President Richard Nixon dines with Zhou Enlai, the Chinese Premier, and Zhang Chunqiao, the Shanghai Communist Party Leader, during his visit to China in 1972 ©History/Bridgeman Images

Does leadership matter?

Leaders shape history less than they think—with some exceptions
February 18, 2016
Read more by Archie Brown: Getting Gorbachev right 

History's People: Personalities and the Past by Margaret MacMillan, Profile, £12.99

Mistaken though he was in elevating his own hopes and expectations into inexorable laws of history, Karl Marx aptly wrote: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”

Getting the balance right in historical and political analysis between the limiting conditions imposed by political, economic and social context and the part played in effecting change by particular individuals is never easy. Even to speak of getting it “right” is a simplification, for the relationship between context and personality will continue to be debated for as long as historians and social scientists thrive.

But, as Margaret MacMillan makes clear in her new book, bad history (generally in the form of inappropriate historical analogies) rationalises, and sometimes engenders, bad politics—from Balkan conflicts to turmoil in the Arab world. As if it were the only fragment of history they have ever learned, politicians mouth clichés about fascism and appeasement, invoking images of Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini and Neville Chamberlain, even when the threats and their settings are very different from those posed in the late 1930s. From Anthony Eden and the 1956 invasion of Egypt, to Tony Blair as junior partner of President George W Bush in the 2003 occupation of Iraq, the “lessons of Munich” have been repeatedly disinterred to justify misguided, and profoundly ignorant, policies in the Middle East.

We do well to be sceptical of any politician who begins by saying “History tells us that...” a particular course of action is required, since history tells us no such thing. For the makers of foreign policy to understand the complex histories of the countries they are dealing with, and to be aware of how the leaders and peoples of those countries perceive their histories, is, however, a promising start. It is one reason why it is rarely a good idea for prime ministers to concentrate great power within their own entourage and to downgrade or even disparage the knowledge available in any foreign ministry worth its salt. Boneheadedness masqueraded as sophistication when the former ambassadors and the officials in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, with the best understanding of the turmoil and carnage a United States-led invasion of Iraq was likely to unleash, were dismissed in 10 Downing Street briefings as “the camel corps.”
"It is highly improbable that Al Gore would have thought the attacks of 9/11 to be a reason for invading Iraq under Sadam Hussein"
Although many leaders do not make the big difference that they think they do (as Daniel Kahneman has convincingly demonstrated), there are occasions when chance as much as choice puts one person rather than another in a position of great institutional power, and momentous decisions, for better or worse, are taken that would have been quite different if the realistic alternative candidate had succeeded to the same office. Thus, the oddity of America’s electoral college meant that the candidate who won the popular vote in the 2000 presidential election, Al Gore, did not enter the White House, an outcome which further depended on the vagaries of Florida’s voting procedures and of its Supreme Court. It is highly improbable that Gore would have deemed the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington to be a reason for invading the Iraq of Saddam Hussein, whose hostility to the ideology of Osama bin Laden was well attested.

British participation in the attack on Iraq would have been extremely unlikely had either John Smith been Prime Minister or had Robin Cook been allowed to continue to occupy the post of Foreign Secretary after the 2001 general election, the position which he held in the government elected in 1997. That return of a Labour government, following 18 years of Conservative rule, seemed certain enough, had Smith lived.

The Conservative Party had lost its reputation for economic competence following the ignominious “Black Wednesday” exit from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1992. It was not going to win a fifth successive general election or, given its deep and acrimonious divisions over Europe, return to power in 2001 unless Labour self-destructed.

It would not, however, have done so under the leadership of John Smith. His sudden death at the age of 55 in May 1994 provided a quite unexpected opportunity for Tony Blair to become leader of the Labour Party. Had Smith (who combined consistently social democratic beliefs with exceptional debating skills and ready wit) lived, we might also have been spared the sedulously promoted myths of “New Labour”—the idea that it was only the rebranding of the party, the personality of its new leader and the concentration of power in a narrow circle at the top of the party which secured the electoral victories that followed.

