I wonder what it felt like to be an astronaut aboard the NASA-managed International Space Station when the news came through that the US Federal Government was closing down due to the Congressional impasse over the budget.
“Don’t worry folks. Keep orbiting. Try not to break anything and we’ll be back in a week or two.” You hope these were not the parting words from the scientists at Mission Control as they along with thousands of other federal workers headed home while the politicians in Washington DC remain deadlocked in near-mortal combat.
This is not a good advert for democracy (or indeed space travel) and makes the task of promoting democratic values in the Middle East and elsewhere all the more difficult. With the Russians calling the shots over Syria and the president having to cancel a planned visit to the APEC Forum to stay home and try and sort out the mess, it has been a bad week for Brand America on the world stage.
This is not what President Obama had in mind for his second term. Rather, he hoped he would be pivoting towards Asia by spending a statesman-like long weekend in Bali talking strategic geo-politics with world leaders. He certainly was not planning to be stuck at home engaged in close quarter political knife fighting with his congressional foes. “Optimist of the Week” award goes to Secretary of State John Kerry who described the shutdown as “”an example of the robustness of our democracy”.
Given the high drama of what is unfolding, it is easy to draw the wrong conclusion. Commentators have been quick to conclude that all of this is another example of America in decline: a country weary of entanglements in other people’s wars stuck with a broken political system and seemingly outmanoeuvred by even the likes of President Assad of Syria.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The next few years will likely see an American resurgence. It just won’t be a political one. Rather, it is American companies – not American politicians – that are in the ascendancy. There has been a lot of talk about US banks and corporations being jostled out of the top spots by new giants from the BRIC countries. But nine out of ten of the world’s most valuable firms are – according to The Economist magazine – American. Despite the undoubted clout of emerging giants from the likes of China and Russia, it is American companies that will continue to lead the way. China’s state-backed monoliths are for sure a force to be reckoned with but it will be a while before they unshackle themselves of state control and properly unleash their entrepreneurial potential.
This is not to suggest that American companies will have a clear run at global markets. Far from it – but the best companies are everything the political system is not: agile, adaptable and with infinite powers of reinvention. For now, this gives corporate America a competitive edge. To maintain this edge corporate leaders need to avoid seeing the world refracted through a political lens. For America’s political leaders the world seems horribly complicated and it is likely to remain this way for as long as government is characterised by sclerotic, myopic partisanship struggling to adjust to a volatile and unpredictable world. For American companies by contrast, the next few years may well prove to be a golden age as the shine comes off the BRIC economic miracle and the virtues of America’s free-market enterprise assert themselves.
And before we Europeans start feeling all smug about America’s political dysfunction, we should recognise that Europe is today defined by pretty demoralising politics. Only Chancellor Merkel stands out – sensible, pragmatic and determined – as a beacon of real competence among the major European economies.
I wonder how it seems from 330 kilometres above the earth on the International Space Station. The world must seem a strange place to the six astronauts from multiple countries bound by mutual dependence as they go quietly about their business observing the peculiar antics of the rest of us. I doubt they want to come home.