“Mutual benefit is out and national gain is in. An era of zero-sum thinking has begun,” declares The Economist in the Jan. 12, 2023, edition of the international newspaper.

As countries of concern, like China, pursue new forms of state-led and state-backed economic competition, the world has seen significant increases in protectionist-leaning economic policies emerging, or that are under consideration, in many capitals.

“The great strength of the United States is rooted in the encouragement of the entrepreneur, so the best way to maintain a perpetual economic advantage while upholding American principles and values is to follow that entrepreneurial spirit toward creative collaboration among the private sector, government and academia,” says Jason Galui, a professor of practice at SMU Cox School of Business and a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel with extensive national security experience.

Galui and a group of experts organized “Five Days in Dallas to Advance Commercial Diplomacy,” a weeklong conference at SMU Cox in December 2022. It convened U.S. government officials and American business leaders, serving as a platform for stakeholders to come together to jump-start creative collaboration and work through disconnects and barriers to consider ways to address increasingly complex challenges facing the U.S. and achieve shared goals.

“‘Five Days in Dallas’ was really the result of discussions about the importance of commerce and diplomacy and helping government leaders better understand how America does business,” says Galui, who spearheads the SMU Cox Commercial Diplomacy Initiative and helped moderate the event.

During the conference, about 25 U.S. officials engaged in panel discussions with corporate leaders and former government officials on topics such as international corporate strategy, fundamentals of commercial diplomacy and corporate decision-making. They heard from notable figures such as former Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, former Dallas mayor and U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, former American Airlines CEO Doug Parker and retired AT&T CFO John Stephens. They also visited some of Dallas-Fort Worth’s leading corporations, including Jacobs, Hillwood, AT&T and Vari (a workspace innovation company), to hear firsthand how those companies think about their business abroad.

“A lot of our companies, internationally, now compete not just against foreign companies but against government-backed foreign companies,” Galui says. “I call it a need for ‘creative collaboration’ because we don’t want U.S. government and business in partnership. That is not the American way. We want our companies and government working together in decentralized, unstructured and entrepreneurial ways.”

The response from attendees was overwhelmingly positive. Scott McCombs, a warrant officer in the U.S. Army, says he took away an incredible amount of knowledge that will help him refine his government role. As competitors adapt their tactics to chip away at the superiority of U.S. power, the special operations community is “seeking new systems and partnerships” to keep tabs on that emerging global environment, McCombs says.

“A tactic the special operations community has little knowledge of is the integration of the private commercial sector to help project U.S. influence,” he says. “Attending the five-day course is the first step in the discovery phase of how the special operations community can better equip itself to respond to emerging threats by employing unconventional or irregular warfare tactics to secure the liberties we value so much.”

McCombs joined attendees from the departments of State, Defense, and Commerce, the Export-Import Bank of the United States, the U.S. Army and the U.S. Air Force — a group that may grow even more diverse as the pilot program evolves.

“Commercial diplomacy is where we are nose-to-nose with the Chinese, and we’re not winning,” says Ambassador David Miller, president of the U.S. Diplomatic Studies Foundation.

“If you use the word ‘diplomacy,’ it almost by definition refers to diplomats and to the State Department,” Miller says. “But commercial diplomacy really involves every agency in the U.S. government that supports our private sector overseas. That’s the model we’re competing with. And we need to get multiple U.S. government departments and agencies in the audience learning about each other as they also learn about the private sector.”

So far, so good. But this is only the beginning.

Moving forward, the program could involve not only an annual weeklong event like the one in December but also several two-day, topic-focused events throughout the year. “We are a very small team of practitioners and academics who can serve as honest brokers in the national interest to provide bandwidth and objective analysis by connecting the expertise of the private sector and academia with the needs of government,” Galui says.

The program will continue to evolve. Galui announced a plan to launch a website for the SMU Cox Commercial Diplomacy Initiative early this year, where they will continue to publish helpful information and keep all parties connected and informed. Galui and his team have ambitious plans to take the program to the next level.

“In the long term, we envision the launch of the Center for Commercial and Corporate Diplomacy at SMU Cox,” he says. “It will be a national home for business, government and academia to come together in creatively collaborative ways.”

But for now, the focus is on maintaining the momentum generated from the conference and assessing its effectiveness. “We all go back to our day jobs, and so how do you maintain the momentum that we’ve created? That’s why the Center for Commercial and Corporate Diplomacy is so important,” says Galui. “It will provide a platform to help enable a perpetual economic advantage for the United States while preserving American principles and values.”