Obama, Brexit and the world of opportunities

Obama, Brexit and the world of opportunities
4 min read
30 June, 2016
On the final day of the 2016 Global Entrepreneurship Summit, President Barack Obama made his first public reaction to Brexit which threatens to disrupt his vision of an interconnected world.
Obama had fought hard to convince UK voters to stay in the EU [AFP]
On Thursday 23 June, the British public made a historic decision at the polls and chose to leave the European Union. Hours after the result of the referendum became apparent, in Silicon Valley US President Barack Obama made his first public reaction to Brexit in probably one of the most paradoxical settings possible.

At a conference centre at California's Stanford University, 700 young businessmen and women from across the world gathered to hear the president speak.

They had been selected among thousands of applicants to attend the Global Entrepreneurship Summit for three days of entrepreneurship "breakout" sessions, networking and collaboration.

What was perplexing to the delegates was how and why the UK had turned its back on globalisation and inter-continental trade.

Turning their backs

After a rapturous welcome on stage, Obama spoke about Brexit.

"I do want to give some thoughts about the timing in which we are gathered here today, and I am going to start with the British people's decision to leave the European Union," he said to a chorus of boos and groans.

"Just a few hours ago I spoke with Prime Minister David Cameron… based on our conversation... We agreed that our economic and financial teams will remain in close contact and stay focused on economic growth and financial stability."

This will be difficult task to achieve given the rocky waters ahead, the world's banks driven to panic by British "out" voters who are largely poor and pensioners if polls are to be believed.

As soon as it became clear that the UK had rejected the European project, stock markets and the pound went into free fall.

The repercussion of the island state's referendum could embolden the likes of Russian President Vladimir Putin, presidential hopeful Donald Trump, and European far-right leaders who view the EU vote as the first step towards liberalism and globalisation's decline.

Over the past eight years, Obama has aggressively pursued his vision for a globalised and interconnected world driven by innovation, integration and progressive minds.

With fresh presidential elections looming Obama might now fear that this hard work could depart with him. Many commentators are predicting a reversion back to the days of protectionism, closed borders and nationalism if the right-wing in Europe and the US capitalise on fears.

I do think [the vote] speaks about the ongoing changes and challenges that have been raised by globalisation.
- US President Barack Obama


This was not the world envisioned by Obama or the young delegates who had been told over the past days that the world is shrinking.

"I do think [the vote] speaks about the ongoing changes and challenges that have been raised by globalisation," he said.

"[But] our shared values, including commitment to democracy, pluralism and opportunities for all people in a globalised world will continue to unite all of us."

'Interconnected world'

Joining the president on stage was Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, someone Obama likely believes represents the very best of globalisation. The president also asked questions to three handpicked young entrepreneurs from Egypt, Chile and Rwanda who sat by his side on stage.

These were people who had used technology to find solutions to problems in their neighbourhoods.

But for every person who has made it in business, there are also those left behind in the New Economy. These are the voters groomed and procured by right-wing leaders and racists in the UK with a dystopian vision of the future.

Immigration has been portrayed as eroding away culture, communities and standards of living, rather than a driving force for dynamism, progress and human rights. Days after the UK vote the rot of racism sunk into the woodwork and ate away at the country's delicate multicultural society.

"[Globalisation] has challenges and it also invokes concerns and fears," said Obama.

Back to business

But Obama believed the answer was more opportunities and more entrepreneurship. The Global Entrepreneurship Summit was close to his heart, he added, because the delegates represent all the upsides of an interconnected world.  

"All the optimism, the hope, and the opportunity that this interconnected world represents."

Leaving the conference hall the general reaction was still bewiliderment and some disillusion at what the UK had done. The vote had likely challenged the comfort, confidence and vision of some in the audience. 

[Globalisation] has challenges and it also invokes concerns and fears.
- US President Barack Obama


A major recalibration of the global world order is about to take place. The world is hinged on fears about the future, while optimism of the few can only bring the world so far forward. 

One of the chief criticisms of globalisation is that it has widened disparities in wealth. It is not just household incomes - for many in post-industrial towns and villages, their options for the future will likely feel limited.

Without providing opportunities to these people, the world will fail to meet its potential and could lead to disastrous consequences.

But the mantra of many entrepreneurs has always been that challenges provide opportunities. Whether their successes will lead to a better world for those less fortunate remains to be seen.