Wanted: elected leaders with international experience

To solve today’s global issues, politicians need what the private sector has.

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.


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.

Europeans, Japanese, and Americans who were adults during World War II – post war statesmen as diverse as German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, Japan's former Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa, and President George H.W. Bush – were forcibly "internationalized" by witnessing the costs of a failed international system. Those too young to serve but old enough to remember – the likes of German Chancellor Helmut Kohl – also understood. But today's crop of world leaders in the West and Japan, came of age in a prosperous and mostly peaceful environment where they could largely ignore international affairs. While they lived through the last decades of the cold war, for most of them it did not affect their lives directly.

The abolition of the draft in the US and other countries adds another dynamic. One inadvertent consequence of lifting the draft is that fewer politicians have overseas military experience. Indeed, many of the most cosmopolitan denizens of official Washington today are active duty or retired members of the US military – far more than their elected official counterparts.

Years later, it remains striking how little exposure George W. Bush had to the rest of the world prior to his White House years; and it's hard to avoid the inference that this was a liability in his conduct of foreign policy.

President Obama, having lived for several years in Indonesia, a distinctly different society, is a notably rare cosmopolitan exception among American politicians; but even in his case, as soon as he started his political career he had to operate in a purely domestic environment in Chicago.

While our politicians may internationalize over time, in the short term we are stuck with the politicians we have. Therefore, one of the pressing tasks of the business community, as well as others in positions of influence, is to impress on elected officials that overly parochial national solutions to contemporary problems are often out of date.

Today's shared economic crisis shows that failure to join forces in addressing the global challenges of the day can cost our country dearly. The G-20 meeting provides a unique opportunity for politicians to collaborate for mutual national advantage.

Robert Dujarric is director of the Institute of Contemporary Japanese Studies at Temple University Japan Campus in Tokyo. Andy Zelleke is a lecturer in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and codirector of its Center for Public Leadership, in Cambridge, Mass.

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