Have you noticed that a particular word is cropping up more and more in our political discourse? The word “dysfunctional” is increasingly used to describe the world we are living in. Zigmunt Bauman has offered another word to describe our times: “interregnum”, a void separating past and future.Some authors seem to think that we can banish both words from our political lexicons by returning to the past. For instance, Robert D. Kaplan, both in his book The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and The Battle Against Fate and in two of his articles (“Europe’s New Map” in TAI and “In Defense of Henry Kissinger” in The Atlantic), suggests a form of looking backward for concepts to fill the conceptual void. How can one interpret his excitement over Kissinger’s geopolitical genius other than as a suggestion to plunge back in the 20th century, or even the 19th? Others are no less enthusiastic about the need to strip politics and international relations of ideology and emphasize pragmatism. (Can we strip politics of ideology any more than we already have? Our politics no longer has even a trace of principles!) Yet another group (the group of which I count myself as a member, alas) comes across as a bunch of naive and incorrigible idealists urging proponents of both balance of power and pragmatism to reintroduce values to policy. But our group is relegated to a lonely place on the political fringes. We scream at the top of our lungs while the political machine moves forward without even noticing us. Where are the leaders who can break us out of this historical void? Visionary leaders have always played a decisive role in social renewal. FDR, Churchill, de Gaule, and Adenauer set the benchmark for such transformational leadership. They in turn were followed by “the Magnificent Five”: Reagan, Thatcher, Mitterrand, Kohl and Gorbachev. These five guaranteed the peaceful end to the Cold War; some of them even presided over the creation of a dynamic new Western economy. One of them, Gorbachev, actually wrote the first page of the new history: He not only determined how the 20th century ended but also set the stage for the beginning of the 21st. If one reads Charles Moore’s Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography, Volume I, Not for Turning by Charles Moore (perhaps the best political biography available today), one can clearly see that, no matter how much the trends of 1970s–1990s guided us toward a pre-determined fate, it still took incredible willpower and vision to bring that scenario to fruition. Sadly, when the titans departed, few regretted it: People were tired of them. Some of the titans were betrayed by their close associates. Some were forsaken by their countries. Others were barely tolerated even while they were still in power. For instance, French President Francois Mitterrand, whose tenure lasted 14 years, had to dissolve parliament twice to call early elections, losing both times. It’s ironically only after these leaders are gone that their countries begin to remember them fondly. Great Britain and France revere the memories of Churchill and de Gaulle, both of whom were spurned. Perhaps “the Magnificent Five” will also become national symbols one day. Gorbachev stands out from the rest of the group in that he has suffered more than all the others. It was he who changed the world we live in, and he who made it possible for the rest of the “Magnificent Five” to become breakthrough leaders. Would Kohl be the German Unifier if not for Gorbachev? Would Reagan receive any praise for his role in ending nuclear confrontation if not for Gorbachev? Even the Iron Lady owes her international reputation to a great extent to the fact that she introduced Gorby to the world. Alas, Gorbachev destroyed the state he was put in charge of, and Russia cannot forgive him for that. In turn, Gorbachev cannot forgive his foreign counterparts, who refused to back him at the London G-7 summit in July 1991 when he asked for financial support to keep the Soviet Union from disintegrating. And who sits on the thrones in these countries today? One could be forgiven for thinking that some extremely important event had devalued the institution of leadership. Indeed this wouldn’t be all that bad if there had been other political institutions to compensate for the mediocrity of the current crop of global leaders. But there are no such institutions. Mediocre, pathetic, and sometimes even buffoonish leaders are in charge of great nations. Take Europe. While Angela Merkel’s stature in Germany seems beyond reproach, her recent French counterparts pale in comparison: the disgraced Nicolas Sarkozy and his successor Francois Hollande, whose 75 percent job disapproval seems only to rise. Italy deserves even greater pity; the fact that it was “blessed” for such a long time by the likes of “Bunga Bunga” Berslusconi points to the degradation of its political elite. Then there’s the forced presidency of an 87-year-old (!) Giorgio Napolitano, who had to be cajoled into staying in office for one more term. “It is not sign of health of the Italian political system,” said one Italian political commentator, putting it mildly. The British have so far steered clear of such leadership debacles. But it is not clear to me what the Cameron-Clegg tandem means for Great Britain. Does it signify a pause in its development, that the British people are searching for a means for renewal? Will Cameron overcome crises and defections in his own party, or will the Tories dump him as they did his predecessors? Will he cut a more confident figure than Blair did after his resignation? Quite often, the future puts final touches on one’s reputation: It can either bury a once-bright leader or boost the image of a political loser. The jury is still out on Angela Merkel, who seems to be the only successful European political leader at the moment. But even her near future is uncertain. To what extent did she really secure