The Courage to Lead
On both sides of the Atlantic, the centre-Right has a leadership problem. To paraphrase Dr Johnsonon the widower who, having lost his uncongenial first wife, could not wait to marry again: the re-election of Barack Obama last month was a triumph of the politics of hope over the reality of experience. His wretched record notwithstanding, Americans gritted their teeth and rewarded their president with a second term. Why did they do this? Those who depend on big government—public sector employees, single mothers “married to the state”, and so on—had a positive reason to vote for Obama. The rest did not. What, then, were they voting against? For them, Romney personified a kind of negative charisma: the country club conservative who not only had no inkling of their lives, but did not care—cared so little, in fact, that he wrote off 47 per cent of the voters before they had voted. Lionel Trilling distinguished between sincerity and authenticity, but Romney lacked both. Even so, it is hard to imagine Romney treating democracy with contempt, as Obama did in his notorious “open mike” conversation, when he pleaded with President Medvedev of Russia to wait until his second term, when he could be “more flexible” on missile defence. Romney may be a fake and even a flake, but he is no cynic.
In this month’s Standpoint, Iain Martin and Andrew Roberts in London and Washington respectively show how easy it is for Republicans and their conservative counterparts abroad to learn the wrong lessons from Obama’s victory. Over and above the ideological and social issues that divide America, however, there is also the vacuum of leadership to which Emanuele Ottolenghi, reporting from Istanbul and Jerusalem, draws attention. As he says, the eclipse of Western power is particularly ominous just now. The landscape of the Middle East is altering fast, as the aftershocks of the Arab Spring are succeeded by new earthquakes that affect Turks and Iranians as well as Arabs, Jews and Christians as well as Muslims. Our attention spans are too short to grasp the really significant shifts: Islamism’s triumphant progress across the region, minorities driven out by persecution and regime change, the war of words fought in cyberspace that may be no less deadly than weapons. Israel is especially vulnerable to the media’s habit of ignoring long-term, strategic threats while focusing on spectacular tactics. But it is not only in the Levant and the Gulf that American neo-isolationism is already having consequences: in the Pacific, old Sino-Japanese tensions have resurfaced in the wake of China’s imperial metamorphosis; from eastern Europe to central Asia, Putin is reasserting Russian hegemony; and across sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, the West is losing ground. The global economic crisis is still taking its toll, but more damaging to humanity in the long run is the loss of confidence in the leading role of Western civilisation.
The crisis of leadership in the West, especially on the centre-Right, has taken generations to manifest itself. Strong leaders often bequeath legacies that their successors struggle to preserve. A classic case is Bismarck; his equivalent in our time was Helmut Kohl, who reunified Germany but divided Europe with an unworkable currency. De Gaulle is a similar case: the man who was France still casts a shadow over Continental attitudes to the Anglosphere. Britain had to wait a generation after Churchill before another worthy leader could emerge in Margaret Thatcher. America has waited a generation for a second Reagan, so far in vain.