Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series assessing the consequences of Brexit. The first, by Robert Singh, can be found here. Coming next week: Rosa Balfour offers a pensive view from the Continent.
TAI Executive Editor Damir Marusic and Richard Kraemer of the Foreign Policy Research Institute recently sat down with Andrew Roberts in Washington, DC to discuss his new book on leadership, the ongoing Brexit drama, and how he sees the U.S.-UK special relationship. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Damir Marusic and Richard Kraemer for TAI: Tell us about your new book.
Andrew Roberts: It’s called Leadership in War, and it’s a collection of essays about war leadership, concentrating on nine individuals—Nelson, Napoleon, Churchill, de Gaulle, Hitler, Stalin, Eisenhower, Marshall, and Margaret Thatcher—to see what they have in common and what separates them. It’s based on a series of lectures that I gave between 2013 and 2017 at the New York Historical Society, but it works as a standalone book.
TAI: August 15th was the 250th anniversary of Napoleon’s birth, and what struck us in your new book is that he comes off as the strongest of the bunch.
AR: Precisely, that’s very much what I say. All other leaders have to be judged against his leadership qualities. Now, of course, he wound up in exile, and utterly defeated, and the Battle of Waterloo was a disaster. But overall, when you look at his extraordinary corpus of leadership techniques and skills, he is the one who could naturally inspire people. He said, “Always talk to the men’s souls.” He was also extremely good at talking to their self-interest in the way that he rewarded people. His career demonstrated the importance of compartmentalization, meticulous planning, appreciation of terrain, superb timing, steady nerves, appreciation of the importance of discipline and training, understanding the psychology of the ordinary soldier to create esprit de corps, the issuing of inspirational speeches and proclamations, controlling the news, adapting the tactical ideas of others, asking pertinent questions of the right people, a deep learning and appreciation of history, a formidable memory, utter ruthlessness when necessary, the deployment of personal charisma, immense calm under unimaginable pressure (especially in moments that look like defeat), an almost obsessive-compulsive attention to detail, rigorous control of emotions, and the ability to exploit a momentary numerical advantage at the decisive point on the battlefield—and, not least, good luck.
TAI: If Napoleon is the standard for leadership, what about Churchill by comparison? One difference that struck us in Walking with Destiny was what Churchill took away from the Gallipoli campaign. He recognized when he’d made a mistake.
AR: Yes. Churchill of course showed great moral and physical courage, but learning from his mistakes was one of his really impressive qualities. Napoleon did so to a much lesser extent. He was still adopting much the same tactics in fighting battles in 1815 as he had been in 1796.
Churchill made blunder after blunder. He was wrong on women’s suffrage. He was wrong on the abdication crisis, the gold standard, supporting the Black and Tans (a UK-sanctioned militia established by Churchill to combat the Irish Republican Army – ed.) in Ireland, and primarily, as you mentioned, the Gallipoli campaign. What he learned from that was never to overrule the Chiefs of Staff during the Second World War. He had every constitutional right to do so, but he never once overruled when all three of the Chiefs of Staff agreed on something. That, I think, comes from a vestigial memory of what happened to him 25 years earlier at the lowest point in his career.
You’re right, also, that Napoleon and Churchill’s leadership skills are different. Napoleon wasn’t a very good orator, interestingly enough. He wrote very good orders of the day, he had a fine literary mind, and was even a good novelist, but he wasn’t much of a public speaker. Whereas Churchill was one of the greatest orators of any time.
TAI: One of Churchill’s strengths is his ability to take a broader view as a political leader and strategist, in comparison to Napoleon. And in Walking with Destiny you note Churchill’s ability to retain minute knowledge, his attention to detail. As he continued his political career and began to defer more to military leaders, was there a sense that he was more of a strategic thinker and had tactical limitations?
AR: I don’t think it’s fair to say that he deferred more to military leaders. He didn’t overrule them, but that didn’t mean that he deferred to them. He used to have fantastic rows that would go on for hours and hours, late into the night. He very much thought that it was his job to try to persuade the military leaders to adopt his overall strategy. They sometimes didn’t want to do that, which ultimately created tensions.
