Right up front, let’s be clear about what I’m suggesting here.
No, our state does not need to have a foreign policy about putting “boots on the ground” to fight ISIS. Nor do we need a policy on the border dispute between China and Tibet, and we sure don’t need to try to send an ambassador to the United Nations. (I don’t think they would let them in if we tried).
But we do need to have a rational, purposeful, comprehensive, strategic policy about South Carolina’s place in the world and how we can leverage our global assets to make our state more competitive in the global interconnected world of the 21st century.
Consider a few disparate facts:
• Tourism: A few years ago I was in London on business, and when I got in a cab and told the driver where I wanted to go, he looked in the rearview mirror and asked, “South Carolina?” I was stunned, and asked how could he possibly know where I was from. His response was even more surprising: “I’ve got three buddies and we fly to Myrtle Beach once a year for a week of golf, love the place.” Mind you, this was a working-class taxi driver and not some high-flying investment banker. My taxi driver friend and the other international visitors spent more than $700 million in our state last year.
• Business: We have about as many facilities of foreign-owned companies in South Carolina as we do public schools — about 1,200 across the state. In 2013 alone, there was $2.3 billion in direct foreign investment and since 2011, this investment has meant 15,600 jobs. In 2012, the state ranked first in the country in per-capita job creation from foreign-owned firms investing in our state.
• Education: USC and Clemson alone have nearly 3,500 international students from more than 110 countries. USC’s international MBA program is consistently rated the best in the country. Thousands of S.C. high school and college students spend some time studying abroad and many more want to study abroad but lack the resources to go.
• Ports: Our ports are one of the greatest assets of our state and one of the top-10 container ports in the U.S. They have a $53 billion economic impact and support one in every 11 jobs in the state. Since 2011, they have been the fastest-growing ports in the U.S. and last year, they served 1,922 vessels.
• Civic and religious institutions: It’s called “Rotary International” and there are more than 100 clubs with 10,000 members in South Carolina — and that’s just one civic club among the literally thousands of civic clubs, church groups, sister city programs and countless other assorted organizations and programs that have an international focus. All of these develop personal, religious and social ties with literally millions of people around the world.
What all this is about is interconnectedness and global relationships.
We (and outsiders) often think of us in South Carolina as closed and provincial — and in many ways we have been. And this perception (and reality) has hurt us as a state.
But today, things have changed and we are globally connected in countless ways every day that we never even realize. From the high school student who friends a kid from China on Facebook to the Mexican dinner we ate last night to the clothes and iPhone (and just about everything else we buy) that was made in China to the watercooler discussion about immigration — all of these are global and all these are part of our daily life.
In South Carolina today, we need a foreign policy. We need some people at a senior level in state government who can do two things. First, they need to catalogue who is doing what. What are all the organizations, companies, events, projects, etc. in our state that have a major global component? And second, these folks need to be thinking about how all these great connections, relationships and assets and can leverage together to benefit our state.
Just a few of literally hundreds of possibilities:
Is anyone trying to figure out if the parents of these foreign students in our colleges and universities are connected with businesses that might like to come to South Carolina?
Would my golfing taxi driver from London be interested in housing a S.C. student for a semester so he or she could attend a college in London?
Would a returning church missionary be willing to do seminars at the local high school about what it’s like to live in Bangladesh?
Would a visiting Rotarian from South Africa help find a school that would like to partner in an online exchange program with a South Carolina school?
Would an international company in S.C. provide funds for an exchange program for its S.C. employees’ children to visit another country where the company has a sister facility? The S.C. kids could stay in the homes of the company’s foreign employees for a couple of weeks and then the S.C. employees could, in turn, host the kids from abroad.
And on and on it goes.
This is not a call for the creation of some new huge government bureaucracy in Columbia. It could start small as an adjunct to the governor’s office and lots of international businesses would be willing to pick up the tab. And then it would grow over time as it finds useful ways to leverage all the many global assets we have in South Carolina.
It’s not about more money; it’s about more smarts and more creative thinking. That’s what wins in the global interconnected world of the 21st century.
Phil Noble is a businessman in Charleston and president of the S.C. New Democrats, an independent reform group started by former Gov. Richard Riley. Email him at email@example.com.