With 60 years on the throne, the United States could learn a thing or two from Britain's Queen Elizabeth II. As part of her Diamond Jubilee celebrations, Her Majesty will dispatch virtually every member of her family beyond the seas to promote the crown and U.K., PLC. While America does not have a royal family to promote its brand, people and products around the world, it does have an untapped resource with its own brand of royal magic: former presidents and first ladies.
Throughout much of American history, first families retreated into private life once the president left office. Today, presidents and first ladies leave the White House as global figures who can build successful post-presidential careers as authors, speakers, entrepreneurs and philanthropists. While sitting presidents have tasked their predecessors with discreet international duties such as President Reagan having former presidents Carter and Ford attend slain Egyptian president Anwar Sadat's funeral, or President George W. Bush tapping former President Clinton and his father, President George H.W. Bush, to co-chair a relief effort following the 2004 Asian tsunami, the United States has not defined a consistent, strategic role in American life for its former first couples.
White-hot global competition demands that the United States leaves no stone unturned when it comes to selling itself to potential international customers and investors. Millions of Americans jobs rely on selling more overseas and attracting greater investment from foreign shores. From improving math and science achievement and boosting college attendance to securing new trade deals and reforming the federal government's trade promotion bureaucracy, President Obama has advanced a number of initiatives to strengthen America's place in the world economy. Establishing a tradition of former presidents and first ladies serving as roving commercial ambassadors for America during their prime post-White House years could both extend the sitting president's reach and add some much needed sizzle to the substance of boosting trade and investment.
Presidents spend up to eight years at the top of the global game, building a formidable network of government and business leaders whose decisions have a direct impact on American jobs and prosperity. First ladies are no slouches in the global stakes either. As first lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton barnstormed the globe, building relationships and a public standing that has fortified her as secretary of state. Contrary to her media caricature as a demure homebody, former first lady Laura Bush traveled to more than 75 countries during her husband's administration. And current first lady Michelle Obama has connected with people across nations such as Mexico (America's second largest export market) Britain (America's fifth largest export market and one of its top foreign direct investment partners) and India and South Africa, both critical U.S. allies and regional markets.
While President Obama has said that he will go anywhere to open new markets for American products and has done his fair share of export promotion, the hard truth is that time is a sitting president's most precious commodity. There is rarely enough of it during foreign jaunts to engage in the kind of deliberate glad-handing that is needed to grease the wheels of commerce. For example, President Obama's recent trip to South Korea was consumed by the critical task of tackling the worldwide threat of nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, Britain has a stable of high profile people removed from politics and the nitty-gritty of foreign policy to dispatch to its key markets. Last year, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge promoted British film and television exports in Hollywood; earlier this year Prince Harry earned plaudits for boosting Britain's ties with Brazil; and later this year Prince Andrew will promote the country's interests in India. And who does America have taking on these chores? An intrepid but largely anonymous band of cabinet secretaries, state governors and local mayors whose workday visits are useful but do not pack the marketing punch of a royal visit.
Former presidents and first ladies have a potent mixture of Oval Office gravitas and pop culture celebrity that can help open doors, shift goods and seal deals for USA, Inc. They can be especially helpful in markets where high-level emissaries are helpful in cultivating relationships and conveying respect on behalf of the United States. Foreign trade missions headlining one of them could give a competitive edge to companies without celebrity CEOs, including small- and medium-sized businesses as well as women and minority-owned businesses that may face perception challenges abroad. The interest they attract on the speaking circuit and in the popular press can help highlight goods made in the USA and promote domestic travel and tourism destinations that employ millions of American workers. To bring more foreign direct investment to Main Street America, they can be mobilized overseas highlighting the skills, flexibility and productivity of American workers and be put to good use at home using their convening power to help communities woo potential investors.
During an era when jobs and prosperity rests on a country's ability to win every customer, serve every market and secure every dollar of investment capital available, the United States can ill-afford to leave one of its greatest public diplomacy assets on history's shelf.