Mediocre leadership is acceptable for ordinary times. Surely no one disputes that this is a time of comparatively unsuccessful and weak national leadership in the world, which has historically meant that times are not overly threatening. The United States had distinguished leaders at its founding and through to Andrew Jackson, mainly inadequate leaders as it walked on eggshells toward the Civil War, its greatest president to see it through that crisis, and then rather incidental presidents and congressional leaders who let America be America as it almost tripled its population in the 50 years from the Civil War to World War I and grew on a scale that the world had never imagined to be possible. Theodore Roosevelt emerged (tragically, with the assassination of William McKinley) to install the United States as a Great Power in the world. Woodrow Wilson briefly and eloquently transformed the terrible slaughter of the World War I into a war to end war and “make the world safe for democracy,” but as soon as it was won, the U.S. lapsed into isolation, Prohibition, and the stock-market bubble before alighting upon FDR to lead it out of the resulting Depression and through the next World War.
The pattern was similar in other major countries. France had no strong leaders between Napoleon and Clemenceau (1815 to 1917), but it had three revolutions and a coup d’état, and Paris was occupied by the German army. In the same period, Great Britain had a number of good prime ministers (Peel, Russell, Palmerston, Disraeli, Gladstone, Salisbury), and evolved relatively peacefully toward a steadily greater electoral and social democracy. In Central and Eastern Europe there was little between Metternich’s miraculous resurrection of the ramshackle Austrian Empire at the Congress of Vienna and Bismarck’s creation and early guidance of the German Empire, which became a menace to the world in the hands of less capable successors and a harebrained emperor.
Between the wars, Franklin D. Roosevelt was almost the only leader of a major country not ultimately to be embarrassed about — neither an unscrupulous and violent dictator (Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, and the Japanese), nor an appeaser of such dictators (MacDonald, Baldwin, Chamberlain, Laval, Daladier). Everyone elected president of the United States between and including FDR and Ronald Reagan was a competent leader, and several were outstanding presidents, with the exception of Jimmy Carter, who had his moments but was not suited to his times and was responsible for the only occasion in the 20th century when either party held office for only one term and was then defeated.
The lesson is that crises produce strong leaders, like Churchill and de Gaulle, Reagan and Thatcher, and when the leaders are rather ineffective, times are not urgent. Of course, the problem with any such complacent acceptance of mediocre leadership in the world, or at least its major countries, is that the piping days of forgettable political leadership lead inexorably to the crises that more distinguished and capable people are then urgently summoned to address. Let us, without being unduly censorious, review the balance sheet of the post–Cold War years. George W. Bush responded well to the terrorist outrages, made a fine agreement with India, and generously assisted in fighting AIDS in Africa, but his democratic crusade was naïve and counterproductive. He had a good international-law argument for disposing of Saddam Hussein, as he explained to the United Nations (Saddam had ignored or violated 17 Security Council resolutions and the terms of the Gulf War peace), but the nation-building effort in Iraq was a mad enterprise. He did nothing to avert the economic debacle of 2008, and his response when it came was the insufficiently galvanizing “The sucker could go down.”
We are 64 months into the Obama presidency (he has served longer in that office than Lyndon Johnson and will pass Coolidge and Nixon in August), and I am unable to think of an exemplary achievement of this administration except the killing of bin Laden, though it does deserve some credit for salvaging the floundering effort in Afghanistan. He will have doubled the accumulated national debt of 233 years of American independence, and there is still not really an economic recovery. There has been a dismal sequence of divisive, back-biting controversies deliberately launched or incited by the administration to fragment opinion and create excuses for policy failures such as health-care reform.
Foreign policy has been a shambles — a sequence of failed attempts to conciliate or deter Russia, Iran, and others. The country has gone from a trigger-happy to a gun-shy president, neither of whom appears to grasp any elements of international strategy or, in economic and fiscal matters, grade-three arithmetic. And it is worrisome that they have been reelected, and that there have been so many implausible candidates against them. Never in American history has there been such a sequence of inept campaigns as those run by Al Gore, John Kerry, John McCain, and Mitt Romney. Whatever happened to the gallant adversary who put up a good fight — Al Smith, Wendell Willkie, Adlai E. Stevenson, Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey?
It may be reassuring, but should not be consoling, that most other important countries are wallowing in similar problems. In the last British election, all three party leaders managed to lose. The only impressive leader is Nigel Farage of the U.K. Independence Party, who has pushed the malleable prime minister, David Cameron, a former Euro-enthusiast, to the point of threatening to leave the European Union. So much for Cameron’s post-Thatcher “modernization,” which was a fatuous nostrum in the first place.
France has descended to depths hitherto unplumbed, even in the doldrums of the storied trifecta of Charles the Bald, Charles the Fat, and Charles the Simple (843–77, 881–88, 898–922); and it is a country that has had an astonishing number of bad leaders. The current president, François Hollande, only six presidents after de Gaulle — the same gap as between Washington and Jackson — is conveyed incognito by motor scooter between the homes of his mistresses, while that splendid, rich country simply decomposes and 78 percent of the French now express disdain for the political class in general. The French are not everyone’s taste, but they are the very intelligent inhabitants of a great country and the degeneration of French standards of governance and public policy is shocking.
The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, is often impressive, but she is missing the opportunity and the need for Germany to fulfill its role as a Great Power responsibly, for the first time since Bismarck’s time. (Several of the federal chancellors were quite distinguished, especially Adenauer, Schmidt, and Kohl, but Germany was a divided country dependent on resident allied expeditionary forces for its security.) Merkel has at least played a strong economic hand, and Europe owes chiefly to her the relative stabilization of its economic condition. The Poles and the Czechs are purposeful, and Putin is enabled to look strong by the ineptitude of the Western leaders.
The most promising is Tony Abbott in Australia and the man to watch is Narendra Modi, who should evict the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty this week from the Indian prime minister’s residence, to which they have clung like horse-leeches for most of the 67 years of Indian independence. If India’s 800 million voters give Modi a clear mandate to govern the country as he has the state of Gujarat, where for 13 years he has shrunk government and put up double-digit rates of economic growth, the implications for the world could be earth-shaking, and wholly positive. Despite considerable recent progress, India still has 300 million illiterate people who earn less than $1.25 per day. Ten years of double-digit growth would drastically cut into that number and make India one of the world’s greatest powers.
The destructive media have complicated politics; the post-Watergate atmosphere of sadistically attacking wherever there is a vulnerability and calling the lynching of successful officeholders a vindication of democracy has doubtless deterred many good, public-spirited people from entering public life. Eventually, the political systems of the West will just have to function better, elaborate sensible reforms, reimpose fiscal responsibility, and stabilize international relations. We are still within our rights to hope that we will generate the governmental leaders equal to these tasks before they become such imposing crises that we have to scour around for Lincolns, Churchills, and Roosevelts to deal with threats to the future of civilization. That cupboard may be empty.
— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, A Matter of Principle, and Flight of the Eagle: The Grand Strategies That Brought America from Colonial Dependence to World Leadership. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.