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America's State Department Turns 220

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America's State Department was born today in 1789. Over two centuries old, is it flexible enough to deal with crises that have no state borders?

On May 19, 1789, then Representative James Madison of New York introduced a bill to Congress to create an executive Department of Foreign Affairs headed by a Secretary of Foreign Affairs. It was signed into law on July 27 by President George Washington, who appointed Thomas Jefferson as the department's first secretary. In September, its name was changed to the Department of State. Jefferson would later become America's third president. Madison would become the fourth. It was truly a collaborative effort on the part of the Founding Fathers.

But since the birth of the United States Department of State, something happened that dramatically changed the world and how countries interact: the Industrial Revolution. Reconfiguring the modern world on steam, coal, combustion engines and electrical power generation, this period of explosive technological growth during the late 18th and early 19th centuries saw the development of textile manufacturing, metallurgy, glass production, railways, mining and machine tools. Things would never be the same.

And as an unplanned and unforeseen consequence of all this activity, the world is now dramatically warmer. To be sure, it is the first time in Earth's history that human activity has affected the planet's entire environment. And the effects are interrelated. Climate change, desertification, dwindling food supplies and species extinction are, for example, not only connected to each other but also to the development of new, large-growth and heavy-polluting economies like China and India, and to the poor world as well.

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Perhaps this presents a new opportunity for nations to work together and build consensus around shared goals -- like accessible water and stable food production. No longer just for settling national borders and maintaining military security, treaties -- like the Kyoto Protocol -- now must consider larger security issues that go beyond state lines, such as water security, food security, air security and ecosystem security. In some cases, territorial disputes -- especially bloody ones -- should at least be put on hold until the environment is made secure for future generations.

A forward-looking, 21st-century American foreign policy, championed by the internationally respected Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, must look for innovative solutions to the world's thorniest transnational issues. One possible avenue might be to spend some political capital on some non-political aims.

An obvious flashpoint could be tackling anthropogenic climate change. After all, it is something that most scientists agree will likely have globally devastating consequences -- and it is the root of so many other problems. One response is to mitigate its effects. Another is to accept the projected temperature increases and start making contingency plans to help people live on a significantly hotter planet. Either way, it won't matter much how many ballistic missiles a nation has if its people cannot eat.

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But though some of the more profound effects of global warming have already been seen on a large scale -- the rapid melting of the Arctic ice, ocean acidification and rising sea levels, for example -- the increase in temperature has a distinct and immediate impact on many local levels. Coastal residents in the South Pacific watch their beachfronts disappear underwater while farmers in China are forced to relocate for greener pastures as farmland turns into desert.

In embattled Kashmir, for example, where more than 47,000 people have been killed in a two-decade-old territorial battle between India, Pakistan and China, something on a deeper level has been happening, and it cares not for human disputes over imaginary map lines. It is the melting of Kolahoi, a critical glacier in the Kashmir Valley that is the region's only source of year-round fresh water.

One thing that Secretary Clinton could pursue is a Kolahoi Accord, which was proposed by 13.7 Billion Years last year. Such an agreement might create a bi- or trilateral research and development committee with members from local governments, green businesses, trade unions and environmental organizations such as The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) in Delhi and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in Pakistan to come up with a sustainable solution to save Kolahoi.

The plan could include trade incentives on goods that depend on a healthy glacier, the development of ecotourism and other market-driven initiatives to improve the livelihood of millions of Kashmiris.

The Center for Global Development, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit think tank has proposed the creation of a Department of Global Development. This is a good way of thinking. But if the State Department would take on such a mandate, it would put global environmental issues at the forefront of foreign policy, which is exactly where they belong. The Secretary of State is the first Cabinet position in the line of presidential succession. Global warming should be high on this person's agenda.

Which cabinet-level department is best suited to address the issues concerning, for example, Atlantis, BP's massive oil and gas platform in the Gulf of Mexico? The non-profit consumer advocacy group Food & Water Watch says that more than 6,000 documents concerning the design of the 58-million-metric-ton monster are lacking the required engineer approval.

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BP is a multinational company based in London. A spill caused by Atlantis could affect the waters of both the United States and Mexico and have ramifications on the health of several other nations' waters and wildlife. Which of President Obama's cabinet members is best suited to the job of looking after the safety of such a potentially hazardous transnational adventure? The Secretary of Energy? The Secretary of Commerce? The Secretary of State? A new Secretary of Global Development?

According to a July 20 Washington Post story covering Secretary Clinton's recent trip to India, Indian Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh said, "India's position, let me be clear, is that we are simply not in the position to take legally binding emissions targets."

"No one wants to in any way stall or undermine the economic growth that is necessary to lift millions more out of poverty," replied Secretary Clinton. "We also believe that there is a way to eradicate poverty and develop sustainability that will lower significantly the carbon footprint."

If she makes good on this belief, perhaps a Department of Global Development will not be necessary. Presidents Washington, Jefferson and Madison would probably have agreed.


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Reynard Loki is a New York-based artist, writer and editor. He is the environment and food editor at, a progressive news website. He is also the co-founder of MomenTech, a New York-based experimental production studio whose projects (more...)

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