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Spotlight on Commerce: Michelle O'Neill, Deputy Under Secretary for International Trade

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Michelle O'Neill, Deputy Under Secretary for International Trade

Ed. Note: This post is part of the Spotlight on Commerce series, which highlights members of the Department of Commerce who are contributing to the president's vision of winning the future through their work.

Michelle O'Neill has been serving as Deputy Under Secretary for International Trade since November 2005.

I started my career in ITA as an intern in 1983 -- looking up tariff rates in Latin American countries for companies that called in.  Many of you are probably amazed that anyone could spend so many years in one organization, but during this course of time, I have moved around quite a bit across ITA – at least eight official jobs spanning our five business units.  These experiences have given me a deeper appreciation of what we can do as an organization to advance U.S. business interests globally.  Five Administrations, 11 Secretaries of Commerce, and 12 Under Secretaries of International Trade later, I am still as passionate for advancing fair and free trade today as when I first arrived in Washington.  (And I never imagined that I would be part of the organization’s leadership team!)

When I started my career in international trade, U.S. exports were $205 billion. Today, we export more than five times that amount, totaling more than $1 trillion worth in goods and services exports.  While we remain the number one exporter of goods and services, the volume of global trade has grown substantially over this period of time, and with that comes some challenges – and in many ways, the same challenges.  Back in the 1980s, the big concern was the $58 billion trade deficit and what we could do about it; today our trade deficit is nearly $380 billion – still a concern.  It’s been very interesting for me as a career civil servant, implementing and shaping trade policy across five Administrations. In many ways, I think the importance of international trade has stood the test of time with bipartisan support for increased trade liberalization, to varying degrees, across every Administration in my career. When I officially started ITA in 1987, the Uruguay Round had just begun; now we are in the midst of trying to bring a close to the Doha Round.  There was only one Free Trade Agreement in place with Israel. Now we have 17 FTAs in force – and hopefully three more in the horizon.  While the issues we debated have evolved -- reflecting changes in industry, new business models, and future technologies -- there has been general agreement that an open and competitive global marketplace is good for citizens, consumers, businesses, and governments.

As nations around the world grapple with how to respond to the global financial downturn, national leaders have recognized the important role of an open global trading system as part of that response.  Here at home, we know President Obama has recognized that export expansion is critical to the nation’s economic recovery and announced a National Export Initiative during his 2010 State of the Union. This is a very exciting time for us to receive this unprecedented level of attention.

As March is National Women’s History Month, I wanted to share a few thoughts about being a woman in international trade. When I first started my career, there were very few women in executive positions working on trade – either in the government or in the private sector. We have come a long way. Now, when I go to a meeting, speak at a conference, or participate in a bilateral discussion, I look around the room and the demographics have changed.  There are so many women in our line of work that are respected worldwide for their knowledge, expertise, and leadership in advancing global trade.  I have benefitted from learning from innumerable remarkable women throughout my career in international trade, and one of the aspects I enjoy most about my job is helping to shape the next generation of trade experts.

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