Transnational Issues

The communications revolution and unprecedented expansion of transnational exchange of goods, services, ideas, technologies and peoples have produced a dramatically altered landscape for international diplomacy.  This new terrain presents the world community with benefits and dangers.  Life-saving information can be conveyed in milliseconds, but so can communications between international terrorists.  The global marketplace offers rewards for entrepreneurs in both legitimate and illicit enterprises.  And the new international environment perpetuates and often seems to exacerbate inequities both between countries and among populations within countries.

Working under the leadership of the Office of the President, many U.S. government agencies address transnational issues.  Within the Department of State, the bureaus under the Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs (G) have primary responsibility for many of them, but a wide range of other offices, such as the Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism (S/CT) and the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation (ISN), also play central roles within their own areas of expertise and responsibility.

This segment identifies some of the major specific transnational issues addressed by State Department bureaus and offices. Many of these issues – including human rights, religious freedom, international narcotics, trafficking in persons and terrorism – require Congressionally-mandated country-by-country annual reports from the State Department.

Science and the Environment

In 1999, the National Research Council report, The Pervasive Role of Science, Technology, and Health in Foreign Policy -- Imperatives for the Department of State, concluded that 13 of the 16 goals of U.S. foreign policy encompass science, technology and health.  The Department of State addresses a range of topics related to science and technology, including environmental issues.  Much of the work is carried out under the auspices of the Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs (G).  The Science and Technology Advisor to the Secretary of State (G/STAS) coordinates a Department-wide Science and Diplomacy Initiative. 

The State Department is largely responsible for the diplomatic negotiations of aerospace advancement, and works closely with the Department of Defense through the Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs (PM), the principal link between State and DOD to provide policy direction on the military use of space. 

Among the many environmental issues addressed by U.S. diplomats today, one of the most important is climate change. The Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs (OES) at State works with other government agencies on climate change and a broad range of issues, including conservation efforts, and protecting air quality. Within her first week in office, Secretary of State Clinton appointed a Special Envoy for Climate Change.



Health Policy

In this era of globalized integration and rapid transmission of previously isolated diseases, health issues have risen to the top of the diplomatic agenda. Four primary diseases receive priority attention at the State Department: HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, and avian flu.

The HIV/AIDS pandemic is recognized today as one of the greatest threats to human life.   According to the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS)/WHO, at the end of 2007, there were some 33 million people, 67 percent of them in sub-Saharan Africa, living with HIV/AIDS. In addition, more than 25 million people have died of AIDS since 1981.  The Office of the U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator (S/GAC) at the State Department collaborates with other parts of the government, such as the Departments of Health and Human Services, Labor, Defense, and Commerce, as well as USAID and the Peace Corps, to put in place the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). PEPFAR, the largest commitment by any nation to combat a single disease in history, was initially a five-year, $15 billion initiative launched in 2003 to fight AIDS/HIV in 120 countries, and especially in 15 focus countries. The work centers on prevention, treatment, and care of affected individuals, especially orphans and vulnerable children.  In 2008, Congress and the President renewed PEPFAR, approving funding of $48 billion for another five years and extending the program to include malaria and tuberculosis.

Malaria & Tuberculosis
Malaria is one of the most common infectious diseases, resulting in approximately 515 million cases annually, and killing between one and three million people.  The majority of those at risk are children in sub-Saharan Africa.  Tuberculosis is another major health problem and the leading killer of Africans living with HIV. The 2008 legislation renewing PEPFAR authorizes $5 billion for bilateral programs to fight malaria and $4 billion for bilateral programs to combat tuberculosis.  The State Department also works with the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria, one of the organizations at the forefront of efforts to combat these diseases.  The Centers for Disease Control, within the Department of Health and Human Services, are a primary resource for information on malaria and tuberculosis.

Avian Flu
Avian flu, or “bird flu,” is a deadly and contagious strain of pathogen that emerged from seemingly passive and docile flu viruses.  While bird flu viruses typically do not infect humans, the number of confirmed cases of human infection rose into the hundreds during 2006.  The Avian Influenza Action Group works closely with the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services, Agriculture, Homeland Security and Defense, as well as the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Other Health Issues
Other global health topics addressed by the State Department include international bioterrorism, surveillance and response, environmental health and health in post-conflict situations.


