A New Engagement Tool: Commercial Diplomacy

Dec 18, 2012
By Johanna Mendelson Forman
Special Representative Reta Jo Lewis, who heads the Global Office for Intergovernmental Affairs at the State Department, is all about business.   She is the first person to hold the post of commercial diplomat-in-chief (Lewis discussed that role at CSIS on December 17).  When Secretary of State Hillary R. Clinton decided to establish an Office for Intergovernmental Affairs she recognized the importance of connecting U.S. foreign policy objectives with the interests of U.S. state and local leaders who are interested in jobs and sustainability.  The office became a part of her Smart Power agenda that has included greater use of social media to promote democracy, and programs that have helped to facilitate better communication with leaders around the globe below the national level.  Commercial diplomacy, described as the ability to bring U.S. domestic business interests together with international counterparts, is an important part of that engagement.  
Although the Constitution prohibits states and municipalities from conducting their own foreign policy, ties are fairly substantial.  There are city-to-city exchanges, state National Guard Units conduct exchanges and training with foreign counterparts, and commercial missions that reach far-flung localities.  Yet before 2010, when the Global Office for Intergovernmental Affairs was established, most of these efforts were ad hoc and handled in different State Department bureaus and offices.  Today, it is hard to imagine that state and municipal relations with foreign governments did not have a focal point at State.  By connecting federal offices with our local governments Reta Lewis has tapped into a whole new cast of international opportunities that had been more ad hoc arrangements than product of a more systematic effort to engage foreign counterparts.  
When the office first opened its doors, it dealt with only Brazil, Russia, India, China, Turkey and Nigeria. Now, activities are advancing with at least 17 countries.  An example where this type of engagement has been successful in the Americas is Brazil. Brazil will host the 2014 World Cup games and the 2016 Olympics.   Both events will attract international visitors, and from the State Department’s vantage point, it will also benefit from the experience that many of our own cities have had in creating successful sporting events.   The United States can help Brazil in a wide range of areas – from providing security for large sporting events, to consulting on the complex logistics for international events. 
In 2012 the State Department signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Brazil about sub-national cooperation.  It seeks to deepen cooperation between states, cities and civil society to encourage peer to peer exchanges.   While it specifically lays the foundation for partnerships in the run-up to the Olympic Games; it also seeks ways to share “best practices in the area of strategic planning, infrastructure and commercial enterprise, while striving to eliminate racial, ethnic, and gender discrimination and promote equality of opportunity for all.”
There was a time when foreign policy was just the realm of the Executive Branch of Government, with war-making left to Congress.   The evolution of this function over time, and especially in this century, demonstrates how far we have come in encouraging sub-national jurisdictions, and civil society, to advance U.S. foreign policy agendas.  These arrangements help states become part of the global value chain.  Our local leaders benefit by gaining a deeper understanding of the potential for commercial partnerships abroad.
Secretary Clinton, while giving her Special Representative a broad charge to build new partnerships and coalitions around the world, had only one caveat: “Don’t let our mayors and  governors negotiate any treaties,” a reference to the role of the President as the sole party to such arrangements, and the Senate’s role to “advice and consent” to treaties.  Still, subnational diplomacy has a broad mandate that will continue to grow as national borders become less meaningful, and where communications take place in nano-seconds, as opposed to in diplomatic cables.   
Johanna Mendelson Forman is a senior associate with the CSIS Americas Program.  
Photo courtesy U.S. Department of State used under the Creative Commons License