia. After his discharge from the Army, he attended Harvard Law School, graduating in 1994. He practiced tax law for two years, then engaged in an aerospace manufacturing business with former Harvard classmates. From 2006 to 2010, Pompeo was president of Sentry International, an oil drilling equipment manufacturing company.

In 2010, Pompeo successfully ran for the House of Representatives for Kansas’s 4th District and was re-elected three times. According to several investigative reports, the bulk of Pompeo’s campaign donations was from conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch. Pompeo allegedly received more contributions from Koch Industries in 2016 than any other candidate. Pompeo was nominated by President-Elect Donald Trump as CIA Director in November 2016, and confirmed by the Senate on January 23, 2017. In March 2018, he was tapped by Trump to replace Rex Tillerson as the Secretary of State. Since then, Pompeo’s loyalty to Trump has appeared to be unshakable. His consistent defense of Trump’s decisions has made Pompeo a very powerful Secretary of State with easy access to the Oval Office.

Pompeo played a key personal role in setting up two summits between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jung Un. Two weeks after journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered, Pompeo traveled to Saudi Arabia to meet with King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. According to Pompeo, the Saudi leaders denied any knowledge of what happened to Khashoggi. However, reports began to spread that Khashoggi was killed and dismembered inside the Saudi consulate. Pompeo defended the Trump administration’s support for Saudi Arabia on the basis of a need for strong ties between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia to counteract regional threats by Iran.

In January 2019, after a fresh ISIS attack in Syria, Pompeo told the World Economic Forum that ISIS had been defeated in Syria and Iraq. In April 2019, he claimed that Venezuelan leader Nicolas Máduro had been preparing to leave for Cuba, but Russia had convinced him to stay. In July, Pompeo wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal announcing the creation of a Commission on Unalienable Rights, a phrase he said had become ambiguous since first adopted by the UN in 1948. In September 2019, three House committees subpoenaed Pompeo for documents relevant to Trump and associates reportedly having pressured Ukraine into assisting Trump to be reelected. Pompeo failed to meet the subpoena deadline. In October, however, during a news conference in Italy, Pompeo admitted that he had been on the July phone call in which Trump asked Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate presidential candidate Joe Biden.

List of previous Secretaries of State

Thomas Jefferson (1790-1793)
Edmund Jennings Randolph (1794–1795)
Timothy Pickering (1795–1800)
John Marshall (1800–1801)
James Madison (1801–1809)
Robert Smith (1809 – 1811)
James Monroe (1811-1814)
James Monroe (1815-1817)
John Quincy Adams (1817-1825)
Henry Clay (1825–1829)
Martin Van Buren (1829–1831)
Edward Livingston (1831–1833)
Louis McLane (1833–1834)
John Forsyth (1834–1841)
Daniel Webster (1841–1843)
Abel Parker Upshur (1843–1844)
James Buchanan (1845–1849)
John Middleton Clayton (1849–1850)
Daniel Webster (1850–1852)
Edward Everett (1852–1853)
William Learned Marcy (1853–1857)
Lewis Cass (1857–1860)
Jeremiah Sullivan Black (1860–1861)
William Henry Seward (1861–1869)
Elihu Benjamin Washburne (1869)
Hamilton Fish (1869–1877)
William Maxwell Evarts (1877–1881)
James Gillespie Blaine (1881)
Frederick T. Frelinghuysen (1881–1885)
Thomas Francis Bayard (1885 – 1889)
James Gillespie Blaine (1889–1892)
John Watson Foster (1892–1893)
Walter Quintin Gresham (1893–1895)
Richard Olney (1895–1897)

John Sherman (1897–1898)
William Rufus Day (1898)
John Milton Hay (1898–1905)
Elihu Root (1905–1909)
Philander Chase Knox (1909–1913)
William Jennings Bryan (1913–1915)
Robert Lansing (1915–1920)
Bainbridge Colby (1920–1921)
Charles Evans Hughes (1921–1925)
Frank Billings Kellogg (1925–1929)
Henry Lewis Stimson (1929–1933)
Cordell Hull (1933–1944)
Edward Reilly Stettinius Jr. (1944–1945)
James Francis Byrnes (1945–1947)
George Catlett Marshall (1947–1949)
Dean Gooderham Acheson (1949–1953)
John Foster Dulles (1953–1959)
Christian Archibald Herter (1959–1961)
David Dean Rusk (1961–1969)
William Pierce Rogers (1969–1973)
Henry A. Kissinger (1973–1977)
Cyrus Roberts Vance (1977–1980)
Edmund Sixtus Muskie (1980–1981)
Alexander Meigs Haig Jr. (1981–1982)
George Pratt Shultz (1982–1989)
James Addison Baker III (1989–1992)
Lawrence Sidney Eagleburger (1992–1993)
Warren Minor Christopher (1993–1997)
Madeleine Korbel Albright (1997–2001)
Colin Luther Powell (2001–2005)
Condoleezza Rice (2005–2009)
Hillary Rodham Clinton (2009–2013)
John Forbes Kerry (2013–2017)
Rex Wayne Tillerson (2017–2018)
Mike Pompeo (2018 – Current)

The Rantt Rundown

While officially the U.S. Secretary of State’s role is to work to advance the president’s foreign policy, the Secretary of State’s job actually depends upon the fit between presidential and secretarial foreign policy beliefs, the closeness of their relationship, the Secretary of State’s capabilities and effectiveness, and the global context in which both officials are operating. Some presidents rely on their Secretaries of State as chief foreign policy advisor; others do not.

Secretaries of State since World War II and entrance into the nuclear age have worked hard to achieve necessary agreements with other countries, including some that the current president has repudiated. Secretaries of State have only a limited time to achieve foreign policy goals that make headlines: they do not generally outlast more than a president’s first or only term. Because everyone has an individual view on foreign policy priorities and mechanisms—negotiation, sanctions, military action—the fact is that, since isolationism ended, the U.S. has a different foreign policy with each new president.

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Rantt 101 // Government / Secretary of State