Lead­ers help shape course of his­tory

20th cen­tury was rich in ‘trans­for­ma­tive’ lead­ers, in­clud­ing Roo­sevelt, Churchill, Man­dela

Kingston Whig-Standard - - FORUM - LOUIS DELVOIE Louis A. Delvoie is a Fel­low in the Cen­tre for In­ter­na­tional and De­fence Pol­icy at Queen’s Univer­sity.

His­to­ri­ans have long de­bated whether they should put the em­pha­sis on in­di­vid­ual lead­ers or on so­cial, cul­tural and eco­nomic trends and forces in in­ter­pret­ing the past. The so-called “great men” ap­proach to his­tory has largely fallen into dis­re­pute as more and more eco­nomic and so­cial his­to­ri­ans have come to oc­cupy cen­tre stage. And yet there are still em­i­nent his­to­ri­ans such as Prof. Mar­garet Macmil­lan, late of the Univer­sity of Toronto and now of Ox­ford Univer­sity, who make a point of high­light­ing the role of the in­di­vid­ual in ma­jor events. And she is right to do so, be­cause lead­ers have re­peat­edly emerged who have changed the course of his­tory in their coun­tries or in the world at large. For want of a bet­ter term, these are often de­scribed as “trans­for­ma­tive” lead­ers. And the 20th cen­tury was rich in them.

One of the most no­table po­lit­i­cal lead­ers of the first half of the cen­tury was Franklin De­lano Roo­sevelt. He was elected pres­i­dent when the United States was suf­fer­ing through the worst ef­fects of the Great De­pres­sion. Un­em­ploy­ment was sky high, eco­nomic ac­tiv­ity was ane­mic and so­cial un­rest was brew­ing. Roo­sevelt’s re­sponse to this sit­u­a­tion was to launch a se­ries of so­cioe­co­nomic ini­tia­tives that col­lec­tively came to be known as the New Deal. Roo­sevelt’s ac­tions not only re­duced un­em­ploy­ment and stim­u­lated eco­nomic ac­tiv­ity, they also re­stored hope to mil­lions of Amer­i­cans. And, of course, Roo­sevelt went on to lead the United States suc­cess­fully through the Sec­ond World War.

An­other leader of the same gen­er­a­tion was Win­ston Churchill. Af­ter a decades-long and very check­ered po­lit­i­cal ca­reer, he emerged to lead his coun­try in the Sec­ond World War. At a time when Bri­tain was suf­fer­ing a long se­ries of mil­i­tary de­feats, he used his con­sid­er­able or­a­tor­i­cal skills to rally the na­tion and hold out the prom­ise of even­tual victory. And when victory did oc­cur, Churchill was widely saluted as the saviour of his coun­try. Two other Bri­tish lead­ers who im­me­di­ately fol­lowed Churchill are less well known but were in many ways equally trans­for­ma­tive. Cle­ment Atlee and Aneurin Be­van, on tak­ing of­fice in 1945, de­cided to im­ple­ment the rec­om­men­da­tions of the sem­i­nal Bev­eridge re­port and cre­ate the mod­ern Bri­tish wel­fare state, fea­tur­ing the Na­tional Health Ser­vice, un­em­ploy­ment in­sur­ance and a va­ri­ety of pen­sion schemes. Bri­tain would never be the same again.

Yet an­other leader of this pe­riod had an equally stag­ger­ing im­pact on his coun­try. This was Charles de Gaulle. Fol­low­ing France’s de­feat by Ger­many in 1940, de Gaulle broad­cast a mes­sage to his coun­try­men in which he pro­claimed that “France has lost a bat­tle, France has not lost the war.” From that point, he went on to cre­ate the Free French move­ment, which by war’s end was able to field sev­eral di­vi­sions of troops to par­tic­i­pate in the fi­nal de­feat of Ger­many in 1945. In 1958, de Gaulle re-emerged on the po­lit­i­cal scene to save France from the po­lit­i­cal and mil­i­tary morass into which it had de­scended. He cre­ated the Fifth French Repub­lic un­der a new con­sti­tu­tion, ex­tri­cated France from its de­struc­tive war in Al­ge­ria, and dur­ing his 10-year pres­i­dency did much to re­store the pride and con­fi­dence of the French peo­ple. The bad old days of the Fourth Repub­lic, when French gov­ern­ments changed two or three times ev­ery year, were never to re­turn again.

The western lead­ers men­tioned above were par­al­leled in their time by Asian coun­ter­parts. Mo­han­das Gandhi’s sin­gle-minded cam­paign of civil dis­obe­di­ence and peace­ful re­sis­tance even­tu­ally wore down the Bri­tish colo­nial gov­ern­ment and In­dia gained its in­de­pen­dence in 1947. And in China, Mao Ze­dong’s armed re­sis­tance, which had lasted 20 years, even­tu­ally suc­ceeded with the procla­ma­tion of the Peo­ple’s Repub­lic of China in 1949. Al­though Mao’s rule pro­duced a long se­ries of dis­as­ters for the Chi­nese peo­ple, he nev­er­the­less trans­formed the coun­try be­yond recog­ni­tion. And when Mao died in 1976, he was fol­lowed by an equally trans­for­ma­tive leader in the per­son of Deng Xiao Ping. When con­fronted by ad­vo­cates of Marx­ist or­tho­doxy, Deng fa­mously replied that “it doesn’t mat­ter whether a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice.” With this prag­matic ap­proach, Deng launched China on a pro­gram known as the Four Mod­ern­iza­tions. It was from there that China be­gan its re­mark­able eco­nomic trans­for­ma­tion, which leaves it to­day as the world’s sec­ond largest econ­omy.