victory for herself in the fall of 2013? Can the recent Lower Saxony state election, in which her conservative center-right coalition suffered a defeat, be a harbinger of her demise? More importantly, what does her leadership model mean for Germany and Europe? In an analysis of Merkel’s tenure, Der Spiegel notes that she “finds visions and master plans horrifying . . . [and] deliberately keeps things up in the air and ambivalent, leaving room for a variety of possible outcomes.” In general, “she is a moving target and therefore is rarely caught.” It is no accident, Der Spiegel reminds us, that she once approvingly quoted Karl Popper, the advocate of “piecemeal social engineering.” In other words, Merkel comes across as more of a manager and an accountant than a political strategist. But can this “manager” rescue her country from stagnation and save an otherwise leaderless Europe from its civilizational crisis? To do this one must have vision. One must be willing to take risks and not hedge one’s bets excessively against uncertainty. Our times call for Reagan’s maxim: “To grasp and hold a vision, that is the very essence of successful leadership.” Transformative leaders must be prepared to upset the balance, since the new course always destroys the status quo. In contrast, Merkel’s leadership style befits times of calm. But she happens to be in power during dysfunctional times, from which people are desperately searching for an exit strategy. The European Commission, the European Union’s collective leadership, is a perfect embodiment of the concept of “anti-leadership.” The European Union was essentially created as an entity that requires its members to have a good set of rules and a good bureaucracy rather than good leaders. The United Europe needs “good principles rather than good people . . . fixed rules, not fixers,” as Friedrich von Hayek once said. The heads of the European states—primarily those of France and Germany, which determine the European Union’s trajectory—have done everything in their power to banish ambition from the EU leadership. As a result, Europe is saddled with a political construct that reflects the total victory of bureaucracy over leadership. What Herman van Rompuy, the President of the European Council, and Catherine Ashton, its foreign policy minister, offer is an alternative to leadership—or even a parody of political activity. In some cases, leaders add luster to a construct, while in others they turn it into something confusing. Der Spiegel acerbically wrote of Ashton, “Following an unpromising start, Ashton’s reputation has continued in one direction: downward.” This annihilation of leadership as a quality to be prized and cultivated in Brussells is one of the main reasons the EU project, which could otherwise have become the hallmark of liberal democracy, is looked upon today with condescension. In Strategic Vision, Zbigniew Brzezinski encapsulates the case for EU skepticism: “Too self-satisfied, it acts as if its central political goal is to become the world’s most comfortable retirement home.” But this is hardly the fault of Van Rompuy or Lady Ashton. They weren’t elected to be bright or to be independently minded visionaries. They were not expected to have their own action plans. To be sure, history gives us many examples of mediocre politicians who became full-fledged leaders. There were many who treated Stalin as a dull and totally innocuous apparatchik before he ended up in the Kremlin. And who could have predicted that Adolfo Suarez, who was unconditionally loyal to Franco’s regime, would dismantle it? Yeltsin picked Putin as his successor, believing him to be a loyal follower. But once Putin stepped into the Kremlin, he showed little interest in settling for the role of lapdog. But not everyone is willing or able to rebel, and many would settle for imitation leadership. At any event, the EU leaders seem to be deliberately selected for carrying out one task only: They are there to maintain the status quo. Perhaps, European leaders don’t understand the need for change? On the contrary, they very clearly say they do. Here is how Cameron put it, “The biggest danger to the European Union comes not from those who advocate change, but from those who denounce new thinking as heresy.” This sounds just like Gorbachev before he proceeded to destroy the Communist system. But if it’s really change that Cameron is after, then different leaders who are attuned to different thinking must emerge. Perhaps the new leadership formula will come to Europe by way of Asia? Take a look at the dynamism of Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. He even wants to amend the Japanese Constitution! It’s a bold move, albeit not a novel one. The Japanese media warn that if the Constitution is amended, “a day may arrive when Japan will become a highly repressive society in which people’s right to protest government policy will be extremely limited.” Let’s hope these fears are exaggerated. However, strengthening leadership by infringing on civil rights is a well known tactic (albeit one that ultimately leads nowhere). In fact, it’s an increasingly and disturbingly familiar trend across the international spectrum: from Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey to Viktor Orban in Hungary to Abe in Japan, many leaders are trying to change their nation’s constitutions in order to strengthen their hold on power. Perhaps we will see a new leadership formula from a country whose mission has been to offer its leadership to the world? I am talking about the United States. President Obama is himself an example of an out-of-the-ordinary leader, if only because of his unique origins, background and the agenda he proposed during his rise to power. Alas, out of the ordinary doesn’t necessarily mean extraordinary; his tenure has reflected the truism that the highest hopes are bound to end in disappointment. Just think about it: At the start of his fist term, Obama