Only 22% of Americans hold passports versus 71% in the UK. That means few of our people (and leaders) have had the opportunity of spending time in other countries -- knowing them as friends and people instead of just names on a map. That lack of experience by our leadership (GW Bush had been in only three countries before becoming President) has led to some major errors based on false assumptions of what other people are like in a world in which the U.S. is only 5% of the total world population.
How many Americans know that we are entering the Chinese “Year of the Ox” (supposedly a good fortune year) – or about the Hindu’s Festival of Light - or that the Koran reveres Jesus and Mary? How many know that India is growing at 7% this year and that it is the largest democracy in the world?
But that is about to change. Many of those in the new Presidential team have lived abroad at different times, making this our first truly international President and cabinet team. And since repairing the financial system will take a global effort, this bodes well.
Newsweek published an excellent article on the international experience members of President Obama’s team have: Valerie Jarrett spent part of her childhood in Iran, Timothy Geithner grew up in Zimbabwe, India and Thailand; Marine Gen. James L. Jones, the incoming national-security adviser, lived in France for most of his childhood– and watched American civil rights struggles on French TV, a surreal experience. President-Elect Obama lived in Indonesia. (For the record, John McCain was born in Panama and also lived overseas as a child).
I grew up on a farm in Iowa, but had the unique good fortune of being hired and sent around the world as a young corporate attorney. I have been to Indonesia and know how different Muslims there are from those in Pakistan. I have been to Islamabad and Karachi during a time when our Karachi Embassy was burned (in the 80’s). I have stayed in the Taj Mahal Hotel and Oberoi in Bombay (now Mumbai), long before they were attacked. Because of it I personally know Pakistanis and Indians, Egyptians, Latin Americans, etc. -- and how polite they were during my trips.
I know that people around the world regardless of color or religion have the same desire to educate their kids, have a decent job and live in peace. Had I never left the wonderful farm state that Iowa is and somehow got myself elected to high office – and then picked to be a Vice President, or President, America would be poorly served.
But not everyone who travels has an open mind. I still recall people I had to work with in the business world who spoke in racist terms, referring to “ragheads” and worse. Leaders who give the impression that they don’t respect other cultures cause America to lose influence and respect. “Saving face” is more than a Japanese cultural quirk. No one wants to lose face.
Running America is a global job, not a local one. If you are clueless about the Japanese, the English, Brazilians, Africans, and so on, your ability to guide the American Ship of State through international waters is no better than that the Captain of the Exxon Valdez who sat in his stateroom while the crew piled his ship up on a reef.
But as the Newsweek article points out, for the generation of Americans coming of age now, some of the most significant opportunities—for work, investment, recreation and learning—will be global. The number of Americans studying abroad is up to 240,000, more than double that of a decade ago, but it is still a tiny percentage.
America will be better served by leaders who have spent time in the real world before going into high office. You never accomplish that from the back of a limo or on a deck chair of a cruise ship.
I wish the new Presidential team Godspeed and Good Luck.