The Cable

State Department hosting massive business conference

Next Tuesday, the State Department will convene its largest business conference ever, bringing together business representatives from over 100 countries to discuss how the U.S. government can help them succeed.

State's first Global Business Conference will be held over two days and will bring together senior officials from the White House, the Departments of State, Commerce, Treasury and Energy, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, the Export-Import Bank, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, and the U.S. Trade and Development Agency to meet with the visiting business leaders and leaders of U.S. trade and industry associations operating abroad.

"The idea is to talk about what the government can do, and what the State Department through its embassies can do, to support American businesses abroad," said Robert Hormats, the undersecretary of state for economics, energy, and the environment, in an interview with The Cable.

State wants to leverage the U.S. diplomatic presence around the world to help American companies increase exports, encourage foreign direct investment in the United States, and ensure American businesses are not robbed of their intellectual property and business secrets when operating abroad. This is all part of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's economic statecraft agenda, as she announced in a speech last October.

"We want to make sure that by engaging with these people, we are responsive to their needs and their concerns, and they have a sense of what we in our government are able to do," Hormats said.

Clinton, Commerce Secretary John Bryson, U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Thomas Donohue, and Boeing Chairman James McNerney will all speak on the first day, which will also include panel discussions and small group meetings on export promotion, increasing foreign investment in the United States, creating public-private partnerships, and facilitating business and leisure travel to the United States. The second day of the conference will include breakout sessions hosted by the State Department's regional assistant secretaries to discuss regional strategies to advance shared economic interests.

"The bottom line is we want to support the ability of the American companies to create private sector jobs in the United States. And second, strengthening our international economic policy by working with American business strengthens our economy at home and complements other aspects of our foreign policy," said Hormats.

Most of the guests will be business facilitators, such as American chambers of commerce or business associations that operate abroad. There will be some individual companies in attendance as well.

Hormats said some embassies, such as in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Turkey, have already been proactive in supporting U.S. businesses and have achieved results..

"In Saudi Arabia, the number of small and medium enterprises for whom the embassy has advocated has gotten a lot of business. There are a substantial number of small- and medium-sized American businesses that are doing business there that weren't two years ago," he said. "What we're trying to do in particular is to identify some of the fast-growing economies and make a really strong effort there."

The key elements of the new push for international business focus on sectors like infrastructure, healthcare, information technology, insurance, financial services, construction, and transportation equipment, he said.

"We really want the people from abroad to give us ideas on what's important to look at," said Hormats.

One development that is impacting the environment for American businesses abroad is the Arab Spring, and one of the breakout sessions is specifically designed to focus on the effects of government instability in the Middle East and North Africa.

Another focus will be how to deal with countries with economic systems that are state-controlled, which can hinder foreign companies' ability to compete fairly with government- supported local firms.

"Our worry is that state enterprises and state-supported enterprises get an inordinate amount of support from their governments, which distorts competitiveness," said Hormats. "That's definitely one of the big challenges for the United States and it puts our companies at a disadvantage."

In the end, Hormats said the American economic model ultimately will win out, as long as the United States does not stop attracting the world's best and brightest.

"We still have a culture that's very innovative, we have an entrepreneurial culture, one where upward mobility is a hallmark of what we're doing. But we also have to work hard to continue to reinforce our strengths, which means more emphasis on education, infrastructure, and research and development," he said. "We really are seeing competition among systems."

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