wanted to do everything possible to distinguish himself from Bush—to rid the country of the Bush legacy, especially in foreign policy. But rejecting the past does not guarantee that one will reach the future! What an irony: even as President Obama has continued to reject the past rhetorically, he has moved even further down the Bush road. He hasn’t closed down Guantánamo. He uses armed drones to attack civilians in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He has put a serious climate change agenda on the back burner in favor of pushing fracking. And now he has reportedly sanctioned an orgy of government snooping. The Noble Peace Prize, which Obama received as a kind of advance payment for merely sowing the seeds of hope, now stands as a reminder of an investment in peace that doesn’t appear to have paid off. One could easily conclude that the main goal of Obama’s second term is reducing the burden of American responsibility across the globe. But somehow, the President wants to retrench even as he maintains the country’s global leadership role. How on earth does one square such a circle? Understandably, Obama has many domestic issues that require him to free himself from external distractions. But the United States can reduce its global responsibilities only if it abandons its claims to global leadership. Earlier this year Martin Indyk and Robert Kagan wrote in the New York Times that “Obama is actually well positioned to assert global leadership.” They saw this leadership, in fact, as “extending the liberal world order from which Americans and so many others the world have benefited.” Where is this extension of the liberal world order? Perhaps, the U.S. under Obama is looking for another form of a global role, the one that is referred to as “leading from behind” (incidentally, there is something derisive about this description, isn’t there!)? Using proxies and encouraging others to play a significant role like they did in Libya and in the current Gaza situation are examples of this new U.S. leadership formula. Some would argue that this formula is a “sign of strength.” To me, it stands for the policy of global self-restraint. In FP, Marco Rubio says it’s a “refusal to lead” to hold back when the world faces numerous challenges that it cannot confront without American involvement. Bur perhaps the United States simply isn’t currently equipped to deal with these challenges? At any rate, President Obama’s retrenchment didn’t help him solve America’s domestic problems, as he apparently expected. His recent poll numbers have been devastating for him. “Do you consider the President to be honest and trustworthy?” The June response to this question was 49 percent yet, 50 percent no. That is only minus one, so not too bad, right? But a month ago that result was 58–41 (+17 points)—an 18 percentage point drop! The severest drop came from Obama’s base: younger voters. A 17-point decline among the under-thirty set has got to be some sort of wake-up call. And here one can see a vicious circle begin to take shape: a drop in approval ratings leads to less support for the President’s domestic agenda, which means America is even less likely to pursue a vigorous policy abroad. Note the following pattern: there are two superpowers in the world today: the United States on the global stage, and Germany within Europe. The leaders of both countries are attempting to distance themselves from international obligations, preferring to focus on domestic needs. Here’s Josef Joffe: To invert Maggie Thatcher: They are punching below their weight. America is No. 1 in the world, and Germany is No. 1 in Europe, yet both are practicing what great powers have never done. Call it “self-containment,” or to use the language of the 19th century: They are balancing not against others, but against themselves. This is a first in great-power history. “Self-containment” can be a positive thing when a country or its elite need to pause and take a breath before saying something—or when they have nothing to say. But the world cannot tolerate an extended state of unbridled pluralism; it expects President Obama and Chancellor Merkel to take initiative, and it is paying the price for their indecision. Europe has already paid for Merkel’s sluggishness in searching for a solution to the European economic crisis; Syria is paying for Obama’s attempts to keep shifting the “red line” ahead of the need to act. Leaders who remove themselves from the necessity of acting only fuel global uncertainty and their countries’ stagnation. Ulrich Speck is convinced, that “the United States is still the only outside player that can turn things around. If America acts, it needs political, moral, and financial support from the Europeans. We are very likely to see a comeback of the transatlantic alliance, with both sides acting in concert over Syria. Sooner or later.” But America can act only when its leader demonstrates leadership, which means ability to project a clear strategic vision. But what if that leader prefers a purely rhetorical style, empty of substance? It stands to reason that Western civilization, with its developed institutional base and rules of the game, has a hard time producing great leaders; the rules have a way of weeding out leadership skills. Some might even say that the current Western political elite can’t produce leadership anymore, but I would disagree. The same reluctant and humble Germany—the Germany that prefers to suffocate ambitions with the damp towel of pragmatism and humility—has produced a new President, Joachim Gauck, who is a model for how leaders today could speak from a position of moral truth. In contrast to the flow of events in many developed democracies, the exit from authoritarianism always brings great leaders to the fore. In some cases, we have seen the emergence of tandems that have included opposition leaders alonside representatives of the old system who realized the necessity of democratic