Travel is good training for politics

Travel Perspectives — By on January 30, 2009 at 12:19 pm

I’m a big believer in the benefits of spending time abroad. I think it’s pretty much a necessity nowadays for anyone who wants to work at the top echelons of a major corporation, and it really should be a requirement for anyone who aspires to national political office. Here is what I wrote about the topic in my travel memoir:

The world would be a saner place if more travelers went into politics. Consider the different perspective government leaders would have if they’d spent months of their lives taking buses and trains through other countries, staying in local hotels and conversing with foreigners in bars and cafés. Envision a world where presidents and prime ministers had experience as private citizens wandering through Asia, Africa, Latin America or the Middle East simply because they found it interesting. Think of how their own personal experiences with different cultures, faiths and worldviews would influence policy discussions.

So I was pretty happy to see this story in Newsweek about the worldview shared by numerous members of the Obama administration, including the president, because of their experiences living and working abroad.

The fact that Valerie Jarrett spent her early childhood in Iran made it easier to bond with Barack Obama. The subject came up the first time the two met, at a restaurant in the Loop area of downtown Chicago in 1991. Obama had grown up overseas—spending four years in Indonesia as a boy—and Jarrett was born in the ancient city of Shiraz, where her American father, a medical doctor, helped found the city’s first modern hospital. Valerie’s early languages were Farsi, French and “a little bit of English.” To this day, her favorite foods include lamb and rice with Persian spices. “If I walk into a house and I smell saffron, I’m happy,” she says.

In that first encounter, Jarrett recalls discussing with Obama how their years overseas helped shape their world views. “I guess the most basic way is by being around people who have such a broad diversity of backgrounds,” she says.

For Jarrett’s family, who traveled extensively even after they returned to the United States when Valerie was six, that meant socializing with people from Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America. “You appreciate and are maybe more open to different perspectives,” she says.

It’s a common point among Obama’s top aides, a surprising number of whom grew up in other countries—the insight they developed by seeing America from the outside in. The former expats include retired Marine Gen. James L. Jones, the incoming national-security adviser, who lived in France for most of his childhood; Timothy Geithner, the nominee for Treasury secretary, who grew up in Zimbabwe, India and Thailand; retired Maj. Gen. J. Scott Gration, a child of missionaries in Africa who is a leading contender to become the new NASA administrator; and Jarrett, a close personal friend of the Obamas’ who will serve as a top domestic-policy adviser.

Obama has identified his years in Indonesia, and later travels in Pakistan, as critical to shaping his views on America’s role in the world. “If you don’t understand these cultures, then it’s very hard for you to make good foreign-policy decisions,” he told an Iowa campaign crowd in 2007. “The benefit of my life of having both lived overseas and traveled overseas … is I have a better sense of how they’re thinking and what their society is really like.”

Check out the whole article for more about the experiences and views of these refreshingly global members of the Obama administration.

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