Notebook: Justin Webb

With America reining in its global ambitions, the future may belong to California’s geeks

The World Today Published 1 August 2014 Updated 7 December 2018 2 minute READ
Photo: BBC News & Current Affairs via Getty

Photo: BBC News & Current Affairs via Getty

It is an oddity of President Obama’s foreign policy that it is both unpopular and popular. On the face of it, the polls reflect widespread disillusion. An NBC/Wall Street Journal survey conducted in June suggested that just 37 per cent of Americans approved of Obama’s handling of foreign policy – an all-time low for him. These findings prompt Republicans to talk of weakness and drift.

After the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner those criticisms intensified: why could Obama not be more like Ronald Reagan? But it does not look like the American public really fancy a lurch towards chest-beating pugilism. According to Pew Research, Americans simply do not believe that military action works. The share of Americans who think the US should ‘mind its own business internationally’ is ten percentage points higher than at the end of the Vietnam War. Obama’s caution reflects a fundamental change post-Iraq and Afghanistan: a national modesty of ambition.

‘I’ve got this’

But maybe that modesty could be better expressed. Barack Obama is a cool customer. When I interviewed him in 2009 I asked him about Israeli settlements in occupied land: would he put new pressure on Israel? A faint smile. Nothing more. It reminded me of his reaction to moments of stress on the campaign trail. ‘I’ve got this,’ he used to murmur to his staff, ‘leave it to me.’

But in those days he invariably came up with the goods; a speech or an interview in which his intelligence and inner calm would impress and persuade. Now, the cool is still there but the snapping into action, even if it is just rhetorical, has faded away. His aides briefed The New York Times recently that the president likes to meet up with small groups of intellectuals for dinners during which profound questions of human existence are mulled over long into the night.

This made him look bloodless; at a time when the blood – in Gaza, Iraq and Ukraine – has been flowing freely.

Staying power

Leadership of a different style was on display recently when I interviewed the Governor of California, Jerry Brown. On his desk there is a photograph of a youthful looking Prince of Wales. ‘D’ya recognize that fella?’ he asked. I hardly did, as decades have passed since the 1986 royal trip to America’s west coast. But to visit Jerry Brown is to be reminded of the staying power of this politician and the things he has seen and done, from flower power to the dotcom boom and beyond.

Jerry Brown was the youngest governor of California in the twentieth century when he took over from Reagan in 1975 . He is now (on his third term) at the age of 76, the oldest in any century.

His state is still one of the great drivers of American soft power. In ways that are not sufficiently recognized the whole 60s vibe that epitomized California – the counter culture with its own rules and way of life – has morphed into the tech world’s social media heaven. People can fancy themselves freer and happier than ever while failing, arguably at least, to recognize the prevalence of online bullying and the use of personal data for private profit.

The great manifesto of the hippy revolution was The Greening of America, written in 1970 by the Yale law professor Charles Reich; on the front cover the tremulous silent majority is informed that the developments about to overcome them ‘will originate with the individual and with culture, and will change the political structure only as its final act.’

So have we reached the ‘final act’ of the tech boom in which the ideas and inventions of the tech folk have been matched with a properly networked customer base to create a long-term change in the social order?

On the day I sat in Jerry Brown’s office President Obama was at a fundraiser up the road, hosted by a dotcom billionaire. The staggering wave of money generated by the tech firms is certainly able to buy favours from politicians. But what are they?

During my trip to California I talked to a senior bod in Cisco systems who was spitting blood at the National Security Agency, sickened by the commercial damage done by spying allegedly using Cisco’s kit. Hands off, was his simple message.

Might that message be enough to alter America’s long-term view of where its best interests lie in the balance between security and freedom?