The U.S. would profit globally from a failed Obama presidency more than it would from a successful McCain presidency.
That’s the sort of provocative, but plausible, statement that lies at the heart of the famous Oxford Union debates.
Then take it up with Kunal Basu, an Indian-born, U.S.- educated, Oxford University professor who examines how corporate reputations are made and broken. He argues that America’s badly damaged brand around the world, one that has changed the course of human history, has never been about its military superiority, its economic-growth rates or even its innovative spirit.
“Where the U.S. has really been on the leading edge has been not technology but morality,” he says. Its very existence has been constructed around freedom of religion, speech and other individual choices, and the ground-breaking ideal that all humans were created equal.
“Now it has the chance to re-establish itself there again,” he says. “The fact that the most powerful nation in the world could again be the most moral would be transformative. The world needs it.”
Reputation, a matter of the most enormous value for companies and individuals alike, is hard to establish but easy to lose. The same is true of countries.
With Abu Ghraib torture photos, Guantanamo Bay’s stain on due process, and the U.S.’s perceived ineffectiveness from Iraq to Hurricane Katrina, Brand America is hurting bad.
The U.S. has spent billions on public diplomacy trying to fix the problem, but marketing works best when in alignment with changed facts. George W. Bush has helped with improvements in Iraq, diplomatic progress in the Mideast and particularly North Korea. But nothing has moved the world opinion needle more than Barack Obama’s rise.
John McCain’s emergence on the Republican side of the ledger helps. He’s a man of proven courage and integrity, a former prisoner of war who often stood for his own principles over party dogma. The Economist magazine’s cover rightly labeled the two candidates, “America at Its Best.”
Basu says it is Obama who provides the sort of once-in-a- century event that can shape history. It shows that America’s self-correcting instinct and potential to provide a global example through democratic renewal isn’t yet exhausted. He also would be the first black person elected to the top office in a country where whites have the majority.
An America that has passed through a history of slavery, the Civil War and the civil-rights movement demonstrates that at the top of its leadership pyramid it is the quality of the individual, and not color, that defines whether he or she is an insider or an outsider.
As Oxford University Chancellor Christopher Patten stands before a who’s who of U.K. business and academia at the opening of the institution’s Centre for Corporate Reputation in the Said Business School, Basu states with some certainty that Patten’s cape won’t be worn by a person of color in this century.
“Yet for you, Obama is no less American than an Irish- American from Massachusetts, and that is a remarkable thing,” he says.
My conversation with Basu was one of several stops I’ve made in the past year to a dozen countries in a bid to understand two things. First, what do nations want from the U.S. now, as other rising powers and its own missteps have eroded its relative political and economic influence in a world that may soon lack a clear leader? Second, if conventional wisdom is right that so many people have given up on U.S. leadership, why all this global fascination with our elections?
From Beijing to Sao Paolo and from Lagos to Paris, I found in response to the National Intelligence Council’s report on trends shaping the globe through 2020 that the world’s elites don’t want less of America, but rather a smarter America. The council is a U.S. government body that provides the president and senior policy makers with analyses on foreign policy issues.
Opinions varied on U.S. projections, but all wanted a more engaged America, demonstrating again the sort of enlightened leadership the country exercised, albeit with occasional gaffes, after World War II until the Berlin Wall came down in 1989.
Retaking the high ground is as important now as it was then, when we faced down Soviet communism. Global democratic change is stagnating. Authoritarian powers from China and Russia to Venezuela and Iran are rising. Soaring oil prices support those trends, while a weak dollar, the credit crisis and U.S. deficits erode the nation’s standing.
Sure, there are voices aplenty that would welcome the further decline of an America they argue is an overly capitalist, militarist, energy-guzzling hegemon. Anti-Americanism was rife before Bush proved to be its great enabler.
What’s surprising is this yearning in many non-U.S. quarters for an American comeback. For all the noise about a post-American world order, no country or group of countries has emerged to fill the moral leadership vacuum, nor represents anything close to universal values. The European Union is too busy attending to itself, China’s one-party system rules it out, and other nations are either too small or narrowly focused.
“That’s why Obama’s election itself may be more important than whether he proves to be a good or bad president,” Basu says. “America would be reminded of its true power through his election — not economic, political or military — but the power of humanity.”