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The Silver Linings of Virtual Commercial Diplomacy

May 6, 2021

David De Falco is the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Europe and Eurasia

Screen shot from a virtual meeting between David De Falco and others

The pandemic has shaken up how everyone does business across the globe. As a team and an organization, all of us at ITA have had to adapt to the many challenges of working virtually from home. But what about the work of commercial diplomacy, where developing and maintaining close working relationships with our foreign counterparts and U.S. companies is essential? Can such work be done virtually?

As the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Europe, I have grown accustomed to meeting my colleagues face-to-face. As such, I was initially skeptical about the logistics and impact of a ‘virtual trip’ when my team proposed an initial visit to the Republic of Georgia back in December 2020 and also more recently for Ukraine for April 2021. However, the ITA teams for each country approached our foreign counterparts and U.S. private sector contacts and galvanized enthusiastic support for these engagements. Having now completed two successful virtual trips, I’m convinced that such engagements can lead to tangible outcomes for U.S. companies. Even when we go back to travelling, I think a virtual or hybrid model can still be used very effectively to increase the cadence of our interactions.

Despite being virtual, the trips still had most of the same elements you would expect to see with an in-person trip. I met with dozens of Georgian and Ukrainian ministry officials and their staff, advocated for specific U.S. business interests in coordination with ITA’s Advocacy Center, and collaborated with Embassy colleagues and AmCham members to better align on the mission’s bilateral trade priorities.

While U.S. trade with Georgia and Ukraine is relatively low, commercial diplomacy can help accelerate economic reform efforts in these key strategic markets creating the conditions needed for U.S. business to compete on a level playing field against increased Chinese competition. As a result of my meetings with Georgian officials, two key issues of our cooperation with Georgia in 2021 were established focusing on further engagement in the logistics sector and activities focused on bringing U.S. and Georgian Information Communication Technology companies together to explore business opportunities.

In Ukraine, where U.S. companies see sizeable opportunities in the railway, maritime, and agriculture sector, I discussed with the Infrastructure Minister ways U.S. companies could assist Ukraine’s $60 billion infrastructure modernization efforts and ways our two nations can partner on renewable energy initiatives to address the growing climate crisis. My team is now following up on my visit, supporting the advancement of a major railway project and a small nuclear modular reactor project in Ukraine, which are key priorities for the new Administration as we work to help Ukraine reduce dependence on Russian energy.

While there is a certain je ne c’est quoi that will always make in-person trips the preferred method for commercial diplomacy, with two successful trips under our belt on the Global Markets Europe team, my team and I wanted to share some lighthearted, but genuine thoughts and reflections on the silver linings we’ve identified about commercial diplomacy in a virtual era:

  • Logistical planning – While any visit requires extensive planning, one positive element of virtual trips is that you don’t need to spend time on visas, flight arrangements, ground transport and accommodations, which free up valuable hours to dedicate to other efforts, such as additional engagements. Furthermore, there are fewer logistical concerns, e.g. the spillover effect of meetings running overtime, transportation between locations, etc.
  • Creatively inviting other experts – One advantage of a virtual visit is that, if it’s to our advantage to add in additional delegation members whose expertise or presence would be valuable for certain meetings, they don’t need to expend significant time or money just to travel to single meeting or two. If it’s advantageous to have colleagues from other U.S. Government entities, such as the Export-Import Bank, U.S. Trade Representative, or other Commerce offices join a particular meeting, it’s a lot easier to click ‘join meeting’ on a computer vs. fret over travel logistics.
  • No jet lag – While you may have to begin the day’s events at a potentially very early hour, there is no doubt that an early meeting is preferable to entering a meeting having just got off a plane mere hours beforehand. Commercial diplomacy engagements often involve lengthy, detailed discussions and negotiations over complex subjects. As such, there is something to be said about being able to begin a series of intense meetings well rested.

Of course, my team and I all look forward when we can safely return to engaging with our counterparts in a face-to-face setting. Regardless, the virtual transition we’ve adapted to over the past year hasn’t been all bad—there’s always a silver lining… or in our case, three.