A commercial attache is a person posted to a foreign embassy to promote the economic interests of his or her home country. In service the U.S. government the terms "commercial attache," "commercial officer," and "economic officer" are somewhat synonymous. A commercial attache may be a foreign service officer who reports economic developments in the host country to his or her superior or to the secretary of state. Traditionally, however, attaches differed from career diplomats in that they did not represent their country's foreign ministry (in the case of the United States the U.S. Department of State). Rather, they represented the governmental agencies responsible for particular fields of endeavor: agriculture, military, or commerce for instance. Present day foreign missions, however, especially foreign missions to large countries, often require groups of specialists. These specialists may function in the manner of traditional attaches or their assignment may be as secretaries on the diplomatic staff.
Generally a foreign embassy will have an economic/commercial section. This section is headed by an experienced senior officer who supervises his or her staff of specialists, a clerical staff, and sometimes nationals of the host country. The commercial half of the section is concerned with facilitating exports to, and investments in, the host country. The economic part of the section deals with economic relations at a government to-government level and provides economic information and analysis to its home government.
Before 1980 U.S. international trade specialists were representatives of both the State Department and the U.S. Department of Commerce. They were assigned to U.S. embassies in one of two ways: as commercial attach6s with temporary diplomatic status, or as State Department foreign service officers posted to a commercial position as a staff member of a commercial/economic section.
By 1980 it was becoming apparent that because of increasing specialization American overseas commercial interests would be better served if these functions were reorganized. As a result of the 1980 reorganization, the State Department separated its embassy staff into two parts: commercial work and broader economic work. Thus State Department foreign service officers are responsible for general economic analysis and Commerce Department foreign service commercial officers are responsible for trade matters.
Also in 1980 the U.S. and Foreign Commercial Service (USFCS) was established. The USFCS is part of the Commerce Department's International Trade Administration (ITA) which is responsible for promoting a U.S. role in global commerce. The ITA also helps to formulate foreign policy, has input into international agreements, and promotes U.S. products in foreign markets. The ITA is administered by three assistant secretaries who are responsible for the agency's main areas of operation: the assistant secretary for international economic policy, the assistant secretary for import administration, and the assistant secretary for trade development. The USFCS is headed by an assistant secretary and director general who oversees foreign postings and operations including offices in the United States. The USFCS has three levels of commercial officers: senior commercial officers, commercial attachés, and commercial officers.
Personnel serving as commercial attachés and commercial officers become involved in many diverse activities in the course of their work. These include supervising embassy employees assigned to them, meeting with businesspeople from both their own country and their host country, and attending trade fairs and expositions. Upon beginning an assignment at a new post, a commercial attaché or officer generally initiates some form of basic country survey. This survey familiarizes the new officer with the internal workings of the host country's business community and government offices. The new officer also compiles sources of information needed to accomplish his or her commercial objectives. Sources of information and contacts would include the host country's central bank, import and export trade associations, and chambers of commerce, and of course the host country's media. Attachés may be assigned to a single foreign post for as long as five years. If posted to a major trading partner, an attaché may be part of a staff of between 35 and 45 personnel.
Responsibilities of State Department economic officers are more varied. They may deal with money, finance, banking, trade, and commerce, as well as economic development projects, communication, and transportation. They may also be involved with environmental, scientific, or technology projects and issues. In these areas the officers are always concerned with U.S. interests and may intervene with foreign governments when necessary. The overall responsibility of the economic officer, however, is to provide the U.S. government with economic information and analysis of economic developments in the host country. They also serve as a source of economic information for visiting American businesspeople and may even be called upon to conduct negotiations on bilateral commercial and economic issues.
[ Michael Knes ]
Barrows, Leland. Commercial Diplomacy: Government Representation in Support of U.S. Exporters. Washington: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 1974.
Cantrell, Will, and Francine Modderno. How to Find an Overseas Job with the U.S. Government. Oakton, VA: Worldwise Books, 1992.
"Commercial Representatives: Getting to Know Your Territory." International Trade Forum, January/March 1988.
U.S. Department of State. "U.S. State Department (Recruitment.)" Washington: U.S. Department of State, 1997. Available from www.state.gov/www/careers/index.html .