Commentary: When I was in college, I seriously thought about going into the Foreign Service, either as a State Department official working on foreign policy in a U.S. embassy, or a Department of Commerce official stationed in a foreign country, assisting American companies to break into new markets. I never became a federal official stationed in a foreign post, but I did get stationed in Mexico City for about three years when I was working for New Mexico Governor Bruce King back in the 1990s. I ran the state’s commercial/tourism office, and my two main tasks were to increase New Mexico’s exports to Mexico and to attract more Mexican tourists to our state.
In this capacity, I dealt with local, state, and federal officials in Mexico, as well as private businessmen. I also interacted a lot with other foreigners stationed in Mexico, many of them conducting the same type of work in which I was involved. One thing I learned quickly was that as an American official abroad, your every move and how you conduct yourself is scrutinized by the citizens in the country in which you are working. And as an American, there are preconceived notions about how you will act and treat other people. You also will be pestered with questions about American society, the president, and the democratic process in the U.S.
When President Trump used an expletive to describe Haiti, El Salvador, and countries in Africa that many immigrants to the U.S. come from, and why the U.S. isn’t recruiting more people from countries such as Norway, I felt a pang of relief that I didn’t go into the Foreign Service. I have friends working for the U.S. government abroad, and I can imagine how much more difficult their jobs are after Trump made his comment.
U.S. foreign policy is not only conducted by the president, but also by team members on the ground that have to deal with their foreign hosts, while trying to advance U.S. interests abroad. These people, more than the president, are the physical representation of the U.S., because they are working in the foreign country and they are generally accessible. Trump’s disparagement of the developing countries that were being discussed during the immigration reform meeting he had with U.S. senators undoubtedly will make achieving U.S. foreign interests much harder, and put foreign-based U.S. government officials in the awkward position of backlash and having to answer questions about the president’s remarks.
Throughout my career, with very few exceptions, I have found U.S. foreign officials to be intelligent, diplomatic, and passionate about creating the best possible image for the U.S. abroad. They are now going to have to use all of their skills to assure their foreign hosts that the U.S. is a good, compassionate nation that has been built on the backs and dreams of immigrants.
I do hope that these U.S. foreign officials do not become introverted and reluctant to interact with the local hosts because of this incident. I saw this happen at a conference I attended last year which focused on trade. Several U.S. Department of Commerce officials that were stationed in countries throughout the world participated and gave speeches. I wanted to talk to the officials stationed in Mexico and discuss the direction the U.S. was taking in regard to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), given President Trump’s bashing of NAFTA during his presidential campaign. Normally, Commerce officials are open about discussing trade agreements. It is their job to be familiar and updated about these, because they advise and encourage U.S. companies to explore foreign markets.
When it was revealed that I am a columnist who focuses on international trade and relations, I was told that the officials were instructed by superiors in Washington, D.C. not to provide journalists with any comments. It did not matter that I also counsel clients on how to enter foreign markets, and have done this for 27 years. I genuinely felt sorry for the Commerce officials because they had been put in a tight spot. Their job is to promote foreign trade and to assist U.S. companies in exporting their products.
An agreement such as NAFTA has facilitated this process since it was implemented in 1994, and Commerce officials have strongly promoted its effectiveness. In fact, the Commerce Department routinely generates and sends out statistics and success stories highlighting the important role that NAFTA has had in increasing trade between the U.S., Mexico, and Canada. Now, all of a sudden, the Commerce officials’ world had been turned upside down due to the different course on foreign trade that was being espoused by the new president, and they were not allowed to speak freely.
I am confident that one ill-advised comment by a president cannot completely sink U.S. foreign policy and interests abroad. However, there are probably quite a few U.S. officials in foreign countries commiserating over a beer about how hard their job is normally without having to deal with the added stress.
Jerry Pacheco is President of the Border Industrial Association. His columns appear in The Albuquerque Journal.