Illicit Activities

Since the end of the Cold War there has been a sharp rise in the number of regional and intrastate struggles.   Fueling these small-scale, bloody conflagrations are criminal networks trading in people, drugs, diamonds, etc.  Since the mid-1990s, as with businesses and terrorists, organized crime has developed transnational networks which disperse their activities, planning and logistics across continents and oceans thereby confounding traditional, state-based legal systems.  The profits generated by these activities have created a niche for major service industries which cater to many of the needs of transnational criminals.   These sibling industries include providers of false documents, money launderers and even highly trained legal professionals who offer their financial and accounting services. 


The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 ushered in a new era of international diplomacy.  Since then, the global community has become more aware of threats to international peace and security that cannot easily be traced to a single state or group of states.  This change in the geopolitical structure has changed the way the United States conceptualizes and responds to security threats.

While groups such as al-Qaeda are currently the most notable terrorist organizations in the world, the U.S. Department of State identifies 44 Foreign Terrorist Organizations that span the globe from Colombia to Iraq to Sri Lanka.  Designating a group as an FTO allows the U.S. government to block its assets held in U.S. financial institutions, provides grounds for denying visas to its known members and makes it illegal for U.S. citizens or anyone under U.S. jurisdiction to provide the group or its members with support or resources.

The Department of State, through its Coordinator for Counterterrorism (S/CT), is the primary diplomatic player in the battle against terrorism.  S/CT works with other agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense and the office of the Director of National Intelligence, as well as with officials of other nations and the relevant international institutions within the United Nations system.

The Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs (PM) is also active in fighting terrorism.  It secures base access and over-flight permission to support the deployment of U.S. military forces, coordinates the participation of coalition combat and stabilization forces and aids other countries in reducing the availability of portable air defense systems.

Human Trafficking

Trafficking in persons (TIP), or the illegal smuggling of people across borders, has become a pressing global crisis.  Its pervasive spread reflects increasingly sharp income disparities across the globe, the greater ease of transportation and the growing numbers of people seeking to immigrate to other states by illegal means.  Using force, fraud and outright extortion, traffickers prey on the desperate and vulnerable—including young girls and boys—who are forced into prostitution, slavery or military units.

The United States passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) in October 2000.  It requires federal agencies to increase their pursuit of domestic trafficking while working with other nations to address the problem internationally.  Responding to the requirements of Congress, the State Department, through its Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, monitors TIP conditions in 175 countries, ranks them according to how vigorously they are working to curtail such abuses and provides tools to combat trafficking.


The 2005 United Nations World Drug Report estimated the value of illegal narcotics on the global market at $312 billion.  Fueled by high demand and the opportunity to reap enormous profits, farmers and entrepreneurs in developing countries produce these drugs and export them to wealthier countries, particularly the United States and European nations.

The State Department’s Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) conducts numerous bilateral drug and crime control programs, many in Latin America.  INL reports to the Under Secretary for Political Affairs, advising the President, Secretary of State and other bureaus in the State Department on how to deal with these new developments in international crime and fraud.  It also works closely with the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) in its efforts to reduce the entry of illegal drugs to the United States.


Weapons Proliferation

Preventing the spread of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, production technology, and materials to nations that do not already have such capabilities has been a high priority for the international community since World War II.  The United States played a leading role in passing international agreements to control biological and chemical weapons and was instrumental in establishing the International Atomic Energy Agency under the United Nations in 1957.  Today the IAEA remains the primary international anti-proliferation organization, operating under the guidelines of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) of 1968, which has been signed by nearly all members of the United Nations.

Major diplomatic responsibility within the U.S. Government for dealing with weapons of mass destruction (WMD) nonproliferation and counter-proliferation issues rests with the State Department’s Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation (ISN), which reports to the Under Secretary of Arms Control and International Security.  In addition, State’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs (PM) works to regulate arms transfers, promote responsible U.S. defense trade, control access to military technologies and combat illegal trafficking of small arms and light weapons.


Refugees, Migration and Population

Refugees are people who flee or are forced out of their traditional homeland due to well-founded fears of persecution on the basis of race, religion, nationality or membership in a particular social group or political party.   The World Refugee Survey 2008 reported that there are an estimated 12 million refugees and asylum seekers and another 21 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) uprooted within their own countries.  In many cases, these refugees are unwanted in their new countries and subjected to arbitrary arrests, detentions, denial of basic social or economic rights and outright expulsion.  In extreme cases, refugees are forcibly returned to countries where they face persecution.