Napoleon, of course, had nobody brook him at all. Since he was a dictator in a way that Churchill never was, he was able to get his point of view adopted, which in the early part of his career was a very good thing. By the time the Russian campaign engulfed him, the lack of necessity for him to take his marshals’ opinions into account led to tragic disaster.
Stalin, who of course was a totalitarian dictator, moved from the Hitlerian sense of complete dominance over strategy, to appreciate that some of his Marshals such as Zhukov and Konev and Rokossovsky knew much more about ground strategy than he did, and so he took a bit of a backseat at the Stavka, the high command, and allowed these guys to get on with battles like Stalingrad, Kursk, and the battle for Berlin. He adopted a much more inclusive Churchillian style of leadership, even though he was as totalitarian a dictator as Adolf Hitler.
TAI: In the chapter on Hitler, you suggest that there are only negative lessons to learn. You depict him as a proper nullity: a non-actor, not terribly smart, lazy.
AR: Well, I think he had a reasonably high IQ, but he was prey to the most extraordinary ideas. I don’t just mean repulsive political ideas, but these sort of strange notions that he told his entourage about. They’d stay up there late at night as the fire crackled at the Berchtesgaden, Hitler sitting in one of those enormous chairs, surrounded by that hideous Nazi art, and coming up with theory after theory about how Czechs and Mongolians were the same people, and you can tell by their mustaches, and how you can tell what dogs think, and how young men in the Tyrol walked around carrying ladders to climb up to seduce girls in their bedrooms. Absolutely extraordinary ideas.
He believed in a form of Atlantis that existed before our modern era, and that ancient ax heads had been left there by the far greater societies that existed before our time in order to fool us. Completely incredible Nazi stuff. Once you look into these, on top of all his misogyny and racism and anti-Semitism, you do wonder how he managed to hold the German nation in awe for 12 years.
TAI: Obviously, charisma’s important in leadership, this ability to inspire. Yet you stress that Hitler himself was actually not a terribly charismatic person.
AR: Yes. He had an artificially created charisma. And he had outside forces like Leni Riefenstahl in charge of his cinema, and Joseph Goebbels in charge of his propaganda, and Albert Speer organizing those rallies. I mean, if they’re able to do it with Kim Jong-un, where you’ve got even less naturally pre-possessing material to work with, then I think you can see that charisma is an artificial construct.
TAI: Still, communication is a skill that some leaders master and some don’t in the modern world. Arguably, Donald Trump understood modern media better than anyone else in 2016. Even now, if you look at all the candidates that are running against him, they’re still reacting to the way he’s using modern media. The only other candidate that may be is his equal on social media is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Do you see this ability to communicate in different ways and by different methods as a key element of leadership?
AR: Yes. I think both Hitler and Churchill would have been extremely good on Twitter. Hitler, because you’re just constantly churning out opinions that can be caught in 280 characters or fewer, and most of his opinions really didn’t go much beyond. If you look at Mein Kampf, it’s just a series of angry statements and resentments.
Most of Churchill’s witticisms—the punchlines, at least—would fit into 280 characters or fewer. There’s a marvelous moment when a Labour MP shouted at him in the House of Commons, “Rot!” Churchill immediately replied, “I thank the honorable man for telling us what’s in his mind.” You could get that into 280 characters, couldn’t you?
I think that any communication techniques can be used for good or ill, used by democrats as well as fascists.
TAI: This is also relevant, perhaps, in comparing Theresa May’s recent run as Prime Minister with Boris Johnson.
AR: There’s a perfect example of the charisma bypass. People say that power attracts charisma. The careers of John Major, Gordon Brown, and Theresa May completely undermine that concept.
Boris Johnson is extremely charismatic. He spotted very early on, whilst he was still at school, the way he was artificially going to construct his own charisma. It’s intimately bound-up with his form of expression, that way in which he does two things that would seem to be mutually exclusive.
The first is to talk in a way that everybody knows what you’re saying, while at the same time, using an archaic form of expression that jumps from the pages of P.G. Wodehouse. He read classics at Oxford, so we know that he’s bright, but like Churchill, he doesn’t need to shove it down your throat at every available opportunity, and he can go down to the demotic mode as well as anybody in politics.
