By Pamela Phan and Patrick Kirwan
In his first speech on foreign policy, delivered from the majestic Benjamin Franklin Room at the Department of State, President Joe Biden made a case for placing diplomacy “back at the center of our foreign policy” and re-engaging globally.
“American leadership must meet this new moment,” he said, before identifying China’s growing ambitions to rival the United States as one of the nation’s greatest present and future challenges.
For more than a year, the Department of State and Department of Commerce (Commerce) have worked hand-in-hand to confront this new moment to help U.S. companies compete on a level playing field, in a fair process, for export and investment opportunities across the globe. This is the hard work of “commercial diplomacy” and is central to America’s foreign policy and ability to promote economic growth and prosperity, both at home and abroad.
Effective commercial diplomacy requires a whole-of-government approach, particularly when U.S. companies compete against foreign companies with financial backing and diplomatic support from their governments. Even when they offer the best quality technology or value, U.S. businesses are not always the lowest-cost providers, and they often compete on terms written with another bidder already in mind. Coordinated U.S. government advocacy and strategic mobilization of trade, development, and financial resources can help ensure greater fairness and transparency in the bidding process and make a case for choosing the U.S. brand.
Prioritizing whole-of-government coordination in furtherance of U.S. commercial interests is nothing new and dates back to the establishment of the Trade Promotion Coordinating Committee in 1993. In recent years, efforts to enhance collaboration across U.S. federal government agencies have led to the emergence of regional and sectoral initiatives like Prosper Africa, América Crece, Asia EDGE, the Digital Connectivity and Cybersecurity Partnership, and the Infrastructure Transaction and Assistance Network, among others. Such initiatives exist independently of, but are critically relevant to, a newer initiative jointly conceived and led by the Department and Commerce to establish “deal teams” at U.S. missions overseas. The “deal team” initiative builds on the successful interagency coordination model developed by Commerce’s Advocacy Center, which spearheads interagency engagement to support U.S. companies bidding on international public sector contracts.
The Department and Commerce launched this new initiative in February 2020. Since then, 150 U.S. missions have formed “deal teams” to identify export and investment opportunities and development strategies to help U.S. companies win against global competition. This global effort is managed by the Department’s Office of Commercial and Business Affairs and Commerce’s Trade Promotion Coordinating Committee Secretariat. The Department and Commerce coordinating team collaborates with 11 other agencies to bring together the resources and insights of the U.S. interagency to help U.S. companies win deals that contribute to the U.S. economy, create and sustain American jobs, and align with U.S. strategic objectives. The team also coordinates field training to highlight the tools and expertise that the 13 agencies can offer to U.S. companies pursuing overseas opportunities.
When needed, the Department and Commerce coordinating team in Washington can also help with “rapid response” efforts that engage relevant interagency partners, including at senior levels, so they can mobilize quickly in support of specific opportunities. Rapid response can make a key difference for missions and companies eyeing strategically important competitions in which a decision is imminent. Missions are encouraged to proactively solicit the Washington team’s assistance when they encounter strategically important prospects ripe for high-level Washington support and advocacy.
Since June 2020, these coordinated efforts have brought more than 1,400 export and investment opportunities across the globe to Washington’s attention. All 13 agencies have access to this information through a global tracking system, which allows for analysis by region and by sector. Opportunities falling under the energy, design and construction, information and communication technology, and healthcare fields are the most commonly tracked opportunities for U.S. firms.
To date, the work of “deal teams” worldwide has helped to support U.S. company successes in 83 deals, cumulatively valued at more than $76 billion.
In Taiwan, a sustained U.S. government advocacy campaign and enhanced interagency support opened the door to a $4.5 billion, 6,500 megawatt power plant deal in 2020—the largest project of its type. The Hsinta/Taichung project will support as many as 12,500 U.S. jobs at General Electric (GE) and its suppliers and includes an estimated $2.3 billion in U.S. export content. The U.S. government advocacy effort was instrumental in helping GE prevail over its international competitors, and the company celebrated the win as “a shining example of U.S. government-private sector collaboration at its best” and “an unprecedented and successful advocacy effort.”
U.S. government teams in the field are actively pursuing opportunities for U.S. companies and laying the groundwork for future successes. In Rwanda, efforts to attract U.S. exports and investment in e-commerce, health initiatives, transportation, and clean energy align with the embassy’s overall focus on development. The ambassador convenes his team, which includes the regional investment advisor for the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation, monthly to assess opportunities for trade and investment. The team has also collaborated with the Office for Defense Cooperation, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Foreign Agricultural Service, and the U.S. Trade and Development Agency. Thus far, such coordination has led to the identification of future opportunities for a regional genomics center, a mechanized organic farming project, affordable housing, a teaching hospital, wastewater treatment systems, a 911 system, and a direct flight to the United States.
Interagency coordination is also used to advance U.S. strategic interests, like secure communications systems across the globe. ADTRAN Inc., a mid-sized U.S. provider of broadband infrastructure solutions, headquartered in Huntsville, Ala., attributes the coordinated messaging by the U.S. government about the importance of secure solutions in 5G for opening new procurement opportunities with Openreach, an arm of British Telecom. Together, the team at Embassy London and the Commercial Service office in Birmingham, Ala., changed the focus to factors other than solely price. Openreach ultimately selected ADTRAN to provide equipment and a cloud platform worth an estimated $500 million. This will help Openreach to achieve its ambition of making gigabit and multi-gigabit services available to 20 million homes by the mid-to-late 2020s.
Thus far, the greatest success of the “deal team” initiative lies in its ability to provide a framework for increased interagency coordination in pursuit of U.S. commercial diplomacy overseas. In mobilizing the whole-of-government in support of new markets for U.S. exports and investments, the initiative helps to create more jobs at home while also contributing to greater stability and goodwill abroad. As the Department and Commerce coordinating team in Washington looks over the horizon, it will be working with new leadership to consider the potential for interagency trade missions that focus on strategic market sectors, geographic locations, and administration policy priorities. The team stands ready to build upon the foundation laid and seize this moment for the United States and U.S. companies.
Pamela Phan is the acting special representative for commercial and business affairs in the Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs at the Department of State. Patrick Kirwan is director of the trade promotion coordinating committee secretariat housed in the International Trade Administration at the Department of Commerce.