Richardson’s Stepping Stone to State?

Wednesday, December 03, 2008 at 2:44 pm
Gov. Bill Richardson (Flickr: Center for American Progress Action Fund)

Gov. Bill Richardson (Flickr: Center for American Progress Action Fund)

If in the back of his mind, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson harbors any dissatisfaction over not being named Barack Obama’s secretary of state, he can take heart. His new job running the Commerce Dept. has a surprisingly large international portfolio. And it could just be a stepping stone to the State Dept.

Domestically, the Commerce Dept. has something of a second-string feeling to it. Obama didn’t include the position in last week’s well-publicized rollout of his economic team. But overseas, the department has a robust profile. The U.S. Commercial Service is the Commerce Dept.’s equivalent of the State Dept.’s foreign service. More than 80 U.S. embassies and consulates around the world, mostly in developed nations, have a Commerce Service official deployed to promote U.S. business interests abroad.

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

“Obviously, a lot of countries [provide] huge export” markets, said John Naland, president of the American Foreign Service Assn., the professional association and trade union of the U.S. Foreign Service. “The Dept. of Commerce is out there trying to get them to buy Boeing and not Airbus. They help U.S. businesses find markets for U.S. exports.”

Last month, for example, Commerce spurred the Iraqi government to hold a bilateral dialogue on U.S.-Iraqi business ties. The department’s deputy secretary, John Sullivan, told the Iraqis that “U.S. investment in business here in Iraq is not nearly as robust as it should be, because more needs to be done to improve the environment, the climate, for business and investment.” He spoke on behalf of private-sector companies like the BAE Systems, the defense and aerospace giant, automotive heavyweight Daimler-Mercedes and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

At his announcement ceremony in Chicago Wednesday, Richardson spoke more about the domestic aspects of his new position than its international component. He defined the job as “job creation, economic growth, sustainable development and improving living standards — the same goals of [Obama's] economic plan.”

But if confirmed, Richardson would have one of the largest global profiles of any secretary in the department’s history, second perhaps only to W. Averell Harriman, the legendary diplomat who was Harry Truman’s commerce secretary. Richardson was U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations under President Bill Clinton and a globetrotting congressman before that, earning a reputation for mediating in crises with the Burmese, the Iraqis, the North Koreans and other U.S. adversaries.

That experience figures in Richardson’s new appointment. A fifth round of talks with global economic power China, under the aegis of the bilateral Strategic Economic Dialogue, are slated to begin Thursday in Beijing. Given the turbulent international economic climate and the fact that China imported an estimated $70 billion of U.S. goods last year — versus an export of $233 billion to the U.S. — Richardson is likely to confront trade with China early in his prospective position, to say nothing of trade with India, Latin America and the European Union.

As Marjorie Childress reported for The New Mexico Independent, Richardson has a reputation as a free-trader, though he has struck a more skeptical tone in recent months, pointing to the drawbacks of lifting workers’ protections. “We should have a relationship and recognition that China is a strategic competitor,” he said last year in a Democratic debate. “Our relationship with China today is clearly one-sided. I’d be tougher when it comes to trade; I’d be tougher with China when it comes to human rights.”

Having the well-travelled Richardson at Commerce could be a “great help” to U.S. businesses looking for foreign markets, Naland said. Trade delegations led by a cabinet secretary naturally convey greater prestige. “Some secretaries have [traveled heavily], while others haven’t,” Naland added. “Amb. Richardson seems likely to put a lot of emphasis in that area.”

In the days after Obama’s victory last month, Richardson’s name emerged as a candidate for secretary of state, the position that eventually went to Hillary Clinton. Many speculated that Richardson’s extensive resume — congressman, U.N. ambassador, secretary of energy, southwestern-state governor — precluded him from taking a job that could be seen as a demotion.

But the Commerce Dept.’s large foreign footprint might be a natural perch for advancing to the State Dept. Naland said that the Commercial Service attachments in U.S. embassies place Richardson’s new troops as “member of the ambassador’s team.” It might not be such a far leap to Foggy Bottom, especially given that secretaries of state rarely serve out a full four-year term.

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Pingback posted December 23, 2008 @ 11:56 am

[...] Ah Richardson. One of the hackiest stories I wrote this year was about Commerce’s role in foreign affairs, just in the interest of having something to say about Bill Richardson the day of his announcement [...]

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