By Yomin Postelnik
Featured on CFP: 12/30/08
On Nov.5, the day after the election of Barack Obama, in an article titled “Obama win met with urgent call for global action,” Reuters reported, “Political leaders urged U.S. President-elect Barack Obama on Wednesday to help forge a new economic order to lead the world out of its worst financial crisis since the 1930s.”
If you read that line carefully, the intent of Europe’s leaders is clear. Barack Obama should “lead” America to follow their plan, one that will be focused on bringing about the resurgence of European economic dominance. Or as European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso put it, "I sincerely hope that with the leadership of President Obama, the United States of America will join forces with Europe to drive this new deal."
When European powers ask the United States to “join forces” with them, their intent is for America to act in a supportive role, not one in which it takes the lead. To believe otherwise is to suggest that Europe places America’s interests above its own. And though they may suggest such commitment from us, they are not so reckless as to entertain pursuing a similar course themselves.
Yet the fact that Obama was being asked, in essence, to do little more than to heed the EU’s beckoning was lost in the nuance of Reuters’ reporting. To the average reader, the article featured only praise and hope for Obama’s leadership. With statements such as “help forge a new economic order” and “lead the world out of financial crisis,” 90% of readers saw the piece as a plea on the part of world leaders for Obama to lead the way out of economic doom. Indeed, over 90% of Democrats subscribe to this “Super-O” theory, so why shouldn’t the rest of the world?
In actuality, the insinuations of the Reuters piece were an obscene case of misplaced journalistic optimism, a rare trait that only makes an appearance on the occasion of a Democrat being elected to the White House. The fact that its lines were penned mere hours after Russian President Dmitri Medvedev’s deployment of Iskander missiles to the Polish border (in protest of the US Missile Defense Shield) and the leaking of “Prime Minister” Putin’s plan for consolidation of power (showing at least how seriously Russia takes the new President-elect) should give us pause at the incredulity of the article’s insinuations.
The EU is made up of world leaders who have led the way in global economic affairs since well before Barack Obama was elected to the Illinois State Senate. They are not looking for him to lead them in a new direction. Their statements, when read properly, are clear. They see Obama as easy pickings in their effort to get America to follow the path that they prefer.
The only question that Americans should be asking is whether the hopes of Europe’s leaders are founded. Unfortunately for America, everything about the transitioning Administration indicates that they are.
To date, President-elect Obama has made a series of economic appointments. While appointees are diverse in age, background and geography, most share a common thread: extensive foreign policy experience.
This is especially true of the most important member of Obama’s economic team, Treasury Secretary-designate Timothy Geithner. Geithner spent many of his formative years in Zimbabwe, India (which is a staunch ally and would be a plus in any foreign policy role, but not in a position charged exclusively with protecting American interests), and Thailand, where he graduated from high school. His bachelors degree was in governmental and Asian studies and his masters was similarly in international economics and East Asian studies. Geither is a Council of Foreign Relations member, as well as a member of the Group of Thirty. He has also served on the International Monetary Fund. In short, while Geithner has amassed many impressive credentials, much of his training, history and outlook are internationalist in nature.
The same is true of Commerce Secretary-designate Bill Richardson. In fact, one would be hard pressed to indicate why a former UN Ambassador would be a natural fit for Secretary of Commerce in any case. This is especially true of Richardson, who played a prominent role in the strengthening of UNEP, the “United Nations Environment Programme.” Again, a good choice for the EPA, not for US Commerce.
Which brings us to Paul Volcker. Volcker is universally touted for his experience and for having engineered disinflation. Yet Volcker also had a lead role in one of this nation’s most serious economic blunders. In the 1970s, Volcker took a lead role in suspending gold convertibility, resulting in the collapse of the Bretton Woods system, a system by which our dollar was (more or less) pegged to the value of gold, providing it with tangible, long term value. The fact that our dollar has little intrinsic value is because of the decisions of Paul Volcker, Richard Nixon and others in the 1970s.
At the time, Ronald Reagan aptly warned the public that any nation that has gone off the gold standard has met with economic collapse. Volcker does not recognize his actions in suspending gold convertibility to be a mistake, which is quite telling and should be a source of concern for those who are now so eager for his advice.
Furthermore, Volcker is even more internationalist than is Geithner. From 2000 to 2004 Volcker served as Director of the United Nations Association of the United States of America, an organization that seeks to boost the public image of the United Nations among Americans. He is also a member of the Group of Thirty and a founding member of the Trilateral Commission. His knowledge of and experience in dealing with small business, the bedrock of America’s job market, is unfortunately far less extensive.
