US ambassadors vital to America's economic well-being

American ambassadors play many critical roles in representing the U.S. in some 200 embassies worldwide, at dozens of multilateral organizations, and in diverse negotiations on trade, security, technical, and other international agreements. 

Perhaps their most under-appreciated, yet most vital, role is to support American business.  Even less appreciated is the fact that U.S. ambassadors often produce tangible results that deliver genuine benefits not only to individual American companies but to the U.S. economy at large.

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In 2013, high-level State Department advocacy – usually led and coordinated by ambassadors -- contributed to over $5.5 billion worth of foreign government contract awards which directly benefited American companies in more than a dozen U.S. states. These contracts are providing employment for thousands of hard-working Americans across diverse sectors in every state. 

For instance, Australia’s Prime Minister announced in 2012 that Space Systems/Loral of Palo Alto, CA., was chosen over international competitors to provide two communications satellites to Australia's national broadband network. The U.S. ambassador coordinated a “whole of government” effort to help secure the $680 million contract, which SS/L said will generate 400 new jobs this year at its plant as well as a large number among its downstream suppliers.  

In Japan, the U.S. ambassador helped open new markets for U.S. beef and pork products. And in Zambia, consistent advocacy by the U.S. embassy helped a New Jersey construction company land an $85 million contract to build 144 bridges, with options that could top $200 million.

Based on my 35 years in international business development, I could cite many more cases in which U.S. ambassadors and their teams from Ottawa and Kuala Lumpur to Riyadh, Ankara and Mexico City tipped the scale in favor of U.S-based companies.

Unfortunately, America’s ability to build on this success is at risk.  Washington seems determined to ignore its own compelling economic interests and put its companies at a competitive disadvantage by not moving these front-line advocates into their jobs.

The U.S. currently has too many embassies without ambassadors and the Senate backlog is growing. To shoot oneself in the foot with no provocation is injurious -- doing so when one’s economic life depends on targeting the competition is potentially suicidal.

The following facts tell the sad story: 53 ambassadorial nominees are pending before the Senate, 37 of whom passed committee and could be confirmed any time. Those 37 nominees have waited an average of more than seven months and most are non-controversial career diplomats.

Leaving these nominations on the sidelines means the U.S. is inviting our economic, political and strategic rivals to control the playing field. You can be sure that U.S. competitors – China, Russia, Japan, South Korea, Canada, France, the UK, Germany, Italy and others – are putting the full weight of diplomacy behind their companies.

Billions of dollars in commercial opportunities are in play in countries where the U.S. has tacitly decided to “under-represent” itself.  There are 190 active U.S. Advocacy Center cases where U.S. businesses have applied for official assistance in pursuing opportunities in dozens of countries. All told, they have an estimated U.S. export value of nearly $120 billion dollars. These are the very cases where U.S. Ambassadors would provide support at the highest levels of government -- if only they were in place.

U.S. ambassadors are responsible not only for advocating for specific business opportunities.  They also play a central role in communicating directly with U.S. businesses on potential upcoming opportunities and political developments that impact the trade and investment environment.

For example, the State Department’s Direct Line to American Business program connects company representatives, via webinar or teleconference, directly to U.S. ambassadors who provide with actionable intelligence. About 80 percent of U.S. corporate participants recently surveyed said they would make a business decision based on the information received during these calls.

Secretary of State John Kerry is personally committed to connecting U.S. foreign policy to U.S. economic policy. But he needs to get his full team on the playing field to succeed in the increasingly competitive global marketplace.

Unless the Senate acts, and soon, U.S. companies will be competing in blindfolds and with a hand or two tied behind their backs. And that's something that business and America can't afford.

Regan is senior vice president of IBC, Inc., an international government relations firm in Washington that assists businesses in international government relations and activities affecting their global operations. He has engaged U.S officials on commercial advocacy cases at embassies and consulates in over 25 countries

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