Wanted: elected leaders with international experience
To solve today’s global issues, politicians need what the private sector has.
Tokyo; and Cambridge, Mass
As the world's leaders prepare for the G-20 meeting to discuss the economic meltdown, international cooperation is key if we are to find the road to recovery. Analysts get that. Unfortunately, many of the world's politicians don't seem to.Skip to next paragraph
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Part of the reason is that politicians are used to working for votes; noncitizens don't vote. Therefore, unlike corporate executives with customers, suppliers, and shareholders from the four corners of the world, politicians tend to focus narrowly. Another factor is that while global companies are free to recruit executives from many nationalities, national governments and bureaucracies limit themselves to citizens of their own country. They're just not built to think globally.
Recent decades have seen a dramatic internationalization of business elites throughout the world. So there is hope for politicians if they follow the private sector's lead.
It starts with education. More and more, corporate executives have received part of their schooling abroad. The first wave of this process brought young foreigners to America for professional or graduate degrees, but it has grown to include studying in numerous other nations. American students, previously fairly immobile, are now actively encouraged to study abroad and work overseas.
The private sector itself has evolved rapidly. Though multinationals have been around for centuries, major corporations are far more international than a few decades ago. Managers are more likely today to have been stationed overseas and to have firsthand experience working with different cultures. This is particularly visible in the United States.
Into the early 1980s, many Americans in industry, finance, and corporate law could aspire to reach the top of their organization without having to set foot outside the US. Today, ambitious young men and women in American business and law schools are expected to acquire international credentials.
But politicians, in the US and throughout the world, have been left behind. If they dream of getting into politics from a young age, many see spending a year or two abroad as a waste of time, preferring to invest their energy in the university chapters of political parties. Upon graduation, they tend to look for positions at home where they can seek the favors of powerful domestic patrons and campaign contributors.
Once they get elected to office for the first time, in local government or national parliaments, devoting their energy to understanding international affairs pales in importance compared with their local duties – except if they live in a country such as Israel where war and peace is always a front-page issue.
Finally, even as generational change brings to the fore increasingly cosmopolitan CEOs, it paradoxically produces more insular politicians.