Conversations in International Commerce and Policy: Demand for Expertise in Strategic Trade


What do news headlines about the North Korean nuclear weapons program, the Huawei CFO arrest, the use of chemical weapons in Syria, and sanctions against Venezuela have in common? These headlines all involve the use of trade to influence the course of international events.

Because of globalization and rapid technological development, trade is a more powerful foreign policy tool than ever before. And never has the scope and meaning of trade itself been so debated.

Controlling the trade of sensitive materials, equipment, and technology that can be used for Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) has traditionally been rooted in list-based controls with nonproliferation as an objective – commonly referred to as export controls. The use of such trade controls has expanded vastly in the last two decades, and now these list-based WMD controls are joined by numerous United Nations Security Council sanctions resolutions as well as unilateral or regional sanctions programs that go beyond nonproliferation as a primary foreign policy objective.

And recently, trade controls have also come to encompass controls over transactions involving foreign investments—precluding trans-border flows of sensitive know-how and technology. Together, these various tools comprise the complex and evolving world of strategic trade controls.

The modern landscape of strategic trade encompasses not just what is traditionally perceived as trade – the export of a physical good from Country A to Country B – but also ideas, knowledge, technical assistance, and technology. And due to the sophisticated networks used by bad actors to acquire sensitive goods, a variety of factors—trans-shipment routes and trade finance, for example—play an important role in understanding the ways trade can affect international security.

Given the rising importance of strategic trade controls as a foreign policy tool, the demand for expertise in this field is larger than ever.

Nearly every U.S. company, research institute, or university exporting or dealing in trade-sensitive items and technology has a compliance department. In companies, compliance professionals screen-controlled products, services, and technology to make sure that they can be exported legally, and work with company employees in implementing internal compliance programs. In universities, compliance professionals work with university departments to ensure that, for example, certain research that has WMD relevance is conducted with security considerations in mind.

Demand for qualified personnel is also significant in the public sector. Licensing officers play a crucial national security role by reviewing export license requests and taking part in international and inter-agency efforts to preclude WMD proliferation or sanctions violations.

Demand is also high in enforcement and intelligence spheres, be it piecing together WMD proliferation networks or prosecuting companies that have violated U.S. trade controls. And given the important role of the U.S. in capacity-building, further career opportunities exist in contributing to international efforts to implement strategic trade controls in countries all over the world. Finally, expertise in strategic trade issues is a valuable and coveted asset in the research and journalistic communities.

Given the vast demand for expertise in this area and its growing importance, George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government offers a course on strategic trade controls that equips students with a holistic, contextual, and global understanding of strategic trade. The course focuses on the use of trade controls to manage modern security threats and explores supply chain security, trade control systems, and compliance through readings, case studies, and practical exercises.


Andrea Viski is an adjunct professor in the Schar School's Master's in International Commerce and Policy program and is the director of the Strategic Trade Research Institute (STRI), an independent research organization dedicated to building communities of strategic trade research and practice. She is also the founder and Editor-in-Chief of the Strategic Trade Review, a peer reviewed journal dedicated to research and analysis on export controls and sanctions.