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Reasserting US commercial service strength

Reasserting US commercial service strength
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This is the moment for vigorous U.S. commercial diplomacy. To forge a “foreign policy for the middle class,” the opening months of the new administration have called for relationship building across the international arena and actions to modernize partnerships and facilitate U.S. values in response to global challenges and misaligned alternatives. 

The U.S. government has a myriad of tools to leverage in support of such a policy — but among these, the unassuming breadth of expertise and influence U.S. foreign commercial service wields may represent the administration’s most important mechanism for measurable difference-making on a global scale, one deal at a time. Offering distinct advantages to policy and economic goals alike, with the right support, this service also stands as a straightforward opportunity to strengthen several administration priorities.  

Part of the U.S. Department of Commerce, the International Trade Administration’s management of export promotion, trade barrier removal and advocacy abroad is supported by professional depth and more than 40 years of reputation — throughout global markets and industry communities. Represented by business-friendly touchpoints in U.S. export assistance offices domestically and foreign commercial services officers worldwide, this is a specialized service well-executed. 

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In spite of maintaining this execution, each season of administrative agenda-setting also presents the opportunity to go further still. This administration, its incoming senior leaders and its upcoming budget proposals may recognize the moment at-hand. Reinforcing the global brand while simultaneously supporting constituencies nationwide can be done by smart, efficient and apolitical investments in a robust, international commercial presence.  

The American value proposition at home means leveraging its strength overseas. State administrations and community economic development and trade organizations will readily point to trade promotion’s positive effects. U.S. exports’ benefits to economic growth are proven, with trade supporting more than 40 million U.S. jobs — including approximately half of all 6 million American manufacturing jobs — and $2.25 trillion in manufactured goods and services in 2019, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Statistics shared with us by the International Trade Administration’s Global Markets unit itself acknowledge the multiplier effect — they show returns of more than $312 to the U.S. economy for every $1 appropriated in FY20. 

In support of this, ITA is a commercial wins-driven agency: unique among peers it is accountable to hard metrics, quantitative goals and its performance managing individual company needs. Its value is measured not in anecdotes nor in indeterminable timelines. Rather, it facilitates the very real wins which these 40 million jobs throughout the country are supported by — the very real activity that keeps people from Washington to Mississippi enjoying greater output and better outcomes. A fortified trade agenda equals reliable jobs, reliable wages and a reliable quality of living. 

But moreover, U.S. exports are not material alone: every widget that finds a market overseas also finds an opportunity for influence. It creates an opening — to assert standards and intellectual property protection, to encourage accountability and transparency, to build meaningful collaborative relationships and to demonstrate American values. Commercial diplomacy is just that: diplomacy levied through the art of business. 

Foreign policy and U.S. private sector communities should be equally eager to see such diplomacy fostered further still. There are market frontiers to consider, those global economies that appear often on “fastest growing” lists, such as the International Monetary Fund’s World Economic Outlook report last October. These markets also present moments to support working partnerships and additional bilateral conversation. The value-add then for new U.S. foreign commercial connection points in destinations like Guyana, Bangladesh, Cote D’Ivoire, Benin, Senegal, South Sudan and, until a few months ago, Myanmar, which is almost too promising to quantify. 

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Make no mistake, such growing markets are not unknown to the rest of the world. U.S. global competitiveness merits the administration’s attention to asserting our commercial service strength. This attention also includes considering best approaches to advertising to rising markets, expanding recruitment for the next generation of foreign commercial service officers and highlighting the efforts of the American chambers overseas. But of the highest importance, this administration must break new commercial ground.  

During these early days of the administration, White House officials can demonstrate their commitment to and confidence in the U.S. value proposition through smart investments in its commercial tools. U.S. foreign commercial service represents a practical starting point. 

There is a genuine advantage to both foreign policy goals and private sector growth in strengthening the very best of the U.S. government commercial diplomacy tools. With clear benefits and not a moment to lose, the opportunity for deliberate action is not to be missed. 

Lionel C. Johnson is the former deputy assistant secretary for International Development, Debt and Environment with the U.S. Department of the Treasury and a former U.S. Foreign Service Officer with the U.S. Department of State.  Ned Rauch-Mannino is the former deputy assistant secretary for Global Operations and senior advisor for Global Markets with the U.S. Department of Commerce.