He’s physically extraordinary with the hair, of course, and all the rest of it. I know this isn’t a particularly scientific measure of charisma, but I’ve never walked into a room where so many people have wanted to have selfies taken as with Boris, when he came here to New York publicizing his Churchill book. It was an absolute maelstrom.
The other thing that he shows, like Churchill, is an obvious love of wielding power. He’s really enjoying being Prime Minister. I never got that sense from Major, Brown, or May. They all looked as though this weight and responsibility on their shoulders meant that they had to be glum all the time.
I don’t know if you have this same dichotomy in American politics, but the great British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge wrote that “All great British Prime Ministers break down between bookies and bishops.” The bishops are the rather serious ecclesiastical leaders—people who have this sense of extreme seriousness, and they’re slightly talking down to you, but you feel you are made to feel you must listen because they’re morally good people. Theresa May was a classic example of the bishop, as was Gordon Brown, whose father was actually a vicar. Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain were a bit like that, and Ramsay MacDonald.
Then, of course, you have the bookie. You have the Knight and the Knave character who sometimes isn’t faithful to his wife, like David Lloyd George and Boris, somebody who’s going to enjoy life, and doesn’t mind that people realize that they love the attention, and who jollies the country along. Churchill and David Lloyd George and Boris all represent that. Boy, have we had enough bishops. I think the British people are going to be delighted to have a bookie for a bit.
TAI: How do you conceive of the role of leadership in a democracy? When it comes to a divisive topic like Brexit, how do you see the will of the people versus the will of leadership? We hear British colleagues say, with all these threats of a second referendum, that there would be a real question of legitimacy about the outcome of a re-do.
AR: Well, that’s exactly what the losers of the referendum are doing, calling for a second one. And then one might ask, why not have the best of three? Or the best of five, if we lost twice.
I think it comes down to leadership. It also comes down to political philosophy. It’s been centuries since the defeat of the Crown in the English Civil War, and all of the major political philosophers, all of the post-Hobbes “divine right of kings” philosophers who lost the Civil War, have given way to people like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in saying that the sovereign power is the will of the people. It’s not the Crown, but neither is it Parliament.
If there is a moment in which the people are directly asked something, then their answer must be respected, which is, of course, what happened on the 23rd of June 2016. And it wasn’t that close, actually. It was over a million more people who voted to leave than to remain.
What’s happened in the last three years is that the Remainers—the losers—have utterly refused to abide by this. They have done everything possible to try to subvert the will of the people. If we allow that to happen, I think it would be extremely damaging for the British polity, for our identity as a democratic country, and for our trust in politics, which is leeching away very quickly now according to al the surveys. For the leader of the Liberal Democrats, for example, Jo Swinson, to still call herself a Democrat in her party title, when she has spent three years doing nothing but try to rip up the democratic referendum result, seems to me extremely hypocritical.
What you have now with the prorogation of Parliament is the prospect of the starkest dichotomy between the will of the people and the will of Parliament. Because Parliament is 70 percent or so pro-Remain. One has got to win.
It’s an extraordinary irony, really, that the Prime Minister has to use the prerogative powers of the Crown, the loser in the Civil War three and a half centuries ago, in order to impose the sovereignty of the people on Parliament, which was the victor in the English Civil War. This is one of the rare occasions where the unwritten nature of our constitution actually is riding to our rescue. Because what Boris has done is deeply unconventional. It hasn’t been done since 1948, except for one short period in the 1990s when John Major tried it. Otherwise, it’s very unusual, but then the situation is bloody unusual.
Of course, Remainers will argue, “Well, nobody voted for no deal. That wasn’t on the ballot paper.” My stance is, of course, no deal wasn’t on the ballot paper, but leaving was. If we’ve tried three ways of leaving and there’s only one left, then essentially, it was on the ballot paper. It’s like you’ve got to escape from a building and three of the doors turn out to be locked, but there’s a window. If you jump out of the window, at least you’re doing what you need to do. That’s essentially what’s happening here.
