What Happened to the Statesman?


Frank Uekoetter is a Dilthey Fellow of the VolkswagenStiftung and LMU Fellow at the Rachel Carson Center in Munich, Germany. He is the editor, among other things, of The Turning Points of Environmental History (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010).

Looking back on 2011 from the safe distance of February 2012, it seems that there are two things that one can safely state about last year: first, that it was a year full of epochal events, and second, that we have no idea about what they will mean in the longer term. From the Arab world to the eurozone, we see completely undecided states of affairs: established structures have been challenged or swept away, but the new is still evolving. Even more, it is difficult to imagine certainty about the new structures any time soon. 2011 may have been the overture for a decade of instability.

What we do know already is that something is missing. 2011 brought some new faces into office, but it is by all means characteristic that these faces remain widely unknown. None of the crises around the globe produced a new charismatic political figure. All the while, we see political leaders being cut to size everywhere, from Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy to Barack Obama. In Japan, Prime Minister Naoto Kan stepped down in the wake of the March 11 earthquake. Somewhat fittingly, the year ended with the departure of Václav Havel, the charismatic leader of the 1989 revolt against communist rule in Czechoslovakia.

This is unusual. After all, political leaders are frequently born in times of crisis. The end of communism brought Lech Wałęsa and Václav Havel to the presidencies of Poland and the Czech Republic; the end of apartheid boosted the enduring charisma of Nelson Mandela. Winston Churchill became a national hero in 1940 when he led Great Britain through an existential crisis; Charles de Gaulle inaugurated the Fifth Republic when France was facing a similar crisis some twenty years later. No such thing has happened today, in spite of countless commentaries that bemoaned the lack of leadership, and that is probably saying something about policy in the twenty-first century. It may be time to pronounce the death of the statesman.

Whenever a democracy was in crisis throughout the twentieth century, one could hope with an amazing degree of certainty for a leader to emerge from the mess. Some of these leaders moved towards establishing a dictatorship, with Hitler being the most obvious example. However, statesmen sought a different course: during the course of a crisis, they accumulated an enormous amount of power, allowing them to do things that others couldn’t while remaining within the purview of democratic structures. To be sure, the extent of their powers was problematic in an open society, a fact that opponents never grew tired of stressing, but their commitment to the common good was usually beyond doubt.

Still, the statesman was always a strange creature. If we can trust Max Weber, the modern state is anathema to human flesh: bureaucratic rationality leaves no room for emotions and personal character. Statesmen usually bend the rules and cutting through red tape; in fact, that’s what has brought them public acclaim in the past. Furthermore, statesmen are notoriously prone to failure. German foreign minister Gustav Stresemann failed to achieve reconciliation with France in the 1920s, as did Japan’s Prince Konoe in his attempt to avoid war with the United States a decade later. Neither Winston Churchill nor Charles de Gaulle managed to exit gracefully. It seems that we really did not cherish the statesman enough, until we missed them.

Generally speaking, the myth of the statesmen rests on three pillars, and all of them have been eroding for some time. The first pillar is the modern nation-state. Virtually all statesmen have emerged within the confines of a nation-state, and any transnational claim to fame has rested on their service for that particular country. Many statesmen suffered imprisonment or exile during some stage of their career, and quite a few were chastised as traitors to the nation, but they themselves never have any doubts about their loyalties. However, the harsh winds of globalization, in combination with a growing number of transnational agreements and rising levels of public debt, are challenging the powers of the nation-state, thus shrinking the foundation on which the statesman was based.

The second pillar is the military, both as an institution and as a maker of character. Leadership is central to military rule, and so is obedience: statesmen are nothing without a populace waiting to be led. De Gaulle was a general before he became chief of state; Churchill attended the Royal Military College at Sandhurst, covered the Boer War for a London newspaper, and served as First Lord of the Admiralty. In contrast, today’s political leadership is eminently civil, with politicians either having no military training at all or being hesitant to show it. In fact, the last generation of statesmen could already do without military credentials, as Wałęsa, Havel, and Mandela were all victims of the security apparatus, rather than members of it. (The United States is a bit of an exception here, but it is noteworthy that the American people have consistently elected the candidate with the weaker military record in the last five presidential elections.)

The third pillar is perhaps the most crucial, and also the hardest to pin down: the myth of solemn leadership. Statesmen have usually operated under a veil of secrecy. They have historically been remote and aloof, ignoring partisan interests for the sake of the common good, and rarely providing long justifications in public. Statesmanship simply happened, without focus groups and long meetings. Little has remained of the mystique of power in the age of the paparazzi. We now know more about the sex lives of some presidents than about our close relatives.

If all this holds true, the death of the statesman will be terminal. In an Internet era, with weak nation-states and little understanding for the merits of military discipline, we are simply lacking the resources that a new generation of statesmen could draw upon. At the same time, we live in an age where the statesman still exists within living memory. Witness the spectacle of the Republican presidential hopefuls doing their Reagan routine.

The statesman was notoriously ephemeral in the past, and modern political systems have operated without them most of the time. And yet there’s that nagging feeling that once there was a different breed of politicians, most notably in times of crisis, who did things. Imperfectly perhaps, but heck, they did things.

The death of the statesman says as much about politics in the twentieth century as about us.

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