Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Tag: Leadership

The physicality of leadership

I’m currently reading the autobiography of Teddy Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States. If Roosevelt is known for anything these days, and it’s inescapable in his book, it was his enthusiasm for the active life. He was a solider, hunter, naturalist and mountaineer, constantly pushing himself to keep going throughout life. In 1913, 5 years after leaving the White House, and aged 53 he went on a 1000km exploration charting rivers through the jungles of South America. He died some years later in part due to ill health caused by the trip, but no better marker of his identity in the publics mind can be found than the comment by the US vice president at the time that “Death had to take Roosevelt sleeping, for if he had been awake, there would have been a fight.” Roosevelt’s political and philosophical legacy isn’t that relevant anymore (though an early conservationist and he supported Health Care reform in his ‘Bull Moose’ run for the White House), but he still excites the imagination of many because, he offers a link to that original tribal idea of the leader as owed to the toughest, biggest man in the village. Yet how relevant is this idea of leadership today?
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The Big Man game: Obama, Healthcare and his Foreign Policy

One of the most long running debates in International Relations is known as the Agent/Structure Problem. It is perhaps best summed up by a famous Marx quote that “People make History, but not in conditions of their own choosing“. Which of these was more important inquiring minds wanted to know. Could great individuals through sheer strength of will and character change the globe, or do conditions need to be right not only to birth & shape the history makers, but to give them space in which to act. In short, what is more important, the agents or the structure in which they operate? This isn’t just a debate about theory, how you answer this question and your assumptions, will drive both both what, and how you study history and International Relations. In the wake of Obama’s health care victory we have to very good examples of authors disagreeing over this fundamental point:

First up Andrew Sullivan, batting for the Agent side (if that sounds a little Matrix-like to you, fear not, individuals or groups are known as ‘Agents’ in International Relations jargon)

“In Barack Obama’s agonising, year-long effort to pass universal health insurance, the latest bump in the road may seem trivial, and the president must surely hope the Indonesians don’t take it personally. At the last minute, he cancelled his trip to the place he grew up in. The visit was actually of great personal importance to him and a critical part of his message that America and a moderate Islam can and will get along.

But he also knows that his clout abroad depends on his success at home. The linkage matters. There is a connection between healthcare reform and the war on terror, and between relations with China and the entire Obama narrative…… A presidency failing at home only undermines Obama abroad. Dmitry Medvedev knows this as he negotiates with Washington over Iran; Binyamin Netanyahu knows this as he stays on the phone with Washington’s neoconservatives, who are promising that if he holds on they can destroy Obama for him; Ayatollah Khamenei and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad know this as they assess whether they can outlast this frustrating leader of the Great Satan; the Saudis know this; China knows this”

Batting for the Structuralists is the IR specialist Stephen M. Walt

“Will yesterday’s passage of health-care reform give a positive jolt to U.S. foreign policy? Is Obama the new “comeback kid,” with new clout at home and a more formidable hand to play abroad? Will he now pivot from domestic affairs to foreign policy and achieve a dazzling set of diplomatic victories? My answers: no, no, and no….
There isn’t a lot of low-hanging fruit in foreign policy. He might get an arms-control agreement with Russia, but there aren’t a lot of votes in that and there’s no way he’ll get a comprehensive test-ban treaty through the post-2010 Senate. Passing health care at home won’t make Iran more cooperative, make sanctions more effective, or make preventive war more appealing, so that issue will continue to fester. Yesterday’s vote doesn’t change anything in Iraq; it is their domestic politics that matters, not ours. I’d say much the same thing about Afghanistan, though Obama will face another hard choice when the 18-month deadline for his “surge” is up in the summer of 2011. Passing a health-care bill isn’t going to affect America’s increasingly fractious relationship with China, cause Osama bin Laden to surrender, or lead North Korea to embrace market reforms, hold elections, and give up its nuclear weapons.”

Though Walt is correct that passing health care wont in itself solve any of these factors, I side with Sullivan. As a constructivist afterall I really should. Constructivism is an approach to International Relations which identifies how agents socially construct much of the structures they find themselves in(and in turn their own identity as agents). To take the most well known of examples (and papers) the ‘anarchy’ of the world between nation-states today is as Alexander Wendt claims what states make of it (pdf). That is, how the world is seen determines what is seen. How Obama is seen, especially by the other Big Men of the world is important to what influence and credibility he is likely to have with them. The more Obama is seen as a successful domestic leader, the better he will be as a foreign policy leader.

To cite from a local example, here is Michael Wesley in one of my favourite books ‘The Howard Paradox’:

“Over time, [John]Howard has come to enjoy the international aspect of his job. Domestically, those with whom he regularly comes in contact either owe him, resent him or want his job; internationally, he is able to mix with equals who are familiar with the challenges of national leadership, and who can offer observations and advice untainted by designs on his job. In recent years, according to one journalist, Howard has enjoyed the status of being the respected elder statesman in a region that respects seniority’
Michael Wesley, (2009) The Howard Paradox, ABC books

Wesley makes many arguments for why Howard was able to do much better than his critics alleged he would, but that last sentence is perhaps the wisest. By 2002, when his record started to shift in his favour, Howard had been in power 6 years with three highly successful election victories under his belt. To those in the region he was clearly a very capable political operator and not going anywhere soon. As other regional elders like Malaysia’s Mahathir retired, Howard came to assume one of the roles as regional elder statesman.

