Wisdom from the streets

By November 1, 2007Article, Atlantic Eye

TORONTO, Nov. 1 (UPI) — A few weeks ago, on one of my regular visits to the United Kingdom, I found myself talking to the cabbie driving me through London. He asked me if I was from the United States. I said yes. Christian of CAB53749 then said, “You know mate, the British Empire will be remembered for its pomposity; the United States will be remembered for being the most polite and the most naive; and China will be remembered for its cruelty.”

As the days passed and I traveled to Magdalen College, Oxford, and had my meetings in London with government types, I could not help but remember the cabbie’s prescient thought. In each of my meetings, I asked folks what they thought of his comments. Without hesitation, and from all political directions, there was agreement. I wondered if we should spend more time listening to the man on the street.

In the United Kingdom, the man — and woman — on the street has decidedly mixed feelings about Prime Minister Gordon Brown. After a stellar start in office, including a series of superb ministerial appointments, he has fallen on hard times. He initially made all the right noises. He masterfully managed an attempted terrorist bombing in London and an actual attack at Glasgow Airport. Even his detractors were surprised that his dour, dull, somewhat officious style worked. He was the un-Blair. The left loved him; the right was caught off guard by his success.

But a decision recently to muse with calling an election, fumbling that decision after bad polling numbers showed him losing, and then being stood-down by Conservative Leader David Cameron has made Brown look decidedly weak and buffoonish. It took all of two weeks — Brown squandered his goodwill among many in the United Kingdom and lost his lead in the polls. This is a man who waited 10 years in the shadow of Blair, who desperately wanted to be prime minister. He will now have until 2009 to improve his reputation and get something accomplished.

In the United States, President Bush is having funding battles with the Congress. As in the 1990s with Speaker Newt Gingrich and President Clinton, this is a political game, a game of political wills. A government shutdown is being threatened. Congress blames the president. The president blames Congress. At the moment, the president seems to have the upper hand in the public-relations battle. That might be true for the United States, but worldwide Bush and our nation continue to be viewed as naive and arrogant. Internationally, the United States has a serious crisis of reputation.

I recently turned to a young graduate from the University of Southern Maine and told him about the London cabbie’s thoughts on the United Kingdom, the United States and China. The student queried, “Are you sure the world still thinks of the United States as polite after Abu Ghraib, Iraq and the current presidency?” I was a bit taken aback. And I was reminded, much to my disgust, of recent polls putting the United States on par with such places at North Korea and Iran.

The United States has a huge deficit in its international reputation. It is one of the reasons Global Panel is advocating pooling the economic power of U.S. states and giving them a role in international Affairs. California has the economic power of Italy; Texas of Brazil; New York of Russia; and Ohio of Belgium and Morocco combined. This makes California the world’s seventh-largest economy, Texas 11th, New York 12th and Ohio the 22nd largest worldwide.

A concerted effort by each state with a partner nation would enable the United States to pool currently unused soft-power resources, much like the states of the European Union. U.S. cities partner with international cities. Even some states do this ad hoc. But a coordinated effort by all states would add immeasurably to the U.S. ability to regain footing internationally. The states are resources of great credibility that have been underutilized.

China continues to be a quagmire. No current nation fits better into Winston Churchill’s famous dictum about Communist Russia being “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” than the People’s Republic of China. Already the world’s fourth-largest economic power, China will within the next two decades be the world’s largest economy, surpassing the United States.

China is a country with a seriously flawed human-rights record — and yet a country that is brilliantly leveraging its economic prowess. It remains to be seen how China will develop. I have had a good relationship with Chinese diplomats and officials, but I fail to see a clear ethical paradigm for China’s future democratic ambitions and international relations.

I often have serious discussions with London cabbies. They provide wisdom from the streets.

(UPI Columnist Marc S. Ellenbogen is chairman of the Global Panel Foundation and president of the Prague Society. A venture capitalist with seats in Berlin and Prague, he is a member of the National Advisory Board of the U.S. Democratic Party where he is vice chairman of the Democratic Expat Leadership Council.)