There are now two people running American foreign policy: George W. Bush and Bill Gates. Our Prime Minister looked distinctly uncomfortable as he shared a platform at the World Economic Forum last week with the Microsoft chairman and U2’s rocker-turned-eco-warrior, Bono. Tony Blair, one supposed, would much rather be trying to “make poverty history” in the company of people that match his stature, such as the American president and, say, Sir Cliff Richard. But such is the devalued currency of world politics that Blair has effectively to be billed third alongside the bigger draws from business and rock music.
The conventional view is that the presence of Gates on the world stage is symptomatic of the new hegemony of global brands, which enjoy a post-colonial power unmatched by politicians. This is usually interpreted as an unhealthy development, since corporations aren’t accountable to electorates and are driven by commercial profit motives, rather than the Olympian and worthy principles of politicians.
I challenge that view. Not simply because the high-minded motives of world leaders such as Bush may be driven by an interpretation of the Christian gospel that is unrecognisable to people of faith such as Bono (or, for that matter, Sir Cliff). But for reasons that impute far more noble purposes to the likes of Gates – and the efficiency and effectiveness with which such business leaders can take philanthropic action. In this context, it is worth noting that Gates has written a personal cheque for $750m (&£416m) to develop a vaccination programme in Africa – this trumps to the tune of some $100m (&£55.5m) the entire aid budget that Bush’s regime has managed to mobilise for the victims of the tsunami in the Asian basin.
It’s dangerous to play moral relativism with sums of money for aid, but it’s perhaps helpful to express another comparison – the Gates Foundation invested “only” $8bn (&£4.4bn) for good causes, while Bush has currently set aside a budget of some $80bn (&£44bn) in order to effect the regime change in Iraq. Others, more qualified than me, must decide whether the Bush-and-Blair adventure in Iraq is ten times more helpful to the poor and oppressed of the world than the work of the Gates Foundation.
I’m afraid, watching the coverage of bloodshed in the Middle East, that I rather doubt it – though doubtless someone will be able to demonstrate that terrorists make use of Microsoft software.
The big challenge to this line of thinking comes from the issue of accountability. We should be grateful that Microsoft is run by Gates, rather than some character like Robert Maxwell (or Donald Rumsfeld). The argument goes that an evil genius can run a successful, worldwide corporation and serve his or her shareholders well, whereas a statesman in a democracy has to answer to voters every few years.
Well, that’s true up to a point, but I’m tempted to point out that Bush didn’t seem too accountable for his actions at the latest US election. I’m not saying that the American people didn’t speak and demonstrate their approval of Bush’s foreign policy at the polls, just that we should not run away with the idea that global corporations have a monopoly of doing oppressive and contentious things around the world and getting away with it.
And, as to accountability, I see that Gates and Microsoft has run up against further big trouble with the European Commission in Brussels over alleged failures to comply fully and swiftly with the anti-trust sanctions that were imposed there last year. At issue is Microsoft’s compliance with EC demands that it pays a record $650m (&£361m) fine (strangely enough, a sum not unadjacent to what the US spent on tsunami relief), sells a version of Windows without its Media Player software and discloses sensitive information on its software to its rivals.
It seems that the EC is rather more stringent in its efforts to have corporations disclose details of their operations and to hold them to account than the United Nations is in holding Bush and Blair to account in disclosing the quality of their own sensitive intelligence.
In Davos, Gates spoke of the reinforced visa regime in the US damaging America’s position in the global software industry, as some of the world’s best brains found it prohibitively hard to enter the US.
I would go further than the mild- mannered Gates – I would say that some of the world’s best brains would rather join Microsoft abroad than join the US. The software magnate should exploit that preference – he is in the fine tradition of American world-changers such as Rockefeller (oil), Carnegie (steel), Vanderbilt (shipping), Rothschild (banking) and Astor (real estate). Computer software is the new power in the world – and I would much rather Gates exercised that power than Bush.
George Pitcher is a partner at communications management consultancy Luther Pendragon