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Gone are the statesmen, replaced by mediocrities … no wonder the West is in peril


THE media never refer to contemporary politicians as statesmen for the simple reason that there are none. 

Statesmen are politicians who transcend workaday politics domestically and internationally. Henry Kissinger has devoted a new book, Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy, to six who marked the second half of the 20th century: Konrad Adenauer, Charles de Gaulle, Anwar Sadat, Lee Kuan Yew, Richard Nixon and Margaret Thatcher.  

‘It is the combination of character and circumstance which creates history,’ Kissinger writes. ‘I had the good fortune to encounter all six at the height of their influence.’ He modestly excludes a seventh, who would be himself as a latter-day Metternich at the heart of historic world events.

Madeleine Albright usefully defined statesmanship when she called the US the indispensable nation ‘because we stand tall, we see further’. Already in 1998, when she said it as Secretary of State, many would have questioned Washington’s statesmanship. But seeing further is the key. 

A lot has been written about the leaderless state of the modern West, where a transnational political class acts like an international bureaucracy that is unaccountable to the ordinary citizen. If our democracies all seem to offer similar symptoms of malaise and disconnection from their governments, this would be why. Call it democratic regression. 

The fact that the failed Boris Johnson – who replaced the failed Theresa May and the failed David Cameron – will be replaced by the uninspiring Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak is an example of our statesmanship deficit in the UK. 

Russia, China and Iran are the international challenges facing the present crop of leaders in the West, none of whom compares with Kissinger’s chosen six. Joe Biden is the worst president in US post-war history, and would have been at any stage in his career as a time-serving mediocrity. 

The West’s response to the most recent attack on its ‘values’ in Ukraine has been an embarrassing spectacle of hubris, incompetence and self-delusion practised by insignificant men and one woman – EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen – who are as interchangeable as Playmobil manikins. 

Among them, only Ukraine’s President Zelensky is likely to make a footnote in the history of the early 21st century. Dressing down in a dark green army T-shirt, his leadership style has been compared by his supporters in the West to that of Churchill. Critics have accused him of prolonging an unwinnable war at the expense of his country’s long-term interests. Either way, his leadership has not been contested domestically. 

When Putin invaded, the West seized the gauntlet that President Obama declined to take up when Russia reclaimed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.  

Outraged Nato shook off its lethargy and promised that Ukraine would be armed and the Russians driven back home. Europe would rearm against the threat from Moscow. Putin would be tried for war crimes. Biden and his allies boasted the West was united more than at any time since the Second World War. 

All this has been illusory. Nato’s bombast was more concerned about an attack on itself – that Putin never intended to make – than on saving Ukraine. Putin turned sanctions, the weapon of soft power meant to cripple Russia economically, back on the sanctioners, who are struggling desperately with the consequences. 

The war erupted because the West, and particularly the Biden administration, mishandled its cause – Russian insecurity concerns – and it has become a trap from which there is no easy way to disengage while making Putin pay. Obama’s caution has been vindicated. 

What passes for statesmanship today is a futile vision of gradual transition to world government whose twin embryos are the EU and the UN, both of which have easily identifiable and possibly fatal flaws.  

The struggle to contain authoritarian Russia, communist China and Islamic Iran demonstrates that a unified world is never going to happen as long as it is divided between conflicting ideologies. 

Worse than that, the West’s opponents may ultimately prevail, as its internal conflicts over unlimited and contradictory civil rights, denial of reality when it comes to defining a woman, intolerance of free speech and the award of immigration privileges to alien cultures progressively weaken its cohesion. It is in this struggle among ourselves over the basics of democracy that the lack of statesmanlike and far-sighted leaders is felt most acutely. 

The six-year war waged against Donald Trump in which partisan politicians have used the most powerful resources of the US government against him before, during and after his presidency is an example of how deeply corrupted the state has become while pretending still to be honest. To Trump’s enemies, ends justify means, as Machiavelli said. 

Trump had foreign policy successes that Democrat-led Washington hated: Talks with North Korea which calmed Kim Il Jong’s nuclear rhetoric, a positive reset with Israel which included moving the US embassy to Jerusalem and a halt to the Obama era’s appeasement of Iran. He also made Europeans pay more for the protection they get from Nato. But his provocative personal behaviour would probably disqualify him from Kissinger’s pantheon. 

No one can give a precise definition of how democracy should work fairly for everyone in our complex modern states; this is why we have politics. But a country which does not give all its people, including a president the current government dislikes, equal political protection under the law is no more a true democracy than Russia, China or Iran, our supposed antipodes. 

We imagine – rather against the evidence, considering the weakened state of Western democracy – our leaders to be superior to the likes of President Xi, Ayatollah Khameini and Putin, who, according to the media, are bad, mad or both. 

Professor Sean McMeekin, writing in the Claremont Review of Books, has an assessment of Putin, currently the epitome of evil, that is worth noting. 

He says: ‘He is more cunning, more genuinely curious about the world and how it really works, and consequently more effective, than most Western statesmen today. But that is an embarrassingly low bar in the age of mediocrities like Joe Biden, Justin Trudeau, Emmanuel Macron, and Olaf Scholz.’ 

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Donald Forbes
Donald Forbes
Donald Forbes is a retired Anglo-Scottish journalist now living in France who during a 40-year career worked in eastern Europe before and after communism.

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