In global terms, history could—and almost certainly would—have been still more momentously different over the past three decades had another leader in waiting died, while still in his mid-fifties, before he could attain the highest office. Mikhail Gorbachev was just 54 when Konstantin Chernenko expired on 10th March 1985. Already second secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, Gorbachev acted swiftly, convening a Politburo meeting that same evening. Within 24 hours of his predecessor’s death, he was formally installed as General Secretary of the Communist Party and, thus, de facto leader of the Soviet Union.

Gorbachev had cut short his first visit to Britain in December 1984 when Dmitri Ustinov, the veteran Politburo member and Minister of Defence, died. Although he was already the likeliest successor to the ailing Chernenko, Gorbachev had enemies at home and he could take nothing for granted. He needed to be in Moscow at a time of any change in the composition of the highest echelons of the party. It is worth underlining that if Gorbachev, rather than Ustinov, had died in December 1984, there was no-one else in the Politburo, no person who had the faintest chance of becoming Soviet leader, who would have introduced either the radical political reform or the transformation of Soviet foreign policy that Gorbachev undertook as he consolidated his power.

Margaret MacMillan needs no persuading of the importance of individuals in history. In History’s People, she writes about people who made a difference. Some of those she discusses in her wide-ranging, readable and often amusing work—based on lectures given in Canada which must have delighted her audience—were heads of government. Many were not. Writers, diplomats, intrepid travellers (especially women, such as Elizabeth Simcoe and Fanny Parkes, who defied the conventions of their age) and inventors also have their place.

After an opening chapter on leadership and the art of persuasion, MacMillan organises the remaining chapters of this concise book around four personality traits: hubris, daring, curiosity, and perceptiveness of observation. Canadians feature more prominently than would be likely in an equivalent book by a British author—unsurprisingly, for MacMillan was not only addressing (in the first instance) a Canadian audience, but she is herself a patriotic Canadian.

In her opening chapter she touches on a further personality trait: ambition. A vivid example she provides is of David Lloyd George who, though she refrains from mentioning it, happens to be one of her great-grandparents. Ambition, of course, hardly separates Lloyd George from a very large company of leaders. Jeremy Corbyn’s reluctance to stand for the Labour Party leadership, and subsequent astonishment when it became clear he was going to win that contest quite comfortably, is very much the exception rather than the rule among those who attain the highest office. Not many, though, would put things as bluntly as Lloyd George did when he wrote to his future wife: “My supreme idea is to get on. To this idea I shall sacrifice everything—except, I trust, honesty. I am prepared to thrust even love itself under the wheels of my Juggernaut if it obstructs the way...”.

The three people to whom MacMillan devotes particular attention in her account of leadership and persuasion are Otto von Bismarck, Canadian premier William Lyon Mackenzie King, and Franklin D Roosevelt.

Following in the footsteps of Gordon Craig, a historian of Germany, she writes of Bismarck that if he had not risen to the top of Prussian politics, German unification would probably have occurred sometime, but not when it did and in the way it did.

This reminded me of a conversation between two Russian friends of mine in Moscow in early 1991. Worried about the way things were going in their country, one of them said to the other: “We need a Bismarck.” “Why Bismarck?” his friend responded. “We’ve got Gorbachev. He also united Germany.” Irony apart, the underlying truth is that German reunification, like its earlier unification, would probably have taken place sometime, but in the absence of that particular Soviet leader, not when it did, or in the way it did, so remarkably peacefully.

Mackenzie King, argues MacMillan, was as important in Canadian history as Bismarck was in Germany’s. Whereas Bismarck built a country, King preserved his through skilful management of the relations between English-speaking and French-speaking Canadians and leading Canada through the aftermath of the Great Depression and the Second World War. The country’s longest serving Prime Minister, he was in office for almost the whole of the 1920s and, again, from 1935 to 1948. His idiosyncracies included summoning up the spirits of the departed. William Gladstone was among those who happened to drop by on King’s 60th birthday. More worryingly, he came away from a meeting with Hitler in 1937 admiring him as “one who truly loves his fellow-men, and his country, and would make any sacrifice for their good,” adding that it was “marvellous” what Hitler had attained, in spite of the “limited opportunities in his early life” which he had overcome through his “self-education.”
"Roosevelt was instrumental in giving the state a greater role in the economy than had hitherto been deemed possible in the US"
Nevertheless, as MacMillan notes, King told Hitler that Canada would come to Britain’s aid if Germany attacked it. King came to be respected in both London and Washington. His main achievements, however, were in domestic politics. He built the Liberal Party into a major force in Canadian politics, and before the advent of opinion polls was adept at sensing the mood of the country. “He was,” observes MacMillan, “an idealist who wanted to build a fairer society, but he was also a pragmatist who avoided fights he could not win.”

