Rebuilding Our Economic Strength

Where We Stand


In AFSA’s efforts to boost America’s core diplomatic capability overseas, an area of particular focus is the need for additional economic positions overseas. There are obvious geostrategic reasons for this emphasis—Chinese competition with the United States for global influence has a distinctly sharp economic edge, for instance. Concerns on Capitol Hill that the United States is falling behind economically are acute, which probably explains why there have been multiple congressional hearings on Chinese competition, especially in the economic arena.

There are other reasons why putting economic officers in the field is a good idea.

Prosperity is (usually) a nonpartisan tool of national power. Prosperity is something everyone wants, and it’s a highly consequential tool of U.S. national power. The United States has used its prosperity over the last 70 years to promote economic development around the world, to spread U.S. best practices in business and the rule of law, to attract productive investment, to expand U.S. exports and to increase our influence in global political and economic institutions.

Economic work overseas benefits citizens at home. Economic and commercial work is often overlooked, but its benefits can be quick and obvious to Americans. When most people think of the Foreign Service, they think of stereotypical diplomatic (political) work, and rarely make a connection between the economic and commercial work done in embassies and U.S. prosperity. The more connections we can make between the economic and commercial work of the Foreign and the prosperity of U.S. companies and U.S. citizens, the better!

I know one economic officer who, with a fellow FSO from the Foreign Agricultural Service, helped to open the poultry market in South Africa to U.S. exports. They worked long and hard to convince the South African government to remove regulatory impediments to U.S. poultry imports; and they finally succeeded. Anyone who has ever traveled across the “Broiler Belt” of the southeast United States understands the importance of poultry exports to the citizens of those states.

There’s strength in numbers. We simply don’t have the Foreign Service economic positions overseas that we need. According to State Department figures, there are 1,549 economic officers in the Foreign Service. That may sound like a lot. However, when we unpack these numbers, it turns out that less than a quarter – just 369 – of those economic officers are working overseas in actual economic positions. The rest are in mixed pol/econ, political, or consular work, in training, or at headquarters.

When we spread these 369 officers among 278 embassies and consulates, the problem becomes evident—we just don’t have enough economic officers in economic positions in the field, particularly in those posts where Foreign Commercial Service and Foreign Agricultural Service officers aren’t present. In addition, our members have consistently told us of the challenges they face in finding suitable economic jobs overseas. There just aren’t enough positions.

Imbalance now leads to more trouble later. A medium- or long-term imbalance in available positions and bidders could spell trouble for stewardship of the economic career track. Becoming a member of the Senior Foreign Service in the economic cone requires depth and breadth in economic work and experience as well as management skills and proven leadership. Having too few economic positions available threatens the integrity of the career path itself—placing economic officers in danger of not having the requisite experience and background to reach the senior ranks due to a chronic need to go outside the economic cone for at-grade jobs.

In addition, the general professional development of more junior economic officers will be affected if there are not senior officers serving in high-level economic positions who can mentor and train mid-level officers in the tradecraft of overseas economic work.

Allowing the economic cone to be hollowed out by continuing to have too few positions for economic officers in the field risks harming the entire Foreign Service. This is why AFSA’s focus is where it is. It’s time to reverse the trend and restore those overseas economic positions that have been lost and create more economic positions if needed.

Julie Nutter is Director of Professional Policy Issues at the American Foreign Service Association.