The State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM), under the direction of the Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs (G), coordinates U.S. government funding to protect and provide relief for millions of refugees,  The United States also admits tens of thousands of refugees each year for permanent resettlement, working with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and various state and private agencies.

PRM also works closely with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which administers U.S. international population programs, and coordinates U.S. international migration policy within the U.S. government and through bilateral and multilateral diplomacy.


Human Rights

The protection of fundamental human rights was a foundation in the establishment of the United States more than 225 years ago.  In the past thirty years, respect for human rights has become a central goal of U.S. foreign policy.

Through its Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL), the State Department seeks to protect human rights by holding governments accountable to their obligations under international human rights agreements and by promoting the rule of law. At U.S. embassies across the world, human rights officers work to encourage change, monitor and report on human rights practices and call attention to abuses and violations.  An annual report to Congress documents the information collected on morethan 190 countries to be distributed and shared in the making of foreign policy decisions across government agency divides.

Women’s Rights
Women are frequently the victims of human rights abuses. State’s Office of International Women’s Issues works to promote women’s political and economic participation in their countries and support women’s and girls’ access to education and health care. For further information on the State Department’s efforts to combat trafficking in persons, a travesty that affects hundreds of thousands of women across the globe, see Illicit Activities section on this page.

Religious Freedom
Another cornerstone of human rights is the freedom to practice one’s religion without persecution.  The Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor’s Office of International Religious Freedom monitors persecution and discrimination and works with religious and human rights nongovernmental organizations to promote religious freedom.   By Congressional mandate, the office produces an annual report chronicling religious rights abuses in specified countries in hopes of directing foreign policy.

War Crimes
War crimes are addressed by the State Department under the human rights rubric.  The Office of War Crimes Issues (S/WCI) advises the Secretary of State and formulates U.S. policy responses to atrocities committed in areas of conflict and elsewhere.  Since September 11, 2001, the office has played a key diplomatic role with foreign governments whose nationals have been captured in the war on terror.



With the growth of global markets come increased opportunities for trade across borders.  As the United States advances its commercial goals of expanded exports, open markets, global growth and economic development, it also seeks to assure that those objectives are carried out with fair treatment of workers in all countries.

The main work on labor at the State Department takes place within the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL).  Its Office of International Labor Affairs promotes the rights of workers by advancing internationally recognized core labor standards.  That office also works toward the abolition of abusive child labor, funds and assists in the development of programs to eliminate abusive sweatshop labor conditions in foreign factories that make consumer goods for the U.S. market and monitors countries’ compliance with worker rights’ provisions in U.S. laws.


Democracy and Humanitarian Aid

Democracy promotion and provision of humanitarian aid are two U.S. foreign policy goals that often go hand in hand.  Increasingly, U.S. assistance in these areas is being focused on countries that institute internal reforms.


Primary responsibility for the promotion of democracy within the State Department belongs to the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL).  It supports a wide range of activities that advance democratic principles, provides funding for democratic institutions and helps build civil society institutions in more than 30 countries and regions that are geo-strategically critical to the United States.

In addition, institutionalizing democracy, human rights and good governance are the focus of U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) programs in some 80 developing countries.  With more than 400 democracy officers worldwide, USAID encourages the transition to and consolidation of democracy across the globe.

Humanitarian Aid

The Department’s work in humanitarian assistance takes place under the umbrella of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), as well as in a variety of bureaus.  The Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM) and USAID’s Bureau of Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance (DCHA) work together to respond to emergencies and assist refugees, internally displaced persons and victims of conflict.

From refugees in Chad and displaced persons in Chechnya to victims of flooding in Bangladesh and families suffering from the conflict in Darfur, the Department and USAID match assistance from the U.S. government with field monitoring and program management, working with the international community.  In their work, State employees integrate basic needs with more complex requirements, such as the removal of land mines.  USAID’s Global Development Alliance has built 400 worldwide alliances and partnerships to fight global poverty, leveraging $1.4 billion in foreign assistance to more than $4.6 billion by forming ties with the private sector.

Millennium Challenge Account

While humanitarian assistance levels continue to be exclusively based on needs criteria, the U.S. government places particular emphasis on assisting countries that achieve success in carrying out internal reforms.  This new program is based on the belief that development assistance alone often fails to spur economic growth in the poorest countries.  With the goal of working with other developed countries to double the size of the world’s poorest economies, the United States, through its Millennium Challenge Account, rewards nations that govern justly, invest in their people and foster economic freedom.