Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered an important policy address on what she called "economic statecraft." In it, she announced that the United States will update its foreign policy priorities to include economic considerations, arguing that doing so will strengthen both our standing abroad and our economy at home. Among other measures, Clinton said that the State Department will do more to help U.S. companies compete for opportunities in emerging markets, including advocating for them and working to level the playing field between private companies operating on market principles and state-owned companies pursuing strategic goals.
Clinton is right to draw attention to these issues. The U.S. lags far behind other countries when it comes to promoting its economic interests. China, for example, uses aid and every ounce of political leverage to open international markets to Chinese companies. French President Nicolas Sarkozy takes the CEOs of major French companies with him every time he travels to a region that offers commercial opportunities for the French private sector. And the U.K. Foreign Office has already listed as a top priority the promotion of the country's commercial interests and the explicit lobbying for British businesses overseas. In part because of these efforts, Chinese, Indian and European companies are outcompeting U.S. companies in a number of emerging markets -- particularly in Africa and Central Asia. It is high time the U.S. recognized that it must do more to advocate for its private sector and reverse these trends.
But Clinton is hardly the first government official to identify this problem. In fact, over the past few decades, the U.S. government has issued a series of directives that require U.S. agencies and officials to facilitate U.S. business activities and investment overseas. The Commerce Department generally takes the lead: Department staff in local embassies are supposed to identify and vet local partners and lobby for American companies, and the department maintains satellite offices around the world tasked with advocating for U.S. businesses. But other branches of the U.S. government are supposed to do their part as well. Even U.S. ambassadors are supposed to let host governments know that the U.S. government wants business opportunities to go to U.S. companies, and an interagency process exists to streamline these activities and ensure proper coordination.