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Economic Affairs: the issues

Updated: Feb 14, 2019

The issues economic officers work on are different in each embassy, but typical portfolios in the economic section include macro-economic policy, commercial advocacy, agriculture, civil aviation, climate change, corruption, customs, energy, finance, health, sanctions, science, technology, transport, and women’s economic empowerment.

Traditional economic diplomacy revolves around dealing with foreign governments on economic policy issues like protecting intellectual property rights, exchange rates, eliminating corruption and promoting energy security. As diplomats do, economic officers talk to relevant government counterparts to explain their point of view and convince them to adopt the same policies and standards.

In many cases, economic issues make headlines. Recently we heard a lot about international trade disputes, the growing role of China in the world economy, Russia’s regional energy policies (which is uses as leverage over other countries), economic sanctions against rogue regimes like Iran and North Korea, communication technology, and the introduction of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Besides policies and politics, economic officers work on commercial issues. Commercial advocacy has been a major part of economic diplomacy for centuries. Before embassies were common (since the 1800s, and even more after WW 2), countries had little consulates all over the place to protect their traders on foreign lands, support their business activities, guard commercial roads and water straights, and sound the alarm when their interests were threatened.

Nowadays, economic diplomacy is understood in a broader sense—not strictly commercial. Still, international trade makes up a third of world economic output so it makes sense diplomats are still involved in it a lot. They facilitate trade by helping companies access foreign markets; providing information on rules and regulations; promoting certain industries overseas; doing market research; reporting on economic trends; describing the investment climate; and explaining how legal systems works.

More recently, environment, science, technology and health (ESTH) issues became an integral part of economic diplomacy. Sometimes, economic cooperation with other countries is tricky because they’re not seeing eye-to-eye on how the economic system should work. Some countries are more protectionist than others, trying to shield certain industries from foreign competition by not letting foreign companies in, or applying unequal standards.

But almost all countries are interested in obtaining new technologies, fighting health threats, and preserving and protecting their natural resources. Working together on ESTH issues can be easier than other issues because it’s sometimes the “lowest common denominator.” Which means that even when countries don’t agree with other countries’ political and economic policies they’re often still interested in building up expertise in these areas.

But ESTH cooperation between countries isn’t always easy—some issues that fall within this category are highly political—and thus problematic. Examples of that are working on HIV/AIDS issues with countries that do not accept “western” explanations and solutions to the problem (Russia, among other countries).

Another example is the global effort to eradicate polio, which has been extremely challenging in places like Nigeria and Pakistan, where doctors and humanitarian workers who were trying to vaccinate children have been attacked and even killed. Cooperation on space technology between the US and Russia has also been difficult because of mutual distrust stemming from the Cold War era.

Environmental diplomacy is another relatively new area diplomats work in as more and more countries are getting involved in the debate, often because they’re experiencing adverse environmental effects from economic development, like realizing their oceans don’t have fish anymore, their forests are disappearing, and potable water reserves are shrinking.

Cooperation on environmental issues can range from talk about signing onto global conventions to asking other countries for direct support to deal with ecological issues. For example, the US has helped other countries deal with forest fires, providing fire prevention technology, equipment and training.

And don’t be fooled into thinking that economic issues are a yawn; several of today’s most controversial global issues are economic in nature, and every foreign policy are has an economic aspect to it, like creating stable markets in fragile states; responding to disasters and crises; counterbalancing the geopolitical influence of rival countries; and fighting terrorism—for example by finding ways to stifle terrorist financing.

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