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Meridian summit addresses global leadership crisis
Diplomatic Pouch / November 4, 2016

By Larry Luxner

Less than a month before Election Day— when millions of Americans will choose between two of the most unpopular presidential candidates in U.S. history — the Meridian International Center held its 2016 Global Leadership Summit.

The Oct. 14 event, whose subtitle was “Restoring Confidence in Leaders and Institutions,” featured presentation of a Gallup report which found that although 61 percent of Americans disapprove of their own country’s leadership, the world continues to give the United States — under President Obama — the highest approval rating among major world powers today.

“As the U.S. approaches its next presidential election, and as many countries seek better cooperation amid rising international tensions, leaders should take note of what the world thinks,” said a Gallup press release. “While foreign policy may not hinge on public opinion, public opinion could affect policies and partnerships between leaders — and international relationships.”

About 250 people attended the Meridian gathering, which included speeches by Ambassador Wendy Sherman, former undersecretary of state for political affairs; Matthew Barzun, U.S. envoy to the United Kingdom; former U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutiérrez; Emanuel González-Revilla, Panama’s ambassador to the United States; Don Baer, worldwide chair and CEO of Burson Marsteller; Brian Kelly, editor of US News & World Report; and Jon Clifton, managing director of Gallup Global Analytics.

Among other things, the Gallup report, which was based on interviews in 132 countries, found that majorities in four European Union member states — Greece, Cyprus, Italy and the U.K. — disapprove of the EU’s leadership. Median approval ratings for the United States (45 percent) compared favorably with those of Germany (43 percent), the EU (39 percent), China (30 percent) and Russia (24 percent). Surprisingly, only 1 percent of Russians approved of U.S. leadership in 2015 — the worst rating in the world in any year.

Sherman said she understands the frustration some Americans feel towards globalization and the profound sense that their cultural identity is slipping away.

“If you’re a 55-year-old white guy and you had a manufacturing job that paid you $25 an hour and it’s time to put your two kids through college and you don’t have that manufacturing job anymore, and you’re told to take a computer coding software course for two years and at the end of that you’ll make $15 an hour — and meanwhile college tuition is $50,000 a year and the interest rate on those loans is 19 percent — we’ll, you’re pretty pissed off,” she said. “And you wonder, who’s got my back?”

Sherman, who led U.S. negotiations that resulted in last year’s nuclear agreement with Iran, said similar sentiments led to the Brexit victory — and are fueling populist rage here at home.

“I think Europe clearly has internal work to do, but I personally believe the European Union will survive, and the U.K. will hang together,” she said. “Scotland has some interdependence with the rest of the U.K. that makes it hard to leave at this moment. But clearly there is an uncharted course ahead, and Greece is still at some risk.”

She added: “I think unlike what some have said in our own presidential campaign, our alliance with NATO is more important than ever. When people have talked about what has NATO ever done for us, the infamous Article 5 has been invoked once: after 9/11 on behalf of the Untied States, so NATO troops could go to Afghanistan. So what has NATO done for us? More than it’s done for anyone else.”

Barzun, who has been the U.S. ambassador in London since August 2013, acknowledged that leaders in both capitals have felt a “sense of unease” since Brexit’s victory earlier this year.

“We have people on both sides of the Atlantic who are questioning the motives and methods of leaders of public and private institutions, and calling into question the systems the U.S. and U.K. have built up over seven decades,” Barzun told the Meridian audience via videoconference. “People seem to be talking past each other.”

Barzun recalled that in 2009, shortly before flying off to his first diplomatic posting as U.S. ambassador to Sweden, he asked President Obama for advice.

“Well, Matthew,” he recalled the president telling him. “Listen.”

Barzun took that simply advice literally and has made it a priority in his career as a Foreign Service officer, and as an ambassador.

“Listening is policy. And if you listen, people will hear you differently — whether it’s listening to 11 people in a cornfield in Iowa, or two million people on the National Mall when President Obama was sworn into office as the 44th president,” he said. “Listening is necessary. It has to start with that. Otherwise you will mistakenly be pressing people’s buttons without even realizing it.”

Sherman, who was asked about the viability of the Iran deal, said her counterparts in Tehran constantly worried that the United States would keep its end of the bargain in the event of a Republican victory; indeed, Trump has threatened to scuttle the deal if he wins on Nov. 8.

But the same could be said for Iran, which has presidential elections in 2017. In either case, it’s not that simple, since the nuclear deal is not only just between Washington and Tehran but was also negotiated with the U.K., France, Russia, China and Germany in an arrangement known as P5+1.

“The truth is, agreements are only sustainable if they are in the national security interests of the countries that have negotiated them and are going to implement them. It isn’t a sure bet for anyone,” Sherman said. “If a president wanted to rip it up on day one, there are certainly things he could do, but it would be hard because we have partners in this endeavor. Likewise, if President Rouhani loses and the hard hardliners get control of Iran, they may choose to back away from the agreement as well. So nothing is forever.”

Participants also heard from Emanuel González-Rivera, Panama’s ambassador to the United States.

“The past several decades of Panama’s story are a vibrant illustration of what we have gathered here to discuss: our ups and downs have all tracked with the quality and character of our leadership,” he said. “Panama has seen an outstanding transformation over the past 25 years — from an era of military dictatorship to a peaceful and orderly democracy with robust institutions, and a strong balance of power.”

He added: “The residual influence of Cold War politics and dictatorships in Latin America that strangled and isolated Panama has been relegated to the pages of history. Now for the first time, a small globalized country like Panama can influence the course of the mighty. The process of democratization and liberalization grows stronger with each passing day.”

González-Rivera noted that more than 80 percent of Panama’s GDP comes from the services sector, giving his nation an annual per-capita income exceeding $11,000.

“If Panama had not been inspired by and adopted the ideas of democratization and institution-building from other nations, we may have remained locked in the regressive model championed by past regimes. And most recently, we could not have weathered the storm that followed the ill-named Panama Papers scandal, had President Juan Carlos Varela not chosen transparency, legal reforms and international collaboration from the day he set foot in office,” he said.

“As these papers sent shock waves across the world, the administration recognized that although continued domestic reform was imperative, a truly global program requires global solutions,” said the ambassador. “Suddenly, these Panama Papers presented an opportunity to act as a catalyst for change rather than a stumbling block. Our partners and allies responded in full force, bringing their brightest legal leaders, institutions and financial experts to chart a clear and achievable path forward.”

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