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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

A U.S. Embassy at Work

September 14, 2009


The U.S. maintains diplomatic relations with about 189 countries and also maintains relations with many international organizations, for a total of about 268 posts around the world.

Under the President's direction, the Secretary of State is responsible for the overall coordination and supervision of U.S. Government activities abroad. Missions to countries and international organizations are headed by Chiefs of Mission. They are considered the President's personal representatives and, with the Secretary of State, assist in implementing the President's constitutional responsibilities for the conduct of U.S. foreign relations.

Most missions have personnel assigned from other executive branch agencies in addition to those from the Department of State; in some cases, State Department employees may account for less than one-half of the mission staff. Department of State employees at missions comprise U.S.-based political appointees and career diplomats, and Foreign Service Nationals. The last are local residents, who provide continuity for the transient American staff and have language and cultural expertise; they also are employed at post by other agencies.

Other executive branch agencies represented may include the Departments of Commerce, Agriculture, Defense, and Justice (the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Federal Bureau of Investigation) and the U.S. Agency for International Development. Other U.S. Government agencies also make vital contributions to the success of U.S. foreign relations and in promoting U.S. interests.

Country Missions

In most countries with which it has diplomatic relations, the U.S. maintains an embassy, which usually is located in the host country capital. Many of these posts maintain websites. The U.S. also may have consulates in other large commercial centers or in dependencies of the country. Several countries have U.S. ambassadors accredited to them who are not resident in the country. In a few special cases--such as when it does not have full diplomatic relations with a country--the U.S. may be represented by only a U.S. Liaison Office or U.S. Interests Section, which may be headed by a Principal Officer rather than a Chief of Mission.

The Chief of Mission--with the title of Ambassador, Minister, or Charge d'Affaires--and the Deputy Chief of Mission head the mission's "country team" of U.S. Government personnel. Responsibilities of Chiefs of Mission at post also include:

  • Speaking with one voice to others on U.S. policy--and ensuring mission staff do likewise--while providing to the President and Secretary of State expert guidance and frank counsel;
  • Directing and coordinating all executive branch offices and personnel (except for those under the command of a U.S. area military commander, under another chief of mission, or on the staff of an international organization);
  • Cooperating with the U.S. legislative and judicial branches so that U.S. foreign policy goals are advanced; security is maintained; and executive, legislative, and judicial responsibilities are carried out;
  • Reviewing communications to or from mission elements;
  • Taking direct responsibility for the security of the mission--including security from terrorism--and protecting all U.S. Government personnel on official duty (other than those personnel under the command of a U.S. area military commander) and their dependents;
  • Carefully using mission resources through regular reviews of programs, personnel, and funding levels;
  • Reshaping the mission to serve American interests and values and to ensure that all executive branch agencies attached to the mission do likewise;
  • Serving Americans with professional excellence, the highest standards of ethical conduct, and diplomatic discretion.

The country team has responsibilities covering the following areas:

Consular Affairs. Whether in a U.S. embassy or a consulate, consular officers at post are the State Department employees whom both American citizens overseas and foreign nationals are most likely to meet. Consular officers protect U.S. citizens abroad and their property. Overall, they touch the lives of millions of Americans living and traveling abroad:

Consular officers provide emergency loans to U.S. citizens who become destitute while traveling abroad, search for missing Americans at the request of their friends or family, visit arrested Americans in prison, maintain lists of local attorneys, act as liaison with police and other officials on matters that affect the welfare of American citizens, re-issue lost or stolen passports, assist in resolving international parental kidnaping cases, help next of kin when American relatives die abroad, and generally provide many types of assistance to U.S. citizens abroad.

Consular officers also perform non-emergency services -- dispensing information on absentee voting, Selective Service registration, and acquisition and loss of U.S. citizenship; providing U.S. tax forms; notarizing documents; issuing passports; and processing estate and property claims. U.S. consular officers also issue about 6 million nonimmigrant visas annually to foreign nationals who wish to visit, work or study in the United States and almost 500,000 immigrant visas to those who wish to reside here permanently.

Commercial, Economic, and Financial Affairs. By helping American businesses abroad, the Department helps Americans at home, since every $1 billion in exported goods generates about 20,000 jobs in the United States. State and Commerce Department officers specialize in four areas:

Commercial officers advise U.S. businesses on local trade and tariff laws, government procurement procedures, and business practices; identify potential importers, agents, distributores, and joint venture partners; and assist with resolution of trade and investment disputes.

