Regaining Lost Ground

President's Views


During my first tour, as an economic then political officer in Panama, our office wall held a map showing the march of democracy across Latin America. Countries with democratically elected governments were shown in green; countries still under military dictatorships in brown. That map—with its imperative to support the transition to democratic governance— inspired my generation with its vivid portrayal of our mission.

Decades later, as deputy chief of mission in London, I heard with concern about a different kind of map. Great American companies with their EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa) operations headquartered in London told me about maps on their office walls showing continents with countries grayed out, indicating that conditions in those countries did not permit the American company to compete for business there. Why? Typically, because rule of law was weak, making government procurement processes opaque and subject to bribes, and contract enforcement unreliable.

Regular readers of this column will know that I have, for several months, focused on putting more members of the U.S. Foreign Service in the field, arguing that the Foreign Service offers a “shovel-ready,” highly cost-effective way to regain commercial, economic and political ground now being claimed by competitors such as China.

After a dozen hearings in Congress about rising competition from China, it is increasingly clear that ceding one business deal after another to the competition affects not only prosperity here at home but also America’s leadership role around the globe. Taken cumulatively, commercial transactions have geostrategic ramifications.

The erosion of funding for America’s core diplomatic capability is proving to be a classic case of “penny-wise, pound foolish.” To squeeze out minor savings— deployed diplomats don’t cost much, but they deliver a major bang for the buck—we have left American embassies and consulates around the globe with too few diplomats to do the job, especially the crucial job of leveling the playing field for American businesses. As the competition rises, the cost of this approach—lost ground—becomes ever more evident.

American businesses have noticed, and they are rallying to urge Secretary Pompeo to send more Foreign Service officers to overseas posts. In a remarkable letter signed by 96 business associations, ranging from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers to local associations, the business associations hail the work of FSOs as “instrumental in advancing the interests of American companies around the world.” They state: “U.S. businesses need their help engaging with foreign governments to level the playing field so that American companies can compete and win in the global market place.”

Because this letter marks such an important step in AFSA’s ongoing work to grow a domestic constituency for the Foreign Service, the entire letter, with all 96 signatories, can be read here.

The recently approved BUILD Act gives us a new tool in the fight to regain lost ground. (For more on this, see the message from Senator Coons in this issue). I know mid-level FSOs at State are eager to get to work in the field alongside Foreign Commercial Service colleagues to make a success of the BUILD Act and, more generally, to regain lost commercial ground.

Fortunately, Secretary Pompeo does not need much convincing. He spoke during a visit of the need to work together with Panama (which recently established diplomatic relations with China) to make sure “China cannot gain an unfair competitive advantage in our hemisphere.” In Mexico, he elaborated to Voice of America, speaking of China’s “right to go compete in the world.”

In what I take as a vote of confidence in us, the U.S. Foreign Service, the Secretary concluded: “I’m convinced that if we compete with them all over the world, we’ll do incredibly well.”

So am I. Put additional members of the Foreign Service in the field, and let us prove Secretary Pompeo right. I am certain that, with adequate numbers posted to embassies and consulates around the world, the Foreign Service will do incredibly well—improving transparency and legal frameworks so our companies can compete and win.

Ambassador Barbara Stephenson is the president of the American Foreign Service Association.