As attention focuses on the UN General Assembly in New York, it’s important to remember that in a global economy, America’s relationship with the world does not depend solely on the state of politics along Pennsylvania Avenue. The ties that bind nations together today are deeply connected to trade and investment. Diplomatic relations are often grounded in economic relations, and while chief executives are not diplomats, they can be voices for cooperation on a wide range of issues in which the private sector can play a constructive role, from security to climate change. That dialogue cannot replace official diplomatic channels, but it can help affirm America’s commitment to our allies in concrete ways. Actions taken by private companies can often carry more weight than words spoken (or tweeted) by public officials.
Since January, the Trump administration has been signaling a retreat from the institutions that have played a central role in preserving world order and advancing economic progress over the past seven decades. The president’s failure to affirm Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty at last spring’s NATO summit, his decision to pull out of the UN’s Paris climate agreement, his proposed cuts to foreign aid, and his snail-paced filling of the highest-ranking State Department positions have left world leaders questioning America’s commitment to global engagement. They have also diminished the ability of the U.S. to exercise soft power.
It is my hope, and the hope of many business leaders in both parties, that the Trump administration will reverse course and recognize that the U.S. is stronger as a nation when it leads on the global stage, including through international institutions, than it is when it retreats from it. But we are not holding our breath. Instead, we are seizing the opportunity to remind world leaders that the private sector can repair and strengthen ties that the public sector allows to fray.
This week, leaders of more than 100 companies — many of them U.S.-based — will convene in New York for the first-ever Bloomberg Global Business Forum. More than 50 heads of state, who will be in town for the UN General Assembly, will join them for discussions about how government and business can work more closely together to create jobs, raise living standards and promote security.
While trade policy plays an important role in breaking down barriers between nations, the simple act of increasing dialogue among companies and countries can raise awareness of existing opportunities for, and obstacles to, new investment. Such talks can also lead to public-private partnerships aimed at tackling difficult — and potentially profitable — challenges, from improving agricultural efficiency to building modern infrastructure (where current trends indicate a $15 trillion shortfall in the estimated $94 trillion needed in global infrastructure in the next 15 years).
Governments cannot and will not close the gap on their own — and on a wide array of issues, from public health and safety to broadband access and anti-poverty efforts, they are inherently limited in what they can get done. To address these and other issues, partnerships with companies will be necessary — and also beneficial, because the private sector is often better at allocating resources productively, controlling costs, and using cutting-edge technology to solve problems.
It is important that we find ways to encourage governments to build stronger partnerships with the private sector, and to encourage business leaders to think about the larger public challenges facing societies.
When political alliances are strained, public-private partnerships can pick up the slack, as is now happening with climate change. When Donald Trump announced he was pulling the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement, chief executives from every major industry announced that the decision would have no impact on their drive to curtail emissions and increase investment in cleaner forms of energy. They recognize that such actions are in their long-term financial health, and many have joined mayors, governors and university leaders in signing on to “America’s Pledge,” an effort to meet and even exceed the emissions-reduction goal that the U.S. set in Paris.
Business leaders have a long tradition of supporting global engagement, through both their work and philanthropy. Bringing chief executives around a table with heads of state carries benefits for both groups. And with so much ambivalence at the White House, and with challenges around the world growing in number and complexity, private-sector leaders should pull up their chairs and get down to the business of using markets, and partnerships, to build a stronger, more stable world.