Colin Powell speaks at a “Get Motivated” seminar at the Arco Arena in Sacramento, Calif. Photo by Randy Miramontez
By Joshua Botts and Mircea A. Munteanu
As the Department of State’s first Black secretary of state, Colin Powell led during a critical time that still reverberates in U.S. foreign policy and U.S. diplomatic engagement. As the principal foreign policy advisor to President George W. Bush, Powell tried to steer the United States toward a cooperative, multilateral approach to waging the global war on terror after 9/11. As the chief diplomat of the United States, he proved effective at building partnerships with foreign counterparts. He will also be remembered for his controversial presentation of the Bush administration’s case for invading Iraq.
While future historians will grapple with Powell’s policy impact, his leadership within the Department had lasting effects. Powell rehabilitated the Department after a difficult period of budget cuts, congressional suspicion, and sinking morale. He leveraged his reputation and prestige to deflect congressional micromanagement, secure additional resources, and address long-standing issues that plagued the Department. During an interview with MTV in 2002, Powell noted that he “want[ed] to be an example and an inspiration to all youngsters who may think that because of their background or where they came from or their origins, somehow they can’t achieve their dream.” In these ways, he established himself as an extraordinary manager and steward of the Department, and built a legacy comparable to those of Secretaries George Marshall and George Shultz.
From his first day in the building, Powell signaled that he would empower officials throughout the organization to execute the administration’s policies and work on behalf of the American people.
“I view it as my solemn obligation,” Powell said in his introductory town hall, “to make sure that…all of the men and women in our missions around the world…have all the resources you need to serve the American people.”
Powell worked within the Bush administration, and with Congress, to reverse the staffing and budget cuts that left the Department battered by the end of the Clinton administration. During his tenure, the Department’s budget recovered from the foreign affairs austerity of the 1990s, with spending authority rising 43% from 2001 to 2004. Through the Diplomatic Readiness Initiative, the Department recruited above attrition for the first time in a decade. While Powell’s full ambitions for improving training were displaced by post-9/11 security priorities, his emphasis on leadership training persisted.
Powell believed that attentive management and targeted reforms, not large-scale restructuring, were the best way to solve specific institutional problems. He encouraged major reforms in the Department’s embassy construction program to control costs and accelerate the timetable for aligning the global overseas presence with tougher security standards. Powell also prioritized technological modernization. The deployment of OpenNet and ClassNet provided the connectivity that officials throughout the Department needed to do their jobs—and did so ahead of schedule and under budget. He resolved a bureaucratic war of attrition with the Central Intelligence Agency around managing the “pipes” for diplomatic telecommunications and protected the consular function from being absorbed into the nascent Department of Homeland Security. In short, Powell solved problems that had bedeviled his predecessors, and he equipped his successors with capacities that proved critical to conducting 21st century diplomacy—a feat recognized in real-time as one of his signature achievements as secretary of state.
Alongside his institutional and programmatic impacts, Powell inspired a generation of public servants who joined the Department in the wake of 9/11. The “Powell generation” not only describes the hiring surge that he championed, but also memorializes the connections he forged across the organization. Although Powell wanted “to be measured as secretary of state, not as the Black secretary of state,” as he said in an interview in 2004, his racial identity had a tangible impact for Black employees. When Robert White, a former diplomatic courier and facilities manager, talked to the Office of the Historian in 2014 about the “tremendous changes” that took place within the Department over his decades of service, he recalled “just seeing Colin Powell coming in…he’s a person who looks like me…we’re not a race-based operation.”
After Powell’s death in 2021, former colleagues across the Department shared stories of their encounters with Powell during one of his frequent walkabouts throughout the building—times when he listened to and learned from men and women at all levels of the Department. Such stories, whether they involved a junior Civil Servant staking out hallways where she might run into him, or a young Foreign Service officer in the Operations Center taking the wrong elevator and finding herself facing the press corps with the bemused secretary, reflect Powell’s enduring influence for those he led.
Where, though, does Colin Powell rank among his historical counterparts? As historians are fond of saying, “it’s complicated.” Legacies reflect both the actions of historical actors and the values of historical interpreters. They evolve as more comes to light about the past, and as the present exposes new connections between old choices and current conditions. No matter what interpretive judgments future historians reach about Colin Powell and his legacy, all who study his leadership of the Department will surely note his sense of duty, his deep admiration for American ideals, and his determination to solve daunting challenges.
Joshua Botts is chief of the Special Projects Division in the Office of the Historian. Mircea A. Munteanu is a historian in the Office of the Historian.