TAI: You’ve argued that the consequences of a no-deal Brexit may not be as dire as described. You note also that neighbors on the continent have a different starting point for their cultural values. This reveals itself in a variety of ways: civil law traditions like the Napoleonic code versus common law traditions, the Brits’ understanding of individual rights and respect for the private sector compared to the Europeans. Was it inevitable, then, that Britain would find itself in this place? And are the consequences then worth it, as difficult as they may be?
AR: Yes. We should never have joined the European project in the first place, because we have fundamentally different outlooks on many aspects of law and economics and society. In that sense, the mistake was made back in 1973, then it was underlined in 1975 with the European referendum. At that stage, we had no idea that for many the ultimate end to the European Economic Community would be a federal superstate. It slowly dawned on the British people, especially by the time of Maastricht in 1992 that they had been lied to and a superstate was the goal.
By the way, something that Americans ought to recognize more is that anti-Americanism runs deep in the genesis of the European Economic Community. Brussels has always wanted to replace the United States as a great economic superpower. They didn’t see China coming, but then nobody did. They always disliked the red in tooth and claw capitalist nature of America and wanted to replace it with a kind of social democracy or socialist alternative, a third way.
At the moment, the EU is an $18.8 trillion economy. You’re at $20.5 trillion. Britain, when we leave, is going to take away our $2.8 trillion economy and, hopefully, create a much closer trading relationship with the United States. That’s why the bromance between Donald Trump and Boris Johnson is something that every Brexiteer cheers and is delighted by.
We’re very nerve-wracked about the threats made by Nancy Pelosi not to go along with a comprehensive trade deal. They remind us of Barack Obama’s threats to put us at the back of the queue. It’s going to continue to be a very nerve-wracking process, even after we do leave the European Union on the 31st of October, because we don’t know whether Trump or Pelosi is right on whether we’re going to get this deal.
TAI: Do you see that as Britain takes its $2.8 trillion economy out, the idea of the superstate takes a hit? We see across the European Union that the project’s not going very well. Looking further ahead, do you see the EU, and perhaps even NATO, being replaced and this kind of Anglosphere emerging as a new power arrangement in the world?
AR: Yes, I do. I see the CANZUK countries—Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the UK—as being a force for good in the world. The fact that no one country of the CANZUK four wants to overrule the laws of any of the others, that they’re not attempting to organize the immigration rules of any of the others, shows that it’s a proper agglomeration of like-minded states rather than a growing imperialist construct, which is what Brussels is all about. Because the way in which these negotiations have gone the last three years, it’s been made clear again and again that we are being punished for the effrontery of leaving and also “pour encourager les autres.”
I think the British people do recognize there are going to be sacrifices that need to be made. I don’t for a moment think that it’s as bad as the worst of “Project Fear” would suggest: Riots in the street, the Queen having to leave London, people dying because the country with the fifth largest GDP in the world can’t buy medicine and outbreaks of scurvy because we can’t source fresh vegetables, and so on.
I’m not Nostradamus. Some of these things could happen, but worse things have happened in previous attempts to regain our sovereignty and independence. I don’t think it means, necessarily, that everybody is going to try and claw down Boris Johnson. I think that there’s an aspect to the British people that we’ve seen again and again, where severe problems and perils actually produce great support for the leader of the day.
I also think that if people are ever so slightly worse off, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re going to vote against the party that brought that. When it comes to Brexit, “It’s not the economy, stupid.” It’s a much more complicated thing to do with identity.
TAI: We’ve been seeing across the West that “It’s the economy, stupid” has its limits. Brexit is the prime example, and in a smaller theater, we saw it in the North Macedonia referendum this past September. Basically, there was the carrot of joining the EU and NATO, and the majority of Macedonians didn’t turn out to say, “Well, we’re really up for changing our name in order to gain access to this club.” Which suggested there’s something more deeply rooted in how people vote, besides their pocketbooks.
AR: When you hear people say, “Nobody voted to be poorer” about the referendum, well, no, they didn’t vote to be poorer, but a lot of them don’t mind being slightly poorer if they’re going to be freer and if it’s going to give us the chance, therefore, to control our own economy and in 10 or 15 years’ time be richer.