Lawrence Summers, President-elect Obama’s pick for National Economic Council Director has a more conventional economic background, though he too has an internationalist worldview. His two years as Chief Economist of the World Bank undoubtedly contributed to his outlook, but perhaps only minorly so.
Still, what were Summers’ crowning economic accomplishments during his term as Treasury Secretary: His advocacy to deregulate derivatives and his support of the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act ordinance that prohibited banks from owning other financial institutions. Simply put, as Treasury Secretary, Summers vociferously supported and advocated for the conditions that helped lead to the mortgage meltdown and paved the way for large banks to take over brokerage houses. This is not the man we need to head up the National Economic Council at this time.
One might ask; isn’t it enough that these nominees all possess sharp minds? Won’t such an experienced group of people know what to do? The answer, as shown throughout our history as a nation, is threefold: No, no, and no.
As no American administration has ever had an economic team consisting of members with as many foreign policy credentials, the most reliable barometer of whether a foreign policy outlook has led to national success (including economic success) are the performances of our past presidents. They best serve to indicate how previous international experience affects one’s outlook and shapes the policies of an administration.
Few recent presidents have had international experience prior to taking office. Only George H. W. Bush (UN Ambassador and Liaison to China) and Richard M. Nixon had previous backgrounds in foreign policy (unlike Nixon, Johnson’s vice-presidency was relatively free of international duties and Eisenhower’s foreign roles were military in nature and centered on defending the US). Prior to them, only James Buchanan and Martin Van Buren had notable foreign experience.
As you can see, those who left their most indelible impressions on America, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, the Roosevelts, Lincoln, Truman, Cleveland and Jackson, all did so from uniquely American backgrounds and perspectives. Some would add Andrew Johnson and Ulysses S. Grant to this list, both presidents who sought to heal a nation.
The reason why presidents without foreign policy backgrounds make for better leaders is the same as the reason for why governors generally make better presidents than senators. They have first hand knowledge of the problems facing Americans and approach most issues from a standpoint of what is best for the American people. As a result, they care little to make concessions with other countries if they are against our national interests. Sure, they’ll act as benefactors to other countries and cooperate with them, but they will not go to extreme lengths just for the sake of getting along, when the consequences of doing so appear to outweigh the benefits. (Of note, George H. W. Bush stands out among presidents who had previous foreign policy experience, but his accomplishments came from his experience as a congressman, as CIA Director, RNC Chair and as Vice President. Still, his previous diplomatic background hampered his ability to present a bold response to certain problems and often made him conciliatory even when decisive leadership was needed. By contrast, abject failures such as Jimmy Carter were profoundly influenced by internationalist thought, even if they had little actual foreign policy experience.)
Presidents before 1824 who had international experience, approached their foreign roles from an entirely different standpoint than did those who succeeded them. When John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe and John Quincy Adams went to represent the United States in the capitals of Western Europe, their mission was of a singular nature, to raise support for the newly founded America. Still, it is quite possible that Washington, Madison and Jackson (who may be added as a contemporary of the latter part of this period as well) had the most lasting affect on our nation from among its first two generations of leadership. Jefferson himself considered his writing of the Declaration of Independence, written well before he entered into the sphere of diplomacy, as his crowning achievement. And indeed, it is his early work that forms the greatest part of his legacy to the nation.
Furthermore, even the foreign experiences of these foremost presidents may have hampered their leadership in some respects. After all, Jefferson’s affinity toward France and Adam’s previous refusal to declare war on that nation, at a time that such a war seemed to be in the national interest, were primary causes that led to the War of 1812. Both had been touched by their experiences there. Hamilton had no such affinity for France and therefore advocated a very different course, one that would have averted a far greater war with England.
If we are to learn anything from history, it is that decisions regarding what is best for a nation are best made by those whose impressions, points of view and policies are formed by experiences that come from within that nation itself, by those who relate to and appreciate the daily lives of the majority of its citizens. History shows us that, as a general rule, significant foreign experience with the very best of intentions still serves to cloud one’s judgment.
The primary focus of an economic team must be to protect the interests of the nation above all else. Heavy foreign policy credentials among domestic advisors are a bad mix. Our national economic leaders must be in tune with the real needs of the American people. The American economic picture, not the global worldview, must be foremost in their minds and in their thought processes. This is not the case among the current nominees and we can only hope that others will fight for policies that truly benefit the American people. We as a nation need strong voices, be they lone members of Congress or other public leaders, who will stand up and defend the economic interests of the United States of America. And, most importantly, the time to do so is now.