Trump-Era Law Pushes U.S. Diplomacy Toward Imperialism

A report published last month by the U.S. Government Accountability Office indicates that U.S. diplomats are now legally required to open markets for U.S. businesses.

In a review of a little-noticed act that was signed into law in 2019 by then-President Donald Trump, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) interpreted the law to mean that U.S. diplomats have a legal obligation to help U.S. businesses gain access to overseas markets, a practice that is a main feature of imperialism. 

This interpretation of the law is consistent with imperialism, which political theorists and advocates alike have long defined as economic expansion into new markets.

Since the time of the Open Door Policy, when U.S. diplomats sought to open the door to the markets of China in the early twentieth century, critics have viewed the approach as the guiding doctrine of U.S. imperialism. Only now, U.S. diplomats are facing new legal pressures to open markets wherever they are stationed around the world.

“We focused on activities that [the Departments of] State and Commerce identified as key to their efforts to support U.S. businesses seeking to enter or expand in overseas markets,” the GAO explained.

In December 2019, Trump signed the Championing American Business Through Diplomacy Act,  a bill in a broader legislative package approved by Congress. Receiving little attention at the time, the act included several new requirements for U.S. diplomats, primarily in the area of economic and commercial diplomacy. 

The act amends the Foreign Service Act of 1980 to require diplomats to promote U.S. economic and commercial interests. This amendment complements an already existing legal requirement that diplomats prioritize the promotion of U.S. products for export.

“Each chief of mission to a foreign country shall have as a principal duty the promotion of United States economic and commercial interests in such country,” the law says.

U.S. diplomats now receive increased training in economic and commercial diplomacy, are subject to new reporting on economic and commercial activities, and are required to consult with business leaders on trade expansion. 

New training for diplomats, the law notes, must focus on “market access and other elements of an enabling framework for United States businesses, commercial advocacy, and United States foreign economic policy.”

The GAO interprets these requirements to mean that U.S. diplomats must help U.S. businesses gain access to overseas markets. The act’s language of “economic and commercial diplomacy” is defined by the GAO as “efforts to promote U.S. economic and commercial interests abroad and to create an enabling environment for U.S. businesses to enter or expand in an overseas market.”

This interpretation of the law is consistent with imperialism, which political theorists and advocates alike have long defined as economic expansion into new markets.

“New markets and new opportunities for investment must be found if surplus capital is to be profitably employed,” Charles A. Conant wrote in his 1898 essay “The Economic Basis of ‘Imperialism’.”

At the time of the law’s passage, the Trump Administration was pushing to open markets for U.S. businesses. Its Trade Policy Agenda prioritized the use of U.S. economic power to open markets around the world. 

“I’m opening up markets like nobody has ever opened markets before,” Trump boasted.


At the State Department, Trump’s Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, directed a major effort to focus U.S. diplomacy on the task of opening markets. After informing U.S. diplomats of his plans in a November 2018 cable titled “Boosting Commercial Diplomacy around the World,” Pompeo went on a speaking tour in which he repeatedly informed business leaders that the State Department was working on their behalf.

Under the 2019 law, U.S. diplomats now appear to be legally required to engage in imperial practices.

“Economic diplomacy is very much at the core of what the State Department does,” Pompeo explained at a gathering of business leaders. The State Department, he said, can help them “attack markets all around the world.”

A key vehicle of the Trump Administration’s approach was its “Deal Teams,” which Pompeo introduced to U.S. diplomats in a February 2020 cable. This effort brought together officials from the Departments of State and Commerce to help U.S. businesses pursue new investment opportunities abroad. As of mid-2021, Deal Teams were operating in 179 countries.

Of course, the Trump Administration’s focus on economic and commercial diplomacy was nothing new for the United States. Arguably, a core mission of the U.S. Foreign Service has always been to support U.S. businesses.

“It is foundational to our purpose,” Barbara Stephenson wrote in a 2019 article, when she was the president of the American Foreign Service Association, a professional association of U.S. diplomats. “It is a major reason why the U.S. Foreign Service was created, why we exist.”

A great deal of evidence for the long history of U.S. imperial diplomacy comes from the scholarly literature on U.S. diplomatic history. The Wisconsin School of diplomatic history, an influential school of thought among U.S. diplomatic historians, is famous for showing how U.S. diplomats have worked to open markets for U.S. businesses.

The scholars of the Wisconsin School “did more than anyone else to transform U.S. imperialism into a valuable field of research,” notes James G. Morgan in his 2014 book, Into New Territory.

An archive of more than 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables that WikiLeaks published in 2010 and 2011 provides extensive documentation of how U.S. diplomats serve the interests of U.S. businesses. In the words of Chelsea Manning, the whistleblower who sent the cables to WikiLeaks, the archive shows “how the first world exploits the third, in detail, from an internal perspective.”

But, under the 2019 law, U.S. diplomats now appear to be legally required to engage in imperial practices. 

The Biden Administration has remained silent about the Trump-era changes. Nothing in the GAO’s report indicates that anyone in Washington has a problem with the new legal requirements. The State Department officials who reviewed the report raised no objections to the GAO’s interpretation of the law. 

Two years after the passage of the Championing American Business Through Diplomacy Act, it appears that nobody in Washington is concerned about a law that seemingly requires U.S. diplomats to be imperialists.