U.S. embassies: Not just spies and visas

Commuters pass in front of the highly-secured U.S. embassy in Manila on July 6, 2013.

More than a dozen U.S. embassies and consulates in the Middle East and Africa are closed through Saturday.

The U.S. government is warning of possible terror attacks. This impacts security, politics and travel. But it also affects the embassy's business of, well, business. For those of us who think embassies are just there for when you've lost your passport, think again.

Some things you may not know embassies do:

  • Promote American business: Embassies are the gateway to new customers and partnerships for American businesses of all kinds and all sizes, what former Deputy Treasury Secretary Stuart Eizenstat calls “the front lines for American business.” Inside, staffers from various American government departments work to make connections, open markets and lower barriers for U.S. firms that want to sell their products overseas.
  • Expand U.S. agriculture exports: American embassies have substantial staff dedicated to opening markets for America’s farm products. Some countries erect stiff trade barriers to protect their own farmers. Embassy staffers try to relax and remove them so American farmers can compete. They also connect U.S. farms to foreign businesses, to find new consumers for American food.
  • Represent 27 different U.S. agencies abroad: According to the State Department's website, more than 27 U.S. agencies work overseas and serve under the authority of the U.S. Ambassador, including staff from the Departments of Commerce and Agriculture, and USAID, who "depend on their Foreign Service officers to carry out the agency’s programs abroad, working to promote U.S. products and services to ensure that American farmers and businesses can compete fairly and effectively abroad."
  • U.S. Commercial Service: Similarly, the Department of Commerce’s International Trade Administration operates a trade promotion arm, called the U.S. Commercial Service, in more than 75 countries to help U.S. companies get started in exporting or increase sales to new global markets.
  • Work with academics: U.S. embassy staff sponsor American scientists, scholars and artists "to promote professional, educational and cultural exchanges," according to the State Department.

About the author

Mark Garrison is a reporter and substitute host for Marketplace, based in New York.

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