Brexit Offers a Leadership Opportunity in the U.S.

The world feels like a very different place today than when I left for Europe two weeks ago. I learned of the horrific Orlando massacre while in Turkey, a cruel irony given the terrorist attacks keeping most tourists away this summer. I woke up in Amsterdam stunned by the news of Brexit, only 24 hours after leaving London. In both cosmopolitan cities, all the talk was of the British referendum. But no one really seemed to believe what happened could happen, until it did.

 

Returning to America, my attention immediately came back to the U.S. presidential race. I have two fundamental reactions to what is proving an extraordinary, and extraordinarily worrying, year not only for America but for the world too.

 

First, no surprise that the Brexit shock waves reverberated so loudly on this side of the Atlantic. The parallels are striking between the anxiety, anger, and animus that fueled the “leave” campaign and the core sentiments of the Trump constituency. Don’t let Trump’s plummeting poll numbers confuse you.

 

What many people consider to be his outrageous views on the relationship between the U.S. and the rest of the world, i.e. globalization is bad, immigrants cost jobs and make terrorism possible, the U.S. spends too much and gets too little from its allies, etc. in fact reflects the central tendency in today’s American electorate that feels it has lost control over its destiny and that longs for simpler and better times.

 

The sheer improbability of the Brexit result – after the opinion polls, the stock market, the financial markets, and the betting markets had all predicted a comfortable “remain” win; and despite the universally-predicted and instantly-manifested economic carnage it wrought not only in Britain but all around the world – has led some American pundits to speculate about an improbable win for Trump in November.

 

But I think there is a better way to react to Brexit. That is to view it as a very loud elite wake-up call. At the core, Brexit was a mass negation of the two forces most driving our world, i.e. globalization and technology. Those who benefit from them believe they are irresistible and inevitable, tending to look down on and away from people shouting “stop, I want to get off.” The divide between the “haves” and the “have nots” has widened markedly in recent decades. Despite all the calls for more inclusive growth, the opposite has happened.

 

The time for this to change is now. This is my second point.

 

The stakes in November are generationally high, because the stakes are higher than Brexit. At stake is nothing less than the free and open global order – both political and economic – that America has led in building since the end of World War II, and even more strongly since the end of the Cold War.

 

At a time when everyone is decrying the lack of leadership in politics, the U.S. and the world will need real leadership from the next person to sit in the Oval Office.

 

The mark of real leadership is convincing others to do and support things they otherwise would choose not to but, after the fact, realize they were the right things to do. That requires both the power to persuade and the skill to deliver.

 

Trump’s pandering to base instincts and cavalier disregard for the constraints of feasibility doesn’t meet that bar. But neither does Hillary Clinton’s bland and uninspiring “steady as she goes” message that is long on competence and consistency but lacking in charisma and ideas.

 

The past fifteen years have been very tough ones for the United States. The country has been continuously at war, with little to show for the massive effort. While the full cataclysm of the financial crisis was averted, the recovery remains tepid and uneven. Social and economic divisions are gaping. Washington is locked in endless vituperative gridlock, with last week’s sit and sleep-in by the House Democrats just the latest dismaying example.

 

Gallup has asked Americans every month for decades whether they are “satisfied with the way things are going in the United States at this time.” In the 1990s, the percentage of the population that was “satisfied” hovered between 60% and 70%. The last time the “satisfieds” got above one-third was mid-2009.

 

Sounds like a great time for the re-emergence of political leadership in our politics. Think Ronald Reagan’s “morning in America” and JFK’s “ask not what your country can do for you.”

 

Instead, we are in the midst of the most negative campaign in decades, with the negatives of the two presumptive nominees unprecedentedly high. Negativity is not leadership; it is its antithesis.

 

As someone who has long closely followed America’s role in the world, I am very worried by just how much traction a new form of American isolationism is getting.

 

According to the Pew Research Center, more Americans view U.S. involvement in the global economy as a negative than a positive. Forty-one percent say the U.S. is doing “too much” to solve the world’s problems, compared with only 27% who say “too little.” Fifty-seven percent want the U.S. to “deal with its own problems and let other countries deal with theirs as best they can.” Only 37% say the U.S. should help other countries deal with their problems.

 

It is an age old human trait to blame others when things turn sour. Blame the immigrant, blame other countries. It is also natural for us to long for days we thought were simpler and better.

 

But do we really want the next president to lead a retreat of the U.S. back within its own borders? I don’t.

 

As president, Bill Clinton championed economic globalization – the freer movement of goods and services, capital and people – not only for the U.S. but also for the world. His Secretary of State Madeleine Albright dubbed America “the indispensable nation,” the best placed country in terms of power, interests and values to make the world a better place.

 

They were both right then, and the decade of the 1990s was a great one for the U.S. and the world. A booming American economy matched by global democratization and dramatic reductions in worldwide poverty. No wonder Clinton is still held in such high regard despite the tawdry spectacle of his impeachment.

 

Things are much tougher now, but that only makes reviving the Bill and Madeleine one-two punch of globalization and global engagement all the more important. Will the next president be willing and able to make the case, against public opinion and in a much tougher geopolitical environment and economic climate? That would be real leadership, leadership that I think would pay off many times over.

 

 

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on June 27, 2016.

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