Tuck professor Emily Blanchard named chief economist for U.S State Department
The Dartmouth spoke with Blanchard about her work, the global supply chain and more.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that Tuck School of Business professor Emily Blanchard will be chief economist for the State Department in a Jan. 6 press release. According to a Tuck press release the next day, the chief economist oversees the economic effects of U.S. foreign policy decisions on issues ranging from supply chains to climate change. The Dartmouth sat down with her for an interview, discussing her career as an economist, culture shock at the State Department and her response to various global economic issues.
What was the selection process like for this post?
EB: I don’t know a lot about the selection process, but what I can tell you is that I didn’t apply in some sort of open forum. I was asked last summer if I might be interested by my now-boss, undersecretary for economic growth, energy and the environment Jose Fernandez, who was yet to be confirmed. He is a Dartmouth grad and former member of the Board of Trustees at Dartmouth. We had met through various Dartmouth events, and he knew me as an economist who’s pretty serious and excited about policy.
What exactly does being the chief economist at the State Department entail? What might a typical day look like for you?
EB: Well, I’m still learning what a typical day looks like — and I don’t think I’ve had a typical day yet between snowstorms in Washington, D.C., the omicron variant and various current events that are demanding my attention. Every day is a little bit of a fire drill, but I’m learning more and more how to integrate into that process. There are a lot of meetings, and it’s fascinating. I’m working with everybody from country desks, foreign postings and cables coming in from U.S. embassies all around the world just giving us a lay of the land and what’s going on.
There are lots of policy level discussions with this bureau — which include economic growth, energy and the environment — but then across different bureaus as well, so it’s been really fascinating. There is also a fair bit of interagency work. I’ll get looped in on everything from the Department of Commerce to the Treasury and the Council of Economic Advisers. I’m sure there will be more, but these are our main points of contact.
The Office of the Chief Economist is fairly new, created in 2011. Why do you think that it was important to be established?
EB: I don’t want to presume to know the intent of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who established the office at the time, though I will say I think it was a great choice. The goal was to bring an office that could take a couple of steps back from the incredible flood of information and work of day-to-day diplomacy and try to develop a clear economic framework for thinking about events as they go forward in the world today. So, I think this was a great choice to set up an office as a place where that careful thinking can happen. The office is not just a place for analysis and deep thinking; we also do a huge amount of outreach and engagement work with the public and with foreign posts overseas. Plus, we’re involved in the crafting and refinement of the economics curriculum at the Foreign Service Institute.
I’m trying to bring a lot of that excitement and rigor for applied and rigorous economic analysis to what we do there. And then there’s a lot of times when we’re just asked for the “economist hot take” on things. We have so many things going on in diplomacy that aren’t neoclassical economics per se, but then folks will ask, “What would an economist say about this?” Or “Is there any other piece of information that could be useful from that perspective?” That’s something that our office is designed to provide.
What do you consider to be some of the most pressing economic issues in our world right now?
EB: There are so many, where do I start? Climate change is fundamental and existential. It’s incredibly important to understand the consequences that climate change will have for global political and economic stability. How does the U.S. understand the choices that our partner countries are making? How can the U.S. make commitments through things like the COP26, the 2021 United Nations climate change convention?
Another pillar of current US economic foreign policy is a concerted effort to craft a foreign policy for the middle class through everything from trade agreements to investments and other kinds of economic engagements with partner countries around the world. A great example would be the G7 corporate minimum tax agreement that was struck last June — and recognizing that the kinds of agreements that we try to strike with our partners matter, not only for overall aggregate economic growth and prosperity in the U.S., but for the distribution of that prosperity across different groups and communities throughout the country. This Biden administration really focused on distributional consequences of foreign policy choices. And then, of course, there are the geostrategic questions, everything from critical technologies to global supply chain resiliency.
In your view, how has the Biden administration’s approach to foreign policy differed from previous administrations?
EB: It is not that different from previous administrations — with one important exception, the last administration. Under the Trump administration, the U.S. pursued a markedly unilateralist approach where we decided to do lots of things alone. There were the “America First” policies, not just in economics through things like imposing tariffs on trading partners, including China, but also in rhetoric and so much more. Diplomatically, it was “my way or the highway.”
Now, this administration is taking a wise and cautious approach to many sorts of geopolitical tensions, but we’re doing it with our neighbors and in consultation with our allies. That outreach has been demonstrated time and time again by this administration and by the State Department. It’s working with our partner countries all around the world and conquering threats together instead of shutting our neighbors out.
You’ve been in your post for just over three weeks at the time of this interview. How has the transition been from academia to government service?
EB: It’s a little bit of culture shock. It’s fun and it’s exciting. I am amazed at the incredible caliber of people I get to work every day here, and I’m saying that as somebody who’s coming from Dartmouth and Tuck where I have the best students and faculty colleagues in the world and I live in the Upper Valley, which is an incredible place to live and to work. But here there is a deep and profound commitment to U.S. foreign policy and advancing the goals of U.S. democratic ideals, and I’m just really inspired. At the same time, I will say there is a lot of paperwork and culture shock as I’m learning to operate in a very, very big organization.
What sparked your interest in economics, international relations and policy, and led you to want to go into academia and then into government?
EB: I went to Wellesley and I studied economics, international relations, math and a little bit of astrophysics. Coming out of college, I was not sure what I wanted to do. I had a pretty good sense that it was something around international economic policy, but the “what” was unclear, so straight out of college in the ’90s I applied and took the foreign service exam. I found out that I got into the foreign service but I’d also been admitted to PhD programs in economics. I had to decide which way I was going to go. It was a very tough decision. Eventually I decided to get the PhD in economics.
One thing led to another and I became completely enamored with research, which I love, and I’ve continued down the academic path studying all the kinds of things that are relevant to economic diplomacy, and a lot of teaching which is a passion of mine. When this opportunity to serve at the State Department came up, it was a complete no-brainer for me. It was the marriage 25 years later of those two dreams, those two visions that I had coming out of college. It was the chance to have my cake and eat it too, and so that’s why I am where I am.
You plan to return to Tuck after your government service ends. How do you think serving in this position will impact or influence your teaching and researching career?
EB: I think it will be invaluable in the classroom. I think I’ll have a new depth of understanding for how the rubber meets the road and how we connect big ideas that we have as scholars and researchers to policy implementation. I already — just three weeks in — have a much richer understanding of what it looks like day to day when firms and governments across the world and careful thinkers get together and try to actually do things. It’s one thing to say there are global supply chain snarls that are really costly for American firms and families. It’s quite another to sit down and ask exactly what we can do to make this better, but we’re going to give it our best. I think that’s really critical for teaching. In research, I hope it brings me new passion and a new appreciation for the luxury of time that scholarship provides. I’m already missing my research and I look forward to getting back to it in a couple of years.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.