Where have all the good statesmen and women gone?
In the democratic world, they are notable by their absence and have been replaced with an array of populists feeding on mean-spirited, exclusionary nationalism
When Britain's Conservative MPs voted to retain Theresa May as their leader last week, one aspect stuck out about those hungry to succeed her – and that was what an unimpressive and deeply flawed bunch they were, with not one politician of truly great stature among them.
But it is not just the UK that is currently suffering from a lack of bona fide statesmen and women. Around the democratic world, they appear to be notable by their absence. Instead, we have an array of populists, from Donald Trump in America and Viktor Orban in Hungary to Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro: men who prey on fear and stoke a mean-spirited and exclusionary nationalism. We see those who aspired to the mantle of greatness, such as France's Emmanuel Macron, fail to match expectations and prove to be no better than their predecessors. And then there is a long list whose names provoke recognition but not admiration, still less inspiration. (Australia's Scott Morrison, please take a bow.)
It should be an embarrassment to the world's democracies that the leaders who most stand out and who define the times are authoritarians: China's Xi Jinping, Russia's Vladimir Putin and, perhaps, India's Narendra Modi.
The German Chancellor Angela Merkel might have counted as a great leader but she is on her way out. And Malaysia's Dr Mahathir Mohamad might also be considered a statesman but that is due to his previous 22 years as prime minister from 1981 onwards, rather than his current return to office at the grand old age of 93.
It is no act of nostalgia to state that in that era – the 1980s and 1990s – and before, political giants strode the global stage. Whatever you thought of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Kohl, Francois Mitterrand, Mikhail Gorbachev and Indira Gandhi, they were undeniably formidable and considerable figures. The same could be said of Charles de Gaulle, of Mrs Gandhi's father Jawaharlal Nehru and his allies in the Non-Aligned Movement such as Indonesia's first president Sukarno.
A former Egyptian minister suggested to me recently that this was because of the times they lived in. Events like German reunification or the dismantling of the Soviet Union can only happen once, he argued, and were bound to magnify the leaders who happened to be in charge at the time. Equally, he said, there were genuine divisions over economic management. Since that discussion was effectively won by the right, the rest was just tinkering at the edges. No wonder, he concluded, that today's politicians seem small in comparison.
But there was more to it than that. The figures I mention all stood for something. They dominated consciousness. They were simply unavoidable and not just because there was no internet and only a choice of a handful of television channels in most countries. They all, as a former British Conservative minister put it recently, had "ballast". Was it because they had lived through the Second World War and had therefore experienced calamity of a profundity that younger politicians just cannot comprehend? Was it due to the fact that most had careers of great longevity – Mr Mitterrand, for example, had served as a minister as far back as 1947 before finally becoming president in 1981 – and were therefore bolstered by years of accumulated experience?
Whatever the reason for the air of substance they projected, we are certainly not seeing their like today. For this, no blame can be attached to the younger generations of 2018. They are just starting out. It would be unreasonable to expect more than idealism and enthusiasm from them. It is the politicians currently in their 40s, 50s and 60s who are to be found lacking. How did the febrile, bitterly divisive and momentous politics of the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s fail to produce a more dynamic crop of leaders?
Was it the fact that as children, nuclear war was for us an existential threat and terrorism – be it the IRA setting off bombs in Britain or left-wing extremists kidnapping and killing a former Italian prime minister – seemed far more omnipresent and imminent than it does now, even with the appalling attacks inspired by ISIS? Or the fact that with the end of the Cold War, an era of peace and prosperity appeared set to last? Did that breed a complacency in the not-so-greatest generations? Or did the bland but apparently successful managerialism of the Blair-Clinton-Schroder Third Way drain the life spirit of the left and leave much of the right believing that there was no option but to co-opt that model?
Given how badly globalisation on the basis of the Washington Consensus has let so many people down, in developed countries possibly even more than in developing ones, because the populations of advanced countries never expected such reversals in their fortunes, the false promises of that compromised, rootless brand of politics have been laid bare for all to see.
There are alternatives, but the appeal of various forms of narrow populism has not been stronger since the 1930s. What one academic refers to as the "centrist extremism" of Barack Obama – a disappointing president who only looks good in comparison to his successor – is not the answer.
The world's democracies badly need to revive themselves and elevate politics to a calling that once again attracts and produces statesmen and women who are decisive, responsible and capable of rallying public sentiment for noble causes, not the sectional interests of the resentful.
Currently they are nowhere in sight. Will the democratic world really leave it to the autocrats to set the course of the decades ahead?
Sholto Byrnes is a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia
Updated: December 17, 2018 06:40 PM