transition. This describes the South African transformation, in which F.W. de Klerk and Nelson Mandela played a decisive role. But more frequently one leader spearheads the transformation. Examples include Suarez in Spain, Lech Walesa in Poland, and Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia. Democratic breakthroughs have always engendered leadership styles that invoke courage, bold decision-making, risk-taking and self-sacrifice. Of the “golden Age” of leadership in the Eastern and Central Europe, Charles Gati writes, Then there was Václav Havel in the Czech Republic, Lech Walesa, Tadeusz Mazowiecki and Bronislaw Geremek in Poland and József Antall and Árpád Göncz in Hungary. In the Baltics, such dedicated men and women as Lithuania’s Valdas Adamkus (who still holds office), Latvia’s Vaira Vike-Freiberga and Estonia’s Lennart Meri paved the way for their countries’ integration into Euro-Atlantic institutions. While they did not share the same political philosophy—some were conservative and some liberal, some religious and some secular, some more nationalist and some more Euro-integrationist—they all worked to ally their countries with NATO and the European Union. Today, Gati says, “such leaders are in short supply. Perhaps the achievement of NATO and EU membership has made it harder to pursue high-minded or ambitious goals. Perhaps open borders and increased competition constrict vision among officials grown used to paternalistic, if also parasitic, state institutions.” Democratic waves ended in defeat if their leaders vacillated or returned to the old rules of the game, as happened with Yushchenko in Ukraine, or Yeltsin in Russia. The former is responsible for the defeat of the Orange Revolution, while the latter is to blame for Russia’s return to the system of personalized power. Another example of a leader’s failure is the end of Mikheil Saakashvili era in Georgia (see Lincoln Mitchell’s “The Rose Revolution Through a Funhouse Mirror”). Saakashvili did a lot to advance the principles of liberal democracy in Georgian society, but he did not act according to these principles himself. Georgia is now paying for its leader’s inability to live up to the principles he proclaimed. Of course, authoritarian forms of leadership exist as well. Russia and China embody two different models. Putin represents the reproduction of power predicated on his personifying leadership and his controlling society, property and the bureaucracy. Xi Jinping’s actions reflect the consensus of large clans, and he is in many ways accountable to a government bureaucracy that checks his omnipotence. But in both countries leadership is called on to thwart any changes that undermine the existing system of vested interests. Some hope that Xi still has a chance to become a reformer, but the Russian case clearly demonstrates that the authoritarian model has no reform potential. With the post-World War II global order and the current model of liberal democracy in need of renewal, the leaders of developed democracies are striving to maintain both international and domestic stability. The leadership style and goals the leaders put forward are intended to reduce tensions through partial remedies and a rejection of any potentially provocative actions. But how can a society doing these things hope to renew itself? Striving to maintain a status quo that no longer works is the very definition of decay! Conrad Black was right to argue that great leaders “do not generally seek or at least gain the highest offices within the gift of their countrymen unless there are severe crises requiring courageous and inspiring leadership.” Apparently, the global crisis was not severe enough to produce a new generation of leaders, ready to offer the world a new strategy. Creating transformational leadership is evidently much more difficult today than it was in the past. There is an external reason for this: Social structure is changing; social networks are playing a larger role in people’s lives. Perhaps society no longer needs a leader to express its aspirations, as it did when traditional politics prevailed. If so, what else can serve as a mechanism for consolidating society and giving expression to its aspirations? There are other difficulties as well. Efforts to create transformational leadership in any country of the European Union is bound to run up against restrictions imposed by the Brussels bureaucracy. On the other hand, leadership that offers a strategic agenda and significant freedoms cannot emerge in Brussels because the EU member states are not ready to entrust their governing body with anything beyond technocratic management. The global leadership of the United States is hampered by its internal problems. But it’s unclear whether America can renew itself if it refuses to renew the world. How can it do so if its leaders abandon the normative dimension? Russia also presents a paradox (one of many): Its transformation can occur only if it rejects a model of personalistic leadership that continually threatens to hurl it backward into the tsarist era. We are thus presented with a system-related question: To what extent does institution-based liberal democracy still need leadership in order to reform its institutions? Isn’t this kind of leadership a 20th-century anachronism? I don’t think so. But so far I see no signs of a search for new forms of leadership that would actually respond to the challenges the world faces today. Perhaps a really serious crisis has to occur to induce us to consider this issue. Meanwhile the social and political awakening in countries ranging from the Arab world to Russia, from Turkey to Brazil forces us to ponder another question: Are we witnessing the dawn of an age of revolutions? If so, then perhaps these revolutions could bring about leaderships that have no need for institutions.
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Published on: July 22, 2013The End of the Titans’ Era