Economic officers advise U.S. businesses on the local investment climate and economic trends; negotiate trade and investment agreements to open markets and level the playing field; analyze and report on macroeconomic trends and trade policies and their potential impact on U.S. interests; and promote adoption of economic policies by foreign countries which further U.S. interests.

Resource officers counsel U.S. businesses on issues of natural resources--including minerals, oil, and gas and energy--and analyze and report on local natural resource trends and trade policies and their potential impact on U.S. interests.

Financial attaches analyze and report on major financial developments as well as the host country's macro-economic condition.

Agricultural and Scientific Matters. Agricultural officers promote the export of U.S. agricultural products and report on agricultural production and market developments in their area. Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service officers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture are responsible for animal and plant health issues that affect U.S. trade and the protection of U.S. agriculture from foreign pests and diseases. They also expedite U.S. exports affected by technical sanitary and phytosanitary regulations.

Environment, science, technology, and health officers analyze and report on developments in these areas and their potential impact on U.S. policies and programs.

Political, Labor, and Defense Assistance Issues. Political officers analyze political developments and their potential impact on U.S. interests; promote adoption by the host country of foreign policy decisions which support U.S. interests; and advise U.S. business executives on the local political climate.

Labor officers promote labor policies in countries to support U.S. interests and provide information on local labor laws and practices, including wages, non-wage costs, social security regulations, the political activities of local labor organizations, and labor attitudes toward American investments.

Many posts have defense attaches from the Department of Defense. Security assistance officers are responsible for Defense Cooperation in Armaments and foreign military sales. They also function as the primary in-country point of contact for the U.S. defense industry and U.S. businesses.

Administrative Support and Security Functions. Administrative officers are responsible for normal business operations of the post, including overall management of personnel, budget, and fiscal matters; real and expendable property; motor pools; and acquisitions.

Information management officers are responsible for the post's unclassified information systems, database management, programming, and operational needs. They also are responsible for the telecommunications, telephone, radio, diplomatic pouches, and records management programs within the diplomatic mission and maintain close contact with the host government's communications authorities on operational matters.

Regional security officers are responsible for providing physical, procedural, and personnel security services to U.S. diplomatic facilities and personnel; they also provide local in-country security briefings and threat assessments to business executives.

Public Affairs. Public affairs officers, information officers, and/or cultural affairs officers of U.S. missions overseas serve as press spokespersons and as administrators of such official U.S. exchange programs as those for Fulbright scholars, Humphrey and Muskie fellows, and foreign participants in International Visitor consultations in the United States. They also direct the overseas U.S. Speakers program and international electronic linkages such as the Worldnet TV satellite teleconferencing network at more than 200 posts.

Legal and Immigration Matters. Legal attaches serve as Department of Justice representatives on criminal matters.

Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (part of the Department of Homeland Security) officers are responsible for administering the laws regulating the admission of foreign-born persons (aliens) to the United States and for administering various immigration benefits.

USAID mission directors are responsible for USAID Programs including dollar and local currency loans, grants, and technical assistance. USAID also provides humanitarian assistance abroad during times of natural or man-made disasters. Helping other countries develop through foreign assistance programs helps American business. As other countries develop, they begin to import goods from abroad -- and now account for one-third of all U.S. exports and more than one-half of America's farm exports.

U.S. Representation at International Organizations

U.S. representation at international organizations reflects the growing importance of multilateral diplomacy to the conduct of U.S. foreign relations. In addition to its bilateral embassies and consulates, accredited to just a single host country, the U.S. also sends official representatives to international organizations and conferences in various locations around the world. These representatives are typically organized into delegations. Some of the larger, more permanent delegations are designated "U.S. Missions," such as in Geneva or Vienna. Others are designated simply "U.S. Delegations," such as to the Conference on Disarmament or to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Other "U.S. Delegations" are assembled for only a finite period to represent the U.S. at a single international event.

Current permanent U.S. Missions to international organizations include:

U.S. Mission to the United Nations (USUN NY) (New York);
U.S. Mission to the Organization of American States (OAS) (Washington, DC);
U.S. Mission to International Organizations in Vienna (UNVIE) (Vienna);
U.S. Mission to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (USNATO) (Brussels);
U.S. Mission to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (USOECD) (Paris);
U.S. Mission to the United Nations Office and Other International Organizations in Geneva (Geneva);
U.S. Mission to the European Union (USEU) (Brussels);
U.S. Mission to the International Civil Aviation Organization (USICAO) (Montreal);
U.S. Mission to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture (FODAG) (Rome);
U.S. Observer Mission to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) (Paris); and
U.S. Permanent Mission to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and the United Nations Center for Human Settlements (Habitat) (UNCHS) (Nairobi)

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