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The international task ahead.

Obama is President elect. Over the next few weeks he will be brought up to speed on significant national issues as he plans his cabinet and starts to formulate his policies, armed with insider information as well as a sense of his electoral mandate for change. He has been endorsed by the voters. He has also been extended warm public support in other countries in Europe and Africa and elsewhere. Whilst I was in New York over the end of the election period, I attended a debate on “Brand America" organized as part of a series of debated by the Economist magazine, a magazine that appears to be more popular in the United States than it its country of origin. The debate reflected upon the power and image of the United States in a changing world. The proposition was that “Brand America will regain its shine". Peter Beinart and Keith Reinhard spoke for the motion and Benjamin R. Barber and Parag Khanna spoke against the proposition. The audience was largely composed of professional people in their early 30s. This blog does not so much report on this debate though it does some of that, as reflect on the contextual issues that the debate revealed. What are the contextual issues for the development of the international policies of the Obama administration?

It may seem strange that management-speak, that of “Brand America��? was used to shape the discussion. The Economist is a weekly journal that brings together politics, economics and business. At the same time in professional academic discussion of foreign policy development, management ideas are very much in evidence. So too it is the case with respect to practical issues. The United Kingdom under Tony Blair opted for the image of “Cool Britannia" as a marketing device and an attempt to reconstruct perceptions of the country in essentially modern terms. The context of the Economist’s debate is the damage to the image and reputation of the United States as a result of the policy choices made by George W. Bush. Both parties in the debate accepted that the image had been severely damaged. Both accepted that there was a new and developing international context that needed to be understood. Both accepted the need for change. Differences were largely about the extent of the need and in the capacity to achieve change. Beinart and Reinhard felt that perceptions of the United States had often historically been unfavorable. Barber and Khanna argued that a radical change in the international context called for a radical change in the values that governed policy. Beinart and Reinhardt felt that the notion of “Brand" was moderately useful in thinking about the policy, at least as far as I could judge, and policy management issues involved. Barber in particular felt that “Brand" was in essence “a substitute when identity goes missing��?. What was need was an understanding of the interconnectivity of the new global order. All Americans need to recognize that an innocent life lost in Pakistan as a result of United States military action matters.

The contextual problems were clear enough. The world is changing and changing quickly away from a mono-polar to a multi-polar world (we are besotted with China but think of the emergence of India, Brazil and Russia as well as the productive potential of countries such as South Africa and Turkey). In a mono-polar world, the US felt no need, at least under Bush, to be a “team player". Asymmetrical power and influence led to the over-use of military action and the under use of traditional forms of cooperative diplomacy. Hypocrisy under Bush seemed to be the American virtue and a restrictive policy towards migration the United Sates norm, in contradiction to its historical experience. According to Reinhard (if my notes serve me well) Australian diplomats are more ambitious for a China posting where there is a sense of the exciting and new than they are for a Washington posting. The United States according to Barber was no longer a place that people came to to understand the future. The United States, all agreed, should take a lead in areas where it can, particularly in technology and all aspects of the environment.

The debate took place in Gotham Hall on Broadway. This is one of those wonderfully golden and burnished New York neo-classical interiors. It is a large, oval-shaped space, once the property of a savings bank. The opulent banking hall is punctuated with pious sayings written inelegant gold lettering on aspects of the bourgeois virtues such as "It is what we save rather than what we earn that insures a competence for the future". The debate was essential as many debates, either formal or informal, in this country are about American virtues and the nature of virtuous action. Both sides agreed that what it is to shine and how to shine need to be re-considered. Gotham Hall, just south of Times Square, seemed an appropriate place to hear Benjamin Barber call for an approach to policy based not on “Belligerent America" nor on “Brand America" (Nike; McDonalds and their consumerist associations) but on “America the beautiful" based on the diverse cultural identity of the United states on the idea of the world in our midst (if I can put it like that) and on openness and a capacity to think and react on a multicultural basis, developed more firmly around “soft power" that recognizes that the world has changed as well as on the enduring and lived values of democracy. Obama was the unseen presence at this debate held on the Sunday before the election. All of the sentiments expressed point to a huge set of expectations for change. The issues raised in the debate point to a huge and perhaps even an unreasonable or even unmanageable challenge for a new leader to face. Obama’s motto of “We can" suggests a willingness to tackle difficult problems. What the priorities will be in practical terms are yet to be decided.


I enjoyed it. It's so good to hear what has been so evident these past 8 years now put into good words.