On Leadership

“But the US could take the risk of alienating the world and discarding international law only if its leadership was going to be effective. Instead its leadership has been desultory and uncertain and tragically ineffective.”

That’s Gerard Baker in The Times last week, bemoaning the poor record of George W Bush. A slightly more articulate version of the analysis that John Prescott apparently did not give to Labour MPs that same week.

Politics is, unfortunately, not just about issues. It is also about personalities, about diplomacy, about leadership. Governing a country means making a decision, giving orders, and allowing others to implement your policy. You need to ensure this will happen, and sometimes a constitution, a chain-of-command, is not enough to drive your agenda through the bureaucracy! Similarly, achieving your foreign policy aims, whatever they may be, requires at least some practice in the art of persuasion, whereby you can convince people over whom you have no political power that you are an ally, not an enemy. Call it charisma, call it gravitas, there are certain qualities that make one a more effective leader and diplomat.

I’m not sure George W Bush ever had those qualities. His diplomacy and ability to build coalitions world-wide has been half-hearted at best. For example, the arrogant US diplomacy from late 2002 onwards, embodied in the persona of the President, effectively sealed off certain possible pathways, possible worlds. Instead of a full-blooded UN force that the President and his Defence Secretary needed, the organisation was alientated and the Iraq invasion was under-manned. I cannot shake the idea that different – better – leaders would have begat different – better – consequences. It is not enough to simply describe the unfavourable political situation (in the case of the UN, we might cite the intransigence of the French) and say “it was impossible.” A good leader, with a dash of good rhetoric and proper diction, can set events onto a more favourable path.

The recent fiasco on the Lebanon/Israel border is another example of this tragically in-the-box attitude. The crisis (and of course, the wider Palestinian problem) cries out for some unexpected thinking. Something that ‘received wisdom’ says is impossible today, yet might become possible tomorrow. I am certainly not suggesting that if only we had a Churchill, say, or a Kennedy, that somehow everything would work itself out. More the opposite – the current crop seem almost resigned at their inability to influence actions for the better. They spout nothing but platitudes, as the pre-prepared script says they must.

Perhaps Ariel Sharon was on his way to such thinking when he ordered the withdrawl from Gaza. However, his party was split irreversibly as a result, so whether he succeeded or not is an open question. Certainly it was a bold move, and despite the election of a Hamas government, it nevertheless created a new ‘climate of the possible’. Soon after, we heard talk of Hamas recognising the two-state solution… But then all sides jumped back into their boxes.

It seems to me that if we are to effect real paradigm shifts in the political landscape (whether the issue is the Middle East, global warming, the existence of the EU, NHS reform or anything else) then it requires a strong, articulate and above all diplomatic leader to push the policy forward to fruition. Unilateral action may appear strong, and even win elections in the short term. In the long term however, it sunders friendship and causes political capital to crumble. It makes leaders less effective, and finally impotent. It is the long term that matters, and in the long term, the diplomat with the smile will win.

  1. Jonn said:

    Unilateral action may appear strong, and even win elections in the short term

    And there’s the rub, I think.

    The Bush administration are fantastic campaigners – they know how to get their core vote out, they know how to make it look like they have the interests of the heartlands at heart even when their policies say otherwise. In the 2000 primary against McCain, in the far-more-tightly-contested-than-anyone-expected 2000 general election, in the 2002 midterms and in 2004 they surprised people with just how well they and their supporters did. These guys know how to play the politics of a situation to their advantage, and the Democrats have consistently lost out as they’ve underestimated this ability.

    The problem is… politics is not the same as policy. And things that win you votes aren’t always going to achieve your policy aims. So while they may have sold the invasion of Iraq to the American people, at least for a while, they failed miserably to sell it to the Iraqis, who were the ones that really mattered. And while lines about “cheese eating surrender monkeys” may have played well in Miami-Dade, they also pissed off people that the Bush administration would need to actually make middle eastern democracy work.

    In 2004 a lot of John Kerry’s policy pronouncements, particularly relating to Iraq and the war on terror, suggested that he wouldn’t be that different from Bush in his aims. But I think he would have been very different in his methods – and a more consensual style could have worked wonders in actually achieving those aims.