TAI: Where do you think Transatlantic values are right now? Because from a liberal order perspective, we’re talking about rule of law and representative government. But increasingly, there seem to be whole swathes of Europe, including the ruling governments in Budapest and Warsaw, that say, “For us, it’s first and foremost about our traditional values. It’s about our ability to determine our own future as a sovereign body.” Can alliances persist with these different understandings?
AR: Yes. I think the Orbán government in Hungary is a very interesting case in point. What it effectively said was, “We are not going to take the Syrian refugees.” This outraged the Germans, of course, who were taking over a million of them, and it outraged Brussels, and it outraged the Left, and outraged the media, and it outraged liberal opinion across Europe. It was immensely popular in Hungary. That explains Orban’s continuing success. You see that to a great degree in Poland and in Italy and elsewhere.
I think that’s OK, so long as none of these nationalist movements have this faintest tinge of fascism, which you can get. In Hungary, it’s not the Orbán people, it’s Jobbik (an ultra-nationalist Hungarian political party – ed.). Sometimes in Italy, Salvini can make tasteless jokes about Mussolini, but he’s not a fascist by any stretch of the imagination. In Poland, it can slip into that register too, and of course, the old Le Pen nationalists in France were ridden through with Vichyite anti-Semitism.
That’s something you always have to watch out for, but it strikes me that in general this coming generation of populists are not fascist. If we had a stronger conservative movement, they wouldn’t even exist. In England, Nigel Farage is neither a fascist nor a racist, just an old-fashioned Thatcherite (a bit like me). They’re mostly patriotic conservatives on the Continent, who have every right to say that no outsiders should be able to force them to take immigrants that they don’t want to take. They’ve looked at other nations and they’ve understood that mass immigration inevitably profoundly alters the nature of the country and society. That’s certainly true of Britain and true of France. Now, we in Britain and France can celebrate that and argue that immigration’s been a good thing. But if people in Europe see our multicultural societies and conclude that they don’t want the same thing, then we shouldn’t force them to have them. Each to his own.
TAI: Let’s come back to leadership. As you look at the global landscape today, do you see any leaders who are approaching their rule from a larger sense of vision?
AR: Well, my book is all about leadership in war. Thank God we are not at war. We’re in a long-term war against Islamic fundamentalist terrorism, of course, but not in a conventional war. And leadership in war is a completely different thing from leadership in peace.
But yes, it strikes me that are world leaders who have powerful visions of the future. Xi in Beijing, with the Belt and Road policy, has an obvious vision of China dominating Asia and Africa, and scooping up the important minerals that are needed to hegemonize the 21st century. That is a vision. We might not like it, but it’s there.
The recreation of the old Soviet Union in new guise is obviously a thing that excites and thrills Putin. It’s a vision. He’s on his way to achieving it. He might have done it at the expense of the Russian economy and ordinary Russians, and he’s obviously an extremely nasty piece of work, but he has a vision.
In the West, you do have a vision of a European superstate today to which fewer and fewer people subscribe. It will be interesting to see how it survives after Brexit. Macron and Merkel aren’t making anything like the same noises about our glorious European future that were made by Kohl and Schmidt and d’Estaing back in the ’70s and ’80s, so maybe that’s a vision that’s on the turn.
Boris Johnson has a vision for Britain, undoubtedly. Your President here has undoubtedly also got a vision for America. Again, it’s going to be painfully divisive for people who hate him.
Right now, for us Britons, it is absolutely essential that Trump gets re-elected, for the reasons that I mentioned earlier about this trade deal. It’s very nerve-wracking when you have the Speaker of the House making remarks about how we won’t get a trade deal if anyone harms the Good Friday Agreement. It’s appalling and an incitement to dissident republican terrorists to do just that.
TAI: Is Britain a more reliable partner than a European Union that is still trying to figure itself out?
AR: I think so. The Europeans want to replace you as the great power. That’s something that you should have been undermining from day one, rather than facilitating, which is what the State Department has been doing since the 1970s.
TAI: The strategy, I think, was that you Brits would be our partners to keep them in check.
AR: You tried that as long as possible; in fact, much longer than was possible. Because it was quite clear, by the time of Maastricht, and that’s over 25 years ago now, that nothing could be stopped. The EU was a juggernaut, and it’s better to jump off the thing that careens along than to stay on it and wait until it smashes up.