Daniel W. Drezner

These aren’t the leaders you’re looking for…

I’ve been banging on about the useless "we need leadership" meme this week.  Erik Voeten has a good follow-up, and makes a trenchant point — leadership is not the same thing as good leadership:  I would add that you should be careful what you wish for. Kohl and Mitterand were heralded as strong leaders when ...

I've been banging on about the useless "we need leadership" meme this week.  Erik Voeten has a good follow-up, and makes a trenchant point -- leadership is not the same thing as good leadership: 

I would add that you should be careful what you wish for. Kohl and Mitterand were heralded as strong leaders when they created the Eurozone and opened membership to Europe’s weaker economies. Strong leadership may not always work out so well.

The point is not that leaders who make good decisions and have persuasive power cannot make a difference. I won’t underestimate the power of good (and bad) ideas to shape outcomes. But lamenting “poor leadership” provides little guidance on understanding what is going wrong or how things could go better. It is with good reason that good leadership is usually only recognized after the fact and even then perceptions often adjust as facts change (see Kohl and Mitterand). Believing that things will go better if only there were better leadership is like wishing for politicians to “do the right thing:” it is a perfectly reasonable desire but not much of a prescription or explanation.

I’ve been banging on about the useless "we need leadership" meme this week.  Erik Voeten has a good follow-up, and makes a trenchant point — leadership is not the same thing as good leadership: 

I would add that you should be careful what you wish for. Kohl and Mitterand were heralded as strong leaders when they created the Eurozone and opened membership to Europe’s weaker economies. Strong leadership may not always work out so well.

The point is not that leaders who make good decisions and have persuasive power cannot make a difference. I won’t underestimate the power of good (and bad) ideas to shape outcomes. But lamenting “poor leadership” provides little guidance on understanding what is going wrong or how things could go better. It is with good reason that good leadership is usually only recognized after the fact and even then perceptions often adjust as facts change (see Kohl and Mitterand). Believing that things will go better if only there were better leadership is like wishing for politicians to “do the right thing:” it is a perfectly reasonable desire but not much of a prescription or explanation.

I bring this up again because I see that I managed to criticize Tom Friedman’s latest op-edtwo days before it was published!!  Here’s his opening paragraph: 

One of the most troubling features of today’s global economic crisis is the lack of political leadership anywhere. No one has the courage to tell their people the truth. And the truth, alas, is that four of the pillars of today’s global economy — Europe, America, China and the Arab world — have, each in their own way, squandered huge dividends they enjoyed in recent decades, and now they have to dig out of their respective holes with fewer resources, less time and, almost certainly, more pain. There is no easy way out. But, as confronting these hard truths becomes unavoidable, I think we’re likely to see some wild, angry and destabilizing politics that could make the economic recovery even more difficult. Deep holes and weak leaders are a bad combination.

Excuse me, I have to go do this again. 

What’s interesting, if you read the next few paragraphs, is that Friedman thinks the leadership failure in Europe is on the periphery — that these governments failed to exploit the windfall of euro-driven lower interest rates to make themselves more competitive.  Friedman is not necessarily completely wrong here, but this overlooks a few things.  The design of the euro — which French and German leaders created — contributed to the underlying curency area problem.  The "Austerity!! Austerity!! AUSTERITY!!" response to the eurocrisis by Germany and the European Central Bank has also been… let’s say problematic and incomplete (and, unfortunately, continues to be the status quo policy). 

Indeed, this past week Germany’s Angela Merkel has proven Voeten’s point and undercut Frideman’s argument.  She has demonstrated leadership — she’s repeatedly offered up a Grand Bargain with the rest of Europe in which Germany agrees to a closer fiscal union and Eurobonds — in return for a more centralized European political authority that would implement German policy preferences.  This sounds an awful lot like leadership to me.  Whether it’s the right policy or not is juuuuuust a wee bit more contentious. 

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:  "Yes, leadership matters on the margins — but power and purpose matter one whole hell of a lot more."

Seriously, I’m beginning to suspect that those calling for greater "leadership" are the victims of a Jedi mind trick or something. 

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. He blogged regularly for Foreign Policy from 2009 to 2014. Twitter: @dandrezner

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