No Longer Leading

The western visitor to Asia is greeted by a mélange of different sensory inputs that sometimes can be disorienting. But the disorientation that I found at the APEC CEO Summit in Singapore was of a whole different sort, and far more worrisome, than not understanding a menu or wondering what that smell could be.

The cause for my concern is that the United States is falling behind the countries of the Asia-Pacific region economically, and they are not looking back or waiting for us to catch up. Rather, their sights are clearly ahead and they are trying to run even faster. One after another, the leaders of the APEC economies talked of moving forward with increased trade and economic integration across Asia and the Pacific. All the leaders warned against protectionism and, notwithstanding the fact that many of those casting stones are themselves sinners, the United States was the singular target of this criticism.

It was unfortunate that President Obama was unable to attend the APEC CEO Summit. Although a variety of US cabinet officials dutifully declared America’s intent to be a leader in the region, President Obama was missed. He eventually arrived for the Leaders Meeting, but missed an opportunity to reach a larger audience.

Climate change and charting a winning path forward to the low-carbon economy were subtexts to many of the meeting sessions. And here again, it appears that the United States is not stepping up the way it could and should. Just as APEC economic integration isn’t waiting for the US Congress to come to its trade senses, neither is the race to the front in clean technology development and deployment. While the Obama Administration has a much stronger claim to leadership in this arena, it has allowed other issues to dominate the policy agenda in Washington. Strong White House leadership is needed to help Congress achieve meaningful progress on energy and climate legislation. Meanwhile, the emergence of clean energy leaders outside the United States is in full swing – one look at the ambitious renewable energy goals in China, India, Japan, the EU and elsewhere confirms this.

Disorientation and concern over the loss of US leadership combined most strikingly in a speech delivered on 11/14 by President Nguyen Minh Triet of Vietnam. The topic of his speech was the importance of foreign direct investment to Vietnam’s economic growth and prosperity. Now, contrast that with the growing tide of trade protectionism (not to mention energy and climate complacency) in Washington. As a child of the Cold War, for me to hear the president of a communist country praise the virtues of foreign direct investment and international trade – saying those things that US presidents used to say and mean…well, my head just spins from it all.

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