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Jonathan Delaney: Today's world leaders are leaders in name only

Jonathan Delaney is a Professor of International Relations and 20th Century History at Montgomery College, Maryland, and worked within the Veterans Coalition for the McCain-Palin campaign. He is also a former adviser to Conservative MEP Geoffrey Van Orden. Here he rails against the current generation of world leaders whom he accuses of being unwilling to tackle our most pressing problems.

Has the well run dry?  Are there no more good ideas left?  Never mind ones that are original, creative or groundbreaking (that’s obviously too much to ask), I’d settle at this point for some that don’t simply recycle current policies or repeat past failures.  In both Europe and America, the problems with which our politicians supposedly contend are largely the very same that have plagued our countries for decades past.

Education?  Healthcare?  Immigration?  Taxation?  Welfare entitlements?  Public order and licentiousness?  The desirable size of government and reducing corruption and waste?  Point to a time during the last fifty years when these were not the primary issues.  These problems have not persisted for want of time, evidence or money.

Or is it that politicians no longer have much nerve?  Once upon a time, our leaders would propose ambitious ideas to match the enormity of what faced them.  Whether ultimately successful or not, a succession of twentieth century leaders possessed courage rarely seen today.  In response to regular, and increasingly destructive, outbreaks of European warfare, Woodrow Wilson created the League of Nations, the first attempt at a body for global mediation.

To rebuild a devastated continent after the Second World War, George C. Marshall championed the eponymous Marshall Plan for Europe.  Seeking to alleviate the hardships of mass unemployment and dire want on a more domestic level, William Beveridge stated his case for social security reform in the United Kingdom through the Social Insurance and Allied Services report.  Harry Truman took the soul-destroying decision to use atomic weapons in order to force an end to a war that otherwise could have been prolonged substantially.

Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, correctly identifying the lack of past progress, broke with conventional wisdom and confronted the Soviet Union, exposing its weaknesses to such astonishing effect.  This is to say nothing of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a period of time littered with inspirational leaders of the calibre of Washington, Lincoln, Garibaldi, Cavour, Bismarck, Nelson and Napoleon. Now try saying Brown, Berlusconi, Sarkozy and Obama (or, indeed, any of their opponents).

Of course, contemporary politicians are more vulnerable to failure than their more distant predecessors.  Never before has it been - in theory, at least - so simple a task to peacefully replace one government with the next.  But today’s governments do not fail because they aim too high.  They fail because they do not even attempt to succeed.

How else to explain the proliferation of failure-free policies?  The environment, social mobility and equality, to name but three, are the perfect foil for politicians’ hyper-allergy to failure.  There are no objective criteria for success in these areas and no comprehensive way of measuring the value they bring.  If, as many suspect, our efforts to counter climate change do not bring the anticipated results, then it is simply because not enough money has been poured into the endeavour.  If social mobility is less than targeted, that is due to a lack of investment.  If equality cannot be legislated, then a more intense redistribution of income will work.  With beliefs such as these, the only failure possible is through limiting the available funds.  Having removed the contamination of potential failure, it is no wonder that politicians of a certain hue are rushing to proclaim these concepts as our most pressing challenges.

Which they most certainly are not.  We should all be more environmentally friendly where we can but rather than fret about a theoretical, distant future climate meltdown, it makes more sense to worry about the short-term nuclear threat posed by North Korea and, soon, Iran.  Rather than obsessing about the need to ensure that everyone has the same material benefits, focus should be on emphasizing the link between effort and opportunity.  Instead of pretending that militant Islam does not exist, politicians would be wiser to name the threat for what it is and act accordingly. 

But with the chance to succeed as few ever do comes also the risk of dismal failure, played out on the world stage.  Politics was once the refuge of successful men who had proven themselves in other arenas, most notably business, war or academia.  Neither their reputation nor livelihood depended entirely upon the retention of high office.  This insulation and self-knowledge allowed some leaders to achieve results that could not even be contemplated today.

The professionalization of politics, degrading a once noble pursuit to the rank of a routine career, has brought with it a concomitant decline in the standards of those seeking office.  How many politicians can you name who have sacrificed anything for their country?  Here’s an easier one: how many can you name who expect their country to provide them (and their extended blood-lines) with a gilded existence?

One recent exception, however, stands out.  Leaving aside vicious partisanship, idiotic conspiracy theories and wilful ignorance, George W. Bush and Tony Blair refused to sustain the status quo in the Middle East and attempted to solve that region’s long-standing aversion to pluralist society and democracy.  Their fate, unfortunately, is a stern lesson to anyone else who dares to act in the confidence of their own convictions.


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