How much of a difference Roosevelt made to recovery from recession in America is still debated by historians, but he was a redefining leader in the sense that he was instrumental in giving the state a greater role in the economy than had hitherto been deemed respectable or even possible in the US. Although he was initially sceptical of public works, Roosevelt subsequently became their most influential advocate, and they formed an important part of the National Industrial Recovery Act, one of the notable features of his first 100 days. MacMillan does not refer to the “rotten compromise” which, as Ira Katznelson has persuasively argued, lay at the heart of the New Deal—Roosevelt’s relative passivity on the rights of black Americans—since he relied on the backing of segregationist southern Democrats for legislative support of massive job programmes and large-scale public infrastructure projects. Yet without the economic measures of the New Deal, including some backing for the advance of labour unions, the conditions of black Americans would have been even worse. The policies pursued by Roosevelt created some of the preconditions for the rise of the post-war civil rights movement, as did the part played by black servicemen in the American war effort.

It is Roosevelt’s role in the remaking of American foreign policy on which MacMillan lays greatest stress. His radio “Fireside Chats” and numerous press conferences were remarkably effective examples of the presidential power to persuade. Yet he moved cautiously in his efforts “to educate the American people in the perils which faced the world and which could well face them.” His enemies accused Roosevelt of trying to acquire dictatorial power, but the American political system is such that it is well nigh impossible for the president to dominate the policy process. Such formidable obstacles, both institutional and interest-based, are placed in the way of radical policies that the rare redefining president is one who makes the most of the political resources he does possess. There is no more striking example of such a leader in 20th-century America than Roosevelt, followed most closely a generation later by Lyndon B Johnson, whose domestic policy successes were as impressive as his foreign policy failures were abysmal.

One of the few evaluations in MacMillan’s book which strikes me as overstated is her assessment of Richard Nixon’s visit to Beijing and recognition of Communist China as acts of great political courage. Since MacMillan has written a book on Nixon and China, it is not surprising that this should be presented as one of the prime examples of “daring” in her chapter of that title. But belatedly to recognise that the state over which Mao Zedong presided was a political reality, as other democracies had long done, was to endorse the blindingly obvious. The circumstances, moreover, were exceptionally propitious. The early 1970s were a time when China was anxious to improve relations with the US, for there had been armed skirmishes on the Soviet-Chinese border in 1969, and the prospect of war between the two Communist giants had ceased to be unthinkable.

Not much changed for the better in China until after Mao’s death in 1976, with the Cultural Revolution continuing, albeit at a less destructive level than in the second half of the 1960s. Nor did much change in practical terms in Sino-American relations in the immediate aftermath of Nixon’s visit, but it represented at least a nod in the direction of the real world. Given that Nixon had first come to prominence in the late 1940s as a particularly aggressive member of the House of Representatives Un-American Activities Committee, and as a scourge of Communists abroad and of suspected Communists at home, he was in little danger of being portrayed as a “Red” sympathiser or apologist (although from 1971 he did begin speaking of the People’s Republic of China in preference to the “Red China” he had used hitherto).

I have focused on some of the politicians who figure prominently in History’s People, but there are a great many other individuals who made a difference, on whom MacMillan writes with panache. At the end of the book she says she still treasures a remark of a Canadian student in environmental engineering who told her that the lecture she had given on Napoleon was more interesting than the one he had just heard on industrial sludge. No such faint praise is needed here. History’s People is as entertaining and illuminating a work of popular history as one could possibly wish for.