WASHINGTON — When the new Bush Cabinet sat down for its first meeting after the inauguration, the only person missing was actor Michael J. Fox, because there’s no doubt about it, this remake on the Potomac is definitely “Back to the Future: Part Four.” And while nostalgia may be boffo in Hollywood, it’s a sure prescription for bonehead mistakes in Washington.
After eight years of Wall Street financiers such as Robert Rubin calling the shots, Henry Kissinger wannabees Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, Colin Powell and Condaleezza Rice are now at center stage. The lone geo-economic thinker in the Cabinet is Bob Zoellick, the new trade representative, and his could be a lonely voice.
Of course, it’s not who shapes U.S. foreign policy, but what they believe that counts. But there’s every indication that the world view of most of the new Bush team is at least 10 years out of date. Globalization is definitely out with this crowd. And traditional diplomatic and military concerns will again be driving American foreign policy. While Powell and Rice are smart enough to sprinkle their speeches with the appropriate obeisance to market forces, and Cheney and Rumsfeld have been corporate CEOs, their actions since the election suggest that at a visceral level they don’t get that the world has changed since they were last in Washington.
The Bush transition team’s initial effort to boot the U.S. trade representative out of the Cabinet reflected a desire to return to the good old days, when trade disputes over bananas and flat glass didn’t complicate America’s security ties with Europe and Japan. While USTR ultimately retained its seat at the Cabinet table, thanks to strong protestations from Capitol Hill and the business community, the victory may be hollow.
Zoellick almost didn’t get the trade job because his expansive vision for U.S. foreign economic policy clashed with the more traditional foreign policy views of those closer to Bush. And, as the last four years with Charlene Barshefsky as USTR demonstrated, even the perception of the lack of Oval Office clout can be debilitating for the trade chieftain. Moreover, the fact that the commerce secretary is one of the president’s oldest friends and reportedly is covetous of a bigger personal role in trade policy will only compound Zoellick’s turf and stature challenges.
The absence of a Wall Street veteran in any prominent decision-making role is even more troubling. We live in an era where financial market experience is a surrogate for understanding change. Wall Street veterans, who have experienced stock market and exchange rate volatility on a daily basis, are intuitively prepared to deal with the constant state of flux in the world economy. Traditional corporate managers aren’t.
Paul O’Neill, while by all accounts an enlightened industrialist, was in Pittsburgh running the aluminum giant Alcoa during the 1997 Asian economic crisis. He’s not part of the small club of people who have lived through financial meltdowns first hand, earning the trust and respect of his counterparts abroad through shared trauma. He can’t call up the head of the Bank of Japan or the European Central Bank and have the frank, personal, shorthand discussions that are necessary in emergencies. He’ll have to build those relationships on the job. That will take time, one commodity this former executive may not have.
It’s ironic that a business-oriented GOP administration may be so out of touch with the needs of the new, globalized American economy. It only proves that experience doesn’t count when it’s the wrong kind of experience. Let’s just hope that the Bush people are fast learners.
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