Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Our Most Worrisome Endangered, Perhaps Already Extinct, Species. World Leaders.

You know it.  I know it.  Even if you haven't really thought about it, you've probably sensed it.  As our world sails into an ever worsening storm, there's nobody at the helm.  Just when we need them most we find ourselves without real leaders.

Foreign Policy's Aaron David Miller contends that the leadership void reaches right into the White House.  He asks whether America has reached "Peak President"?  In a somewhat nihilistic approach, Miller argues that America is a nation that has moved beyond great leadership.

History, to be sure, is driven by the interaction between human agency and circumstance. Based on my own experiences in government and negotiations, individuals count greatly in this mix, particularly in matters of war, peace, and nation-building. Historian John Keegan made the stunning assertion that the story of much of the 20th century was a tale -- the biographies, really -- of six men: Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Churchill, FDR, and Mao. Wherever you stand on the issue of the individual's role in history, its impact must be factored into the equation, particularly when it comes to explaining turning points in a nation's history.

...Today we are consumed with leaders and leadership as the solution, if not the panacea, to just about everything that ails us. We admire the bold, transformational leader who seeks fundamental change, and value less the cautious transactor who negotiates, triangulates, and settles for less dramatic results. And we tend to forget too that great leaders almost always emerge in times of national crisis, trauma, and exigency, a risk we run if we hunger for the return of such leaders. Still, in Holy Grail-like pursuit, we search for some magic formula or key to try to understand what accounts for great leadership. Indeed, we seem nothing short of obsessed with the L-word.

This focus on leaders is understandable, particularly during times of great uncertainty and stress. The psychologists and mythologists tell us that the need to search for the great leader to guide or even rescue us is an ancient -- even primordial -- impulse. But what happens when we reach for something we may no longer be able to have?
Indeed, these days, those who favor and align with ...the "Great Man" view of history -- myself included -- have a serious problem.
We are now well into the 21st century, a full 70 years after Keegan's six transformers either tried to take over the world or to save it. Look around. Where are the giants of old, the transformers who changed the world and left great legacies? Plenty of very bad leaders have come and gone -- Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein, Muammar al-Qaddafi, Slobodan Milosevic -- and some larger-than-life good ones too, like Charles de Gaulle, Konrad Adenauer, Anwar Sadat, Mikhail Gorbachev, Pope John Paul II, and Nelson Mandela.
We face a leadership deficit of global proportions. In fact, we seem to be pretty well along into what you might call the post-heroic leadership era.
Today, 193 countries sit in the United Nations, among them 88 free and functioning democracies. The five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, the so-called great powers -- the United States, Britain, France, China, and Russia -- are not led by great, transformative leaders. Nor do rising states such as Brazil, India, and South Africa boast leaders with strong and accomplished records. We certainly see leaders who are adept at maintaining power and keeping their seats -- some, like Russia's Vladimir Putin and Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for many years. Germany's Angela Merkel is certainly a powerful leader and skilled politician.
But where are those whom we could honestly describe as potentially great, heroic, or inspirational? And how many are not only great, but good -- with compassion and high moral and ethical standards -- too? Today, if I were pressed to identify a potentially great leader, I might offer up not a traditional head of state at all, but rather a religious figure: Pope Francis I, whose greatness as well as goodness may well be defined by the irony of his anti-greatness, commonness, and humility.
...great nations are supposed to have great political leaders too, right? And yet today in America we hear very little talk of greatness in our politics. Instead, the focus is on the leadership deficit, on America the ungovernable, and on the sorry state of its dysfunctional politics. One 2013 poll revealed that the public's view of Congress was significantly less positive than its view of root canal operations, NFL replacement refs, colonoscopies, France, and even cockroaches.
It should come as no surprise that the concern about the leadership deficit in our political class also extends to the presidency itself, an institution that has become, both for better and worse, the central element in our political system.
...The presidency has always been an implausible, some might even say an impossible, job. But the following mix of challenges and constraints -- some old, some new -- has made the post-World War II presidency harder still: constitutional and practical constraints on the office itself; the president's expanding reach and responsibilities; the expanding role of a government we trust less, even when we demand more from it; America's global role; and an intrusive, omnipresent, and nonstop media. 
Miller contends that the United States has had three, truly great presidents - Washington, Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
...Each of the undeniably great presidents overcame a truly nation-wrenching challenge or crisis; each used his crisis moment to fundamentally alter the way we see ourselves as a nation and the way we govern ourselves too, and in doing so changed the nation forever for the better; and each in the process transcended narrow partisanship and in time came to be seen even by critics as an extraordinary national leader.
The presidents we judge to be great are very much with us still -- everywhere, really. They are on our money and monuments, stars of our HBO specials and Hollywood movies, and subjects of best-selling presidential biographies. They are everywhere, that is, except in the White House.
As we will see, what I describe as "traces of greatness," both real and perceived, have appeared in several of our more contemporary presidents. But those "traces" are not to be confused with the performance of the three undeniables or the handful of other top performers we hold in high esteem. The greatness ...belongs to an America of a different time and place, to a different country really. In the second part of the book, I explain why the history of the post-FDR presidency has been such a challenging tale, and why the times and circumstances have narrowed the prospects, the need, and the opportunity for sustained heroic action in the presidency. 
...Like the ghosts in Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, great presidents continue to hover, to teach, and to inspire. And we have much to learn from their successes and failures. But there is a risk in thinking, let alone succumbing to the illusion, that we will see their likes again, even in an altered contemporary guise. The world and country have changed and so have we. And besides, we should not want to see them again. Greatness in the presidency is too rare to be relevant in our modern times and -- driven as it is in our political system by big crisis -- too risky and dangerous to be desirable. Our continued search for idealized presidents raises our expectations and theirs, skews presidential performance, and leads to an impossible standard that can only frustrate and disappoint. To sum up: We can no longer have a truly great president, we seldom need one, and, as irrational as it sounds, we may not want one, either.   
Perhaps our last great leader was Pierre Trudeau.  Like America, our great leaders are names from the distant past - Laurier, Pearson, St. Laurent, Cartier and MacDonald.  The thin gruel served up today is a bowl filled with petty technocrats that come in varying flavours of authoritarianism.  It's a bland and self-serving offering, devoid of vision, courage and commitment. 

And, perhaps just because I can't think of anywhere else to put it, here's Johnny Rotten on democracy and revolution. 


Lorne said...

Not to make light in any way of Miller's analysis, Mound, but I'm not so sure that greatness is what people are looking for in their leaders. I think the majority of us would gladly settle for ones that are competent, have some vision and principles, and have a will to serve the people and not themselves or an ideology. I suppose that in itself is a pretty tall order today. Hmmm... come to think of it, if someone like that did come along, we would probably feel those qualities would make him or her great.

Anonymous said...

Just came across this 'flashback' to 2003.

Stephen Harper and Oz Prime Minister John Howard SAME SPEECH on Iraq

In case that link doesn't work here's another..