In the late 1970s, Great Bri­tain was suf­fer­ing from se­ri­ous so­cioe­co­nomic woes. The cur­rency was weak, the econ­omy was stag­nant and the trade unions were cre­at­ing chaos. Then along came Mar­garet Thatcher. In a mat­ter of a few short years, she turned the sit­u­a­tion around. While her meth­ods were some­times bru­tal and con­tro­ver­sial, she beat the trade unions into sub­mis­sion, she re­stored con­fi­dence in the cur­rency, and she presided over an ex­tra­or­di­nary pe­riod of growth in the fi­nan­cial sec­tor. Her de­ci­sion to go to war against Ar­gentina when it at­tacked and oc­cu­pied the Falk­land Is­lands set her apart from most of her im­me­di­ate pre­de­ces­sors and gave rise to a surge of pa­tri­otic fer­vour in Bri­tain.

An­other trans­for­ma­tive leader of the 1970s was Pres­i­dent An­war Sa­dat of Egypt. He came to of­fice fol­low­ing the death of Ga­mal Ab­del Nasser and not long af­ter Egypt had suf­fered a hu­mil­i­at­ing de­feat at the hands of Is­rael. He went about sys­tem­at­i­cally pre­par­ing the Egyp­tian armed forces to re­deem their hon­our and man­aged to do this in the Yom Kip­pur war of 1973. But Sa­dat was not con­tent with this. He un­der­took a ver­i­ta­ble rev­o­lu­tion in Egyp­tian for­eign pol­icy by sev­er­ing Egypt’s po­lit­i­cal and mil­i­tary links to the Soviet Union and align­ing his coun­try with the United States. He then launched a per­sonal diplo­matic ini­tia­tive in the di­rec­tion of Is­rael, cul­mi­nat­ing in the Egyp­tIs­rael peace treaty of 1979. He did this de­spite high lev­els of do­mes­tic dis­con­tent and al­most uni­ver­sal con­dem­na­tion on the part of other Arab coun­tries, which sev­ered diplo­matic re­la­tions with Egypt. His courage was re­warded with as­sas­si­na­tion at the hands of an Egyp­tian mil­i­tary ex­trem­ist three years later.

In some­what dif­fer­ent ways, Nel­son Man­dela was also a pow­er­ful agent of change. His long im­pris­on­ment by the gov­ern­ment of South Africa gained more and more in­ter­na­tional at­ten­tion over the years. He came to be seen as a vivid sym­bol of the strug­gle against apartheid and the racist gov­ern­ment that up­held that ab­hor­rent sys­tem. From his prison on Rob­bin Is­land, he es­tab­lished his cre­den­tials as the leader of postapartheid South Africa. When he was fi­nally freed and elected pres­i­dent, he dis­played a gen­eros­ity of spirit to­ward his re­cent tor­men­tors that led to his be­ing por­trayed as a sec­u­lar saint. That lib­er­ated South Africa did not de­scend into open racial war­fare is in large part due to Man­dela’s mod­er­a­tion and mag­na­nim­ity.

On the world scene to­day there is only one leader who can be truly de­scribed as trans­for­ma­tive, and that is Don­ald Trump, and for all of the wrong rea­sons. Dur­ing his elec­tion cam­paign and dur­ing his two years in of­fice, he has com­pletely up­set the in­ter­na­tional ap­ple cart. He has de­lib­er­ately gone about un­der­min­ing in­ter­na­tional in­sti­tu­tions such as the United Na­tions, the North At­lantic Treaty Or­ga­ni­za­tion, the Euro­pean Union and the World Trade Or­ga­ni­za­tion. He has re­peat­edly crit­i­cized or in­sulted some of the United States’ old­est and clos­est al­lies such as Canada, Great Bri­tain, France and Ger­many. He has only added salt to these wounds by em­brac­ing and prais­ing vile despots such as Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong Un and Ro­drigo Duterte. (In a re­cent tweet, the pres­i­dent of the U.S. Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions Richard Haass said, “U.S. for­eign pol­icy now aligns with an Axis of Il­lib­er­al­ism.) He has dis­rupted the in­ter­na­tional eco­nomic or­der by launch­ing trade wars against Canada, Mex­ico, the Euro­pean Union and China. And through his men­dac­ity, his racism and his boor­ish brash­ness, he has be­come the most uni­ver­sally re­viled pres­i­dent in the his­tory of the United States, to the great detri­ment of his coun­try’s stand­ing in the world. Rarely, if ever, has any leader been able to dis­rupt so much in such a short time.

Trans­for­ma­tive lead­ers come in all shapes and sizes, but their in­flu­ence can fre­quently match that of so­cial, cul­tural and eco­nomic trends in shap­ing the course of his­tory.


In this file photo taken on De­cem­ber 5, 1986, Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter Mar­garet Thatcher looks on as she chairs the EEC Eco­nomic Sum­mit held in Lon­don's Queen El­iz­a­beth Con­fer­ence Hall. Would the late Mar­garet Thatcher have voted for or against Bri­tain's EU mem­ber­ship? The Iron Lady is pit­ting Con­ser­va­tives against each other ahead of an in-out ref­er­en­dum ex­pected later this year. The row over the for­mer Bri­tish prime min­is­ter's al­le­giances deep­ened on Fe­bru­ary 12, 2016 as pro-Euro­pean Con­ser­va­tives un­earthed an old let­ter writ­ten in 1997 in which she wrote: "The ma­jor­ity of our peo­ple want Bri­tain to be in Europe, and so do I".

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