Opinion

opinion | Stephen kinzer

Would history’s heroes be effective today?

Winston Churchill arrives for his daughter’s wedding in 1935.
Fox Photos/Getty Images
Winston Churchill arrives for his daughter’s wedding in 1935.

Lamenting the poor quality of political leadership is a cliché in the United States. We complain endlessly about the mediocrity of our governing class, and envy generations that were lucky enough to live under more inspiring leaders. In fact, however, we neither want nor need heroic, larger-than-life leaders like the ones our grandparents revered. Our age demands a different style.

This year the world will salute three of modern history’s greatest national leaders. January 24 marks 50 years since the death of Winston Churchill, who rallied Britain to resist global tyranny in World War II. April 1 is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Otto von Bismarck, founder of modern Germany. And on April 12, 70 years will have passed since the death of Franklin Roosevelt, the greatest American president of the 20th century. All three were radical visionaries who seized control of history and decisively shaped the fate of great nations. This is the kind of leader we wish we had today — or do we?

Bold leaders emerge when the world needs them. Bismarck, Roosevelt, and Churchill scorned the idea of consensus that we cherish. None could come to power today. Their decisive, authoritarian style is out of fashion. It does not fit today’s world. We seek bland leaders, not swashbucklers.

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This evolution away from hero worship is a sign of historical progress. In stable societies, institutions are important, not charismatic leaders. Bismarck, Roosevelt, and Churchill responded to the demands of their times. History rewards them for having done so. Our different time requires a different kind of leader.

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The iconic national leader of the early 21st century is Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany. She inspires no one. A physicist by training, she succeeds by rigorously examining the landscape of the possible and operating within it. Rather than seek to revolutionize her country or the world, she accepts what Germans call the gegebenen bedingungen — the actual, given conditions. Realism is the key to her success. She is a master mechanic.

During 2014, this cool pragmatism brought Merkel and Germany continued success. Shortsighted passion led two other leaders to drag their countries down.

The booby prize for worst geopolitical leadership of the year goes to President Vladimir Putin of Russia. Putin’s central miscalculation is that of countless conquerors before him: He does not know where to stop. He might have gotten away with seizing Crimea from its Ukrainian sovereigns, but instead of consolidating his victory, he went on to foment trouble in other parts of Ukraine, even allowing his partisans to shoot down a civilian airliner. Worst of all, he did all this before building a domestic economy able to withstand inevitable Western sanctions.

Another ambitious strongman, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, also sacrificed much of his country’s strategic power in 2014. Until recently Turkey was widely seen as a godsend to the world, a vibrant example of Islam coexisting with democracy and capitalism. With amazing suddenness it has become the ally from hell. By wrecking Turkey’s carefully constructed relations with Egypt, Israel, and Syria, Erdogan has weakened his country and helped destabilize the Middle East. Once seen as a skilled modernizer, he now sits in a 1,000-room palace denouncing the European Union, decreeing the arrest of journalists, and ranting against short skirts and birth control. Strong leaders can descend into this kind of political madness. It’s no wonder we’ve soured on them.

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Today’s most admirable national leaders want to achieve things, not make grand statements. One of the most successful is President Michelle Bachelet of Chile, a chastened but still resolute idealist who recently began a highly promising second term. Also taking office in 2014 was the intriguingly modest “Jokowi” Widodo, a former furniture salesman who as President of Indonesia will try to lead his country out of the shadow of corrupt militarism. These two presidents embody the coming style of successful global leadership.

Bismarck, Roosevelt, and Churchill boldly rallied nations around historic causes. Today’s leaders face other challenges. They are called to collaborate, build social consensus, negotiate, compromise, and attack injustice methodically rather than emotionally. This year we should give fitting homage to Bismarck, Roosevelt, and Churchill. These idols of history, however, belong to the past. The new century demands a lighter, more delicate style of leadership.

Stephen Kinzer is a visiting fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.