Opinion

Ian Bremmer

Goodbye Department of Commerce, hello Department of Economic Statecraft

By Ian Bremmer
August 22, 2012

Whether it’s Barack Obama or Mitt Romney who wins the next election, there is already a vacancy to fill in the president’s Cabinet. With the resignation of John Bryson in June, thanks to a hit-and-run accident apparently caused by a medical issue, the Department of Commerce is being led by an acting secretary, Rebecca Blank. Yet after the initial scandalmongering about Bryson’s departure died down, nary a peep has been uttered in the media about the department’s fate or future.

In other words, the Department of Commerce’s real problem is not a lack of leadership, but a lack of mission-a weakness that means Commerce isn’t making the most of its roughly $10 billion budget. In today’s world, everything – geopolitics, national security, foreign policy – is increasingly being viewed through the lens of our economic interests. The United States has a powerful bureaucracy devoted to international diplomacy and a gargantuan one devoted to national defense, but a near-total vacuum when it comes to global economics.

For a long time now, as conservatives have tried to scale back the size of the government, they’ve also argued that America’s businesses need to be unencumbered from government regulation. They worry about how the government’s intrusion into business will harm our competitiveness abroad. However, the idea that’s been neglected is that the government, through industrial policy, can protect and advance the interests of the private sector abroad, too. The global, U.S.-led economic institutions that arose from the ashes of World War Two have truly become global. Thus they’ve stopped protecting America’s interests abroad. Structurally, our business sector has little to no support from the government when it comes to finding customers outside of our borders. To remain competitive, especially with the state-run economy of China, that has to change.

Again, the three-legged stool of United States interests abroad – diplomacy, defense and business – is currently missing a leg. Is it any wonder that the country has remained influential and militarily superior, even as its economy cratered during the financial crisis and has only sluggishly and half-heartedly recovered? While the Department of State attracts the best and brightest minds, and the Department of Defense is unrivaled in the world, Commerce has not exactly been a haven for global economic thought or leadership.

What I’m suggesting is not, however, a government-sponsored think tank for global commerce. The Department of Economic Statecraft should be staffed and run by those in our country with the most impressive resumes in the private sector. They should be given the tools of government to serve the business community they came from. Presidents have long recruited business leaders to join White House economic councils and working groups, and to informally offer their advice, but it’s time to go beyond that into actual executive and policy powers.

When you consider the might of the U.S. in defense and diplomacy, you can understand that in these realms the U.S. can often achieve its goals by “going it alone.” For better or worse, consider the prosecution of two wars over the past decade, with scant help from our allies. But when you think about business, going it alone is not an option. We need trading partners to sell our goods to. And we need to foster a robust domestic economy to ensure that we can buy goods from others. While our capitalist system has proved to be the greatest in the world, we need only look toward China to understand how some limited economic coordination can lead to booming, sustainable growth. The U.S. has, for a long time, refused to learn anything from any other country’s example. Often it can afford to do so because of its pre-eminence in the world. Here, though, is one example where the government’s structure is behind the times and could stand to learn a thing or two.

This essay is based on a transcribed interview with Bremmer.

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