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It is not an exaggeration to say that the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs “MFA” affected the course of human history and shaped the UK into one of the most important players in the arena of international relations. Historians like Peter Neville made the argument that the modern version of the MFA was birthed in the year 1782. However, it is not difficult to prove that wars and numerous military conflicts against sovereign states paved the way for the creation of modern MFA. It was also in the aftermath of the American Revolutionary War that prompted the former British colonies to form their version called the Department of Foreign Affairs. The name Department of Foreign Affairs was changed to the U.S. Department of State as a response to the unique needs of the Federal government of the United States.
The Emergence of the MFA
It is prudent to trace the establishment of the UK Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the conflict resolution skills that were developed during and after the Seven Year’s War between Great Britain and France. It was a tumultuous time between the two countries. Even after considering the success of the English forces against the French military, the British government wanted to end the war as soon as possible. King George III saw the need for greater fiscal responsibility because the conflict between the said military superpowers proved to be a costly exercise. Great Britain was hemorrhaging money as loans piled up to support the war effort.
Diplomats worked feverishly behind the scenes. The result of superb diplomatic relations was the signing of the Treaty of Paris in the year 1762 (Office of the Historian, 2017). Nevertheless, Great Britain’s failure to hold on to its colonies in the American continent more than a decade later was the beginning of its decline as a global superpower. In the end, the creation of the UK’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs was due in large part to the need to protect the interest of the British government through the adroit use of diplomatic skills.
America’s Department of Foreign Affairs
The U.S. State Department started with a different worldview. The American government was established after a successful revolt against Great Britain. Nevertheless, the envoys of the Continental Congress acquired diplomatic skills in the context of military conflict (Plischke, 1999). Fact-checking the history behind the emergence of the U.S. Department of State leads to the discovery of secret agents employed by the Continental Congress in 1775. These secret agents established communication lines between European supporters and the leaders of a revolutionary movement geared towards the ouster of British colonial rule in the American continent. One can make the argument that these agents were America’s first diplomats, and the list includes prominent names like John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Arthur Lee (Plischke, 1999). At the end of the American Revolutionary War, some of the former secret agents were commissioned as diplomats. They reported to the Department of Foreign Affairs.
It is interesting to note that the highest-ranking member of the U.S. diplomatic corps was called Ministers Plenipotentiary (Plischke, 1999). Nevertheless, the fledgling government did not copy the name “Ministry of Foreign Affairs” and decided to create a different name to label an important department of the government. There are two possible explanations for the difference in nomenclature. First, the United States government and Great Britain decided to create an official version of the diplomatic corps at about the same time. Great Britain’s Foreign Office was established in the year 1782 (Neville, 2013). It was pointed out by the historians of UK’s diplomatic corps that although England sent out diplomats to establish open communication lines with heads of state, the official acknowledgment of the existence of a foreign office was only made in the year 1782 (Neville, 2013). This is a critical piece of information when comparing the evolution of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the U.S. Department of State.
To understand the second reason explaining the difference in nomenclature, one has to look into the unique circumstances surrounding the creation of the U.S. Federal government, especially the coming together of several states under one administrative body. In the year 1789, the U.S. Congress decided against expanding the duties and responsibilities of the Department of Foreign Affairs. As a consequence, the Act of September 1789 changed the name to its present form as the U.S. Department of State (Plischke, 1999).
UK’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has the mandate to deal with issues related to foreign relations. It is interesting to note that the U.S. Department of State does not have a specific mandate to work only on problems and challenges limited to foreign relations. It is a unique department with dual roles tackling domestic and international issues. For example, the Department of State maintains its main function, which is “to govern certain aspects of conducting relations with foreign nations” (Plischke, 1999, p.40). However, due to the consequences of having a federal form of government, the State does not only function about international relations. The Secretary of State functions like an administrator reporting directly to the President of the United States.
Consider for instance the following mandate, that directed the Secretary of State to take responsibility with regards to matters dealing with the “printing, publishing, and distributing the bills and resolutions of Congress, to maintain custody of the Great Seal of the United States and imprint it on commissions and other documents” (Plischke, 1999, p.39). Also, the Secretary was tasked to preserve important records and documents. Thus, the U.S. Department of State was charged to authenticate documents bearing the Great Seal of the United States (Plischke, 1999). As a consequence, the Secretary of State functions as one of the most senior government officials in America. It is fascinating to consider the dual roles of the U.S. Department of State and appreciate its purpose from a confederation of different states under one government.
At first glance, it seems as if the United States copied the process on how to establish a diplomatic corps from the United Kingdom. However, after a closer study was applied to this issue, it was revealed that the emergence of the UK’s foreign affairs department occurred just about the same time as the establishment of America’s Department of Foreign Affairs. Great Britain changed its name to the United Kingdom by its declining status as a global superpower. Nevertheless, the function of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs stayed the same. The MFA’s American counterpart was created in response to both the need for foreign relations and the demands unique to a federal form of government. Thus, the U.S. Department of State juggles dual roles tackling issues in both international and domestic arenas. The Secretary of State is perceived as the administrator working directly under the office of the U.S. President.
Neville, P. (2013). Historical dictionary of British foreign policy. Rowman & Littlefield: Lanham, MD.
Office of the Historian. (2017). A new framework for foreign affairs. Web.
Plischke, E. (1999). U.S. Department of State: A reference history. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.