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Foreign Policy

An Abysmal Failure of Leadership

May 08, 2020

Leadership – the ability to help people frame and achieve their goals – is absolutely crucial during a crisis. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill demonstrated this in 1940, as did Nelson Mandela during South Africa’s transition from apartheid. 

By these historical standards, the leaders of the world’s two largest economies have failed abysmally. US President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, both initially reacted to the coronavirus outbreak not by informing and educating their publics, but by denying the problem, thereby costing lives. They then both redirected their energies toward assigning blame rather than finding solutions. Owing to their failures, the world may have missed the window for responding to the crisis with a “Sputnik moment” or a “COVID Marshall Plan.” 

Leadership theorists make a distinction between “transformational” and “transactional” leaders. The latter try to steer through situations with business as usual, whereas the former try to reshape the situations in which they find themselves. 

Of course, transformational leaders do not always succeed. Former US President George W. Bush tried to remake the Middle East by invading Iraq, with disastrous consequences. By contrast, his father, former President George H.W. Bush, had a more transactional style; but he also had the skills to manage the fluid situation that the world found itself in after the collapse of communism in Europe. The Cold War ended, Germany was reunited and anchored firmly to the West, and not a shot was fired. 

Whatever their style, leaders can exert strong influence on group identity – the force that turns “me” and “you” into “us.” Lazy leaders tend to reinforce the status quo, by tapping into existing divisions to mobilize support for themselves, as Trump has done. But effective transformational leaders can have a far-reaching impact on a society’s moral character. Mandela, for example, easily could have defined his base as black South Africans, and then sought revenge for decades of injustice. Instead, he worked tirelessly to broaden the identity of his followers. 

Similarly, after World War II – in which Germany had invaded France for the third time in 70 years – the French diplomat Jean Monnet concluded that revenge would only reproduce the tragedy. To transform the situation, he devised a plan for joint European coal and steel production, an arrangement that would eventually evolve into the European Union. 

These achievements were not inevitable. When we look beyond our families and closest associates, we find that most human identities are what the political scientist Benedict Anderson called “imagined communities.” No one shares directly in the experience of the millions of others who belong to the same nationality. Yet for the past century or two, the nation has been the imagined community that people have been willing to die for. 

Global threats such as COVID-19 and climate change, however, do not discriminate by nationality. In a globalized world, most people belong to a number of overlapping imagined communities – local, regional, national, ethnic, religious, professional – and leaders do not have to appeal to the narrowest identities in order to mobilize support or solidarity. 

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic represented an opportunity for transformational leadership. A transformational leader would have explained early on that, because the crisis is global in nature, it cannot be solved by any one country acting alone. Trump and Xi both squandered that opportunity. Both failed to realize that the exercise of power could have become a positive-sum game. Rather than thinking solely in terms of power over others, they could have thought in terms of power with others. 

On many transnational issues, empowering others can help a country like the United States accomplish its own goals. If China can strengthen its public-health system or reduce its carbon footprint, Americans and everyone else will benefit. In a globalized world, networks are a key source of power. And in an increasingly complex world, the most connected states – the ones most capable of attracting partners for cooperative efforts – are the most powerful. 

Insofar as the key to America’s future security and prosperity lies in learning the importance of “power with” as well as “power over,” the Trump administration’s performance during the pandemic has been discouraging. The problem is not the slogan “America First” (every country puts its interests first). It is how Trump defines American interests. Focusing solely on the short-term gains to be realized through zero-sum transactions, he has paid scant attention to the longer-term interests served by institutions, alliances, and reciprocity. 

As it stands, the US has abandoned its tradition of pursuing long-term enlightened self-interest. But the Trump administration could still heed the lessons that underpinned the successes of the post-1945 American presidents that I describe in my recent book, Do Morals Matter? Presidents and Foreign Policy from FDR to Trump. Indeed, the US could still launch a massive COVID-19 aid program modeled on the Marshall Plan. 

As Henry Kissinger recently argued, today’s leaders should choose a path of cooperation that will lead toward improved international resilience. Instead of resorting to competitive propaganda, Trump could call for an emergency G20 summit or a meeting of the United Nations Security Council to create bilateral and multilateral frameworks for enhanced cooperation. 

Trump also could point out that new waves of COVID-19 will hit poorer countries particularly hard, and that new outbreaks in the Global South will hurt everyone when they spill northward. It is worth remembering that the second wave of the 1918 influenza pandemic killed more people than the first. A transformational leader would teach the American public that it is in its own interest to mobilize generous contributions to a new COVID-19 fund that is open to all developing countries. 

If an American Churchill or Mandela were to educate the public in this way, the pandemic could open a path to a better world politics. Sadly, though, we may have already missed the moment for transformational leadership, and the virus may simply accelerate the world’s pre-existing conditions of populist nationalism and authoritarian abuses of technology. Leadership failures are always a pity, but all the more so in the face of a crisis. 

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2020.

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