SINGAPORE - HAVING lived and worked abroad for many years, I'm sensitive to the changing ways that foreigners look at America. Over the years, I've seen an America that was respected, hated, feared and loved. But traveling around China and Singapore last week, I was confronted repeatedly with an attitude toward America that I've never heard before: "What's up with you guys?"
Whether we were feared or loved, America was always the outsized standard by which all others were compared. What we built and what we dreamt were, to many, the definition of the future. Well, today, to many people, we look like the definition of a drunken driver - like a lifelong mentor who has gone on a binge and is no longer predictable. And, as for defining the future, the country that showed the world how to pull together to put a man on the moon and defeat Nazism and Communism, today broadcasts a politics dominated by three phrases: "You can't do that," "It's off the table" and "The president didn't know." A Singaporean official who has been going to America for decades expressed shock to me at being in Washington during the government shutdown and how old and emotionally depressed the city felt.
"Few Americans are aware of how much America has lost in this recent episode of bringing the American economy to the edge of a cliff," said Kishore Mahbubani, the dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy here, and the author of "The Great Convergence: Asia, the West, and the Logic of One World." "People always looked up to America as the best-run country, the most reasonable, the most sensible. And now people are asking: 'Can America manage itself and what are the implications for us' " - if it can't?
In talking to Asian college students, teachers, diplomats and businesspeople, here is how I'd distill what was on their minds: "Are you really going to shut down your government again? Like, who does that? And, by the way, don't think that doesn't affect my business over here, because I'm holding a lot of dollars and I don't know what their value is going to be. Also, how could the people who gave us Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, I.B.M., H.P. and Google not be able to build a workable health care website? I know it had five million users, but there are 48 million Indonesians on Facebook!"
David Fuller's view Governance is Everything! I never tire of saying this because it is so often true. Moreover, difficult economic circumstances highlight deficiencies in a country's government.
There are two main categories of governance, at least in a democracy. One is political governance; the other is corporate governance. In a totalitarian regime, political governance is often all-powerful. For this reason, totalitarian regimes can be more efficient, at best, but have less flexibility. Consequently, they are less able or less willing to adapt to changing circumstances.
In the USA, the standards of political governance have certainly declined in this century, although the process started earlier. Fifteen to twenty years ago, my impression is that there was not much difference between the standards of political and corporate governance. However, since the depths of the credit crisis recession, corporate governance appears to have reinvented itself and is clearly superior.
I have often made this point and it is the single biggest factor behind the rise of corporate Autonomies which dominate so much international trade today. With its large economy the USA has by far the greatest number of corporate Autonomies. However, most developed economies are the home base for at least a few Autonomies.
In contrast, totalitarian regimes, led by Russia and China, have few if any corporate Autonomies which attract international investor interest, not least because they remain state controlled. Twenty years from now I would not be surprised if Russia and particularly China had more genuine Autonomies. However, I am also guessing that these two countries will have become somewhat more democratic, hopefully including rule of law, an independent judiciary and property rights.