WASHINGTON - With its pomp and glitter, a White House state dinner is a symbol as much as a meal — social evidence of the central leadership role that America plays in world affairs.
But as President Barack Obama prepares to host his first such dinner — for Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh — I have a nagging sense that all of that grandeur has become a little deceiving.
I’m not sure the rest of the world sees the White House as “the place to be” any more. And that will have unsettling consequences for all of us.
Obama’s role as the elegant, path-breaking, intercultural celebrity is not enough to reverse a steady erosion of our global dominance — especially not if he’s seen merely as a new hood ornament on an economic clunker.
My concern is merely anecdotal. But I have been collecting anecdotal evidence for decades. It’s what I do for a living.
I was in London and Paris last week while Obama was making his first trip to Asia. I kept paging through the local papers for stories about the trip. They were only few — almost none. He was all but invisible, except when bowing deeply to the emperor of Japan. There weren’t many stories about the United States, either.
In the business world of London, the talk last week was all about the money pouring into China, India, and Brazil, and to a lesser extent, Russia.
The cash under discussion wasn’t from American investors, but rather Saudi Arabia, the Persian Gulf and Europe — and even trickles from one BRIC to another.
Every fund manager who was living in or passing through London bragged about just having been to — or about to leave for — China.
I never thought the glitter of Regent Street could match Manhattan, but it does.
In Paris, the headlines and the political talk I heard and read did not focus on our president or our prospects, but on the selection of a new — and no longer merely symbolic — leader for a United Europe. Europeans were talking to each other directly; Americans were not, as far as I could tell, very much a part of the conversation.
Even in matters of science and technology, I saw cause for concern. Europe is now pressing ahead successfully with its CERN supercollider, the largest experiment in the history of physics. The open-source management of the project is itself something new — and, like the World Wide Web, a non-U.S. invention.
Now, I know that one can never — should never — sell the U.S. short. Our economy, as inequitable and capricious as it is, remains the largest if not the strongest of them all. And our military, over-extended as it is, is the only one that can keep peace on the planet.
I’m not a “declinist.” I have faith in our special destiny and re-generative powers. And the U.K. and Europe have their own fiscal problems — it still isn’t clear whether the BRICs can contain the explosion they’ve unleashed.
Still, my trip made me ask two questions: why and so what?After rivers of cash poured into the U.S., a “flight to safety” induced — ironically, thanks to our own profligacy. Now the world’s trillions are being shipped elsewhere in search of better returns. And the hoard is no longer being counted solely in dollars.
Much of that money is piled up in China and the Gulf — two places where business is increasingly being done without Wall Street as the middle man.
For one thing, it’s more efficient. For another, there are fewer cultural and security concerns.
When Osama Bin Laden attacked New York City, he meant to assault the central switching station for capital assets and direct them elsewhere.
To some extent, it has worked. In London I met Arab and Muslim moneymen who left the U.S. after 9/11 — and have not been back. “The security is just too much of a hassle,” said one Dubai-based investor. “It’s not worth it.”
And now New York — the erstwhile center of the financial action — is about to become paralyzed by the emotions of reliving Sept. 11 by the courtroom ravings of Khalid Sheik Mohammed.Washington may not prove to be an attractive a place for investors, either. We’re busy here trying to figure out how to deal with a national debt of $12 trillion — which could double in a decade.
Other countries are just as heavily leveraged as we are — or even more so — including the UK and Japan. But they don’t have the world’s reserve currency, or our colossal global military commitments.
Meanwhile, the growth rate in the BRICs for the most part re-mains strong. You can’t overstate smart money’s obsession with China even as our own global brand has been damaged.
Right now, we seem to be known abroad primarily for war, debt and dirt in the air — and not as the beacon and example of humanity at its best. The wars and borrowing of the Bush administration are a good part of the reason why — and it’s a grim reality Obama confronts every day.
And so what?
The “so what” is about the American standard of living, but, more importantly, the standard of thinking. We are built on faith in the future. Our narrative has always been upward and outward.
So now, we may have to turn inward for a while, and turn the microscope on ourselves. How do we renew and restore ourselves?Maybe the prime minister of India has some ideas.