Obama doesn’t have the same luxury of time that Howard did. The US probably does a disservice by its Presidents by forcing an 8 year maximum, but they do start from a significantly higher platform than anyone else does. Obama, especially as a younger (and lets be honest black) president needs to stamp his international authority and quickly. Being dominant at home doesn’t change the structures that confront him internationally, but a clear legislative victory (and especially one of this magnitude) is likely to send a signal that he is a statesman to be respected and not just a lucky winner of the White House. His party will lose seats in November, but you’d have to be firming on betting that Obama will win in 2012. The message of all this to the Big Men and Women in governments around the world? This man is not weak, impatient or going anywhere. Deal with this man now, as he is only going to get better at this.

Politics is built on many things, ideas, history, geography, economics, and demographics, but it often ends with two big men in a room negotiating how all these factors go together. As Marx said, people make history.

A Time For Leadership

Both of the major party leaders are facing a challenge of leadership this week, that will in some ways define the rest of their careers.

More directly Malcolm Turnbull has appeared to stake his leadership on having the Liberal Party back him on a Carbon Trading Scheme. Turnbull was dying the deaths of a thousand cuts as outliers such as Tuckey, McGauren and the Nationals Joyce, Boswell et have been attacking the idea of such a scheme and making public the very clear divide within the Coalition. The temporary break for Andrew Robb seems to have actually served the party well with Ian McFarlane stepping into the breech, reading the party the riot act, and even emailing backbenchers with the Coalitions 2007 election promise to introduce a cap & trade system. (A fair sign of the way politics works, that fidelity to the leader is always greater than to actual individual belief)

Less pressingly, though of importance is how Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is seen to respond to the Tsunami and Earthquakes to our north. John Howard was at his best as Prime Minister when he was responding to a tragedy. A man normally bereft of any real ability to talk to Australians on social or cultural issues, he could be the father figure in times of grief (Port Arthur massacre,9/11,Bali etc). Rudd did a decent job during the Victorian Bush Fires, but unable to visit and console, he will have to use his language and authority to help guide the nation if there are indeed many Australian lives at risk. Rudd is riding high in the polls for how he has managed the economics, and he is starting to deliver (after much talk) on foreign policy. But in social or cultural issues he is largely untested and untried. This won’t change how he rates in the next election, but could in the long term be an issue of comparison between him and Julia Gillard who seems to have a greater common touch.

Finally, if you have a spare hour, go watch the latest episode (Season 2, Ep 27) of Q&A on It’s an absolute ripper on the role of Religion in a modern society, featuring the irrepressible Christopher Hitchens. It’s rather timely (and deals with this question) that as potentially thousands lie dead to our north, of no fault or wrong of their own, religion still asks us to believe we are in the hands of a moral creator. I lost my own faith a long time ago(though I remain agnostic for reasons I explain here), but the 2004 tsunami where 230’000 died to me is the ultimate evidence that we live in an amoral universe. The world around us simply does not care about our welfare. Humans have always had to endure great struggle to survive. This is not evidence for or against a god, but rather the truth that in this life we are entirely on our own, we must make our own value judgments, based on the here and now and results as they affect other human beings.

Peter Costello

Back in February I made the case that Peter Costello had pretty poor political skills. Which seems an odd thing to say about someone who had such a quick run from election (1990) to deputy leader of their party (1994) to Treasurer of the Country (1996). But for all that Costello has dominated and driven Australian politics over the last 12 years, he was never actually that interested in it. In reading Costello’s (surprisingly) badly written memoirs the picture that emerges is of a lawyer who hated Lefty types and had a bent for economics. Costello was the emblematic technocrat who likes little bits of pieces of policy and the management and control granted by higher office, (not to mention status). In the Howard Government it was ironically the big man with the quick wit who was the boring accountant, whilst the small suburan solicitor crafted the narratives on which all politics is built.

This resistence to politics, especially the big picture, vision stuff is well identified in a quote Costello gave Paul Kelly back in 1998 “I have always decided that, in my life, politics won’t take its totality,” he said. “I have a limited view of politics. There is an awful lot that politics can’t fix.”.
As a young man Costello never got into politics to change the world, instead he seems to have fallen into it through the connections of friends (Michael Kroger & if Bob Ellis is to be believed his future wife also played a major party). Costello describes his first run for office in his Uni’s student unions more a case of sticking it to the silly hippies than any positive ideal. Of course, Student unions promise much and deliver little even in the best hands, but this pattern seemed to foreshadow Costello wherever he went.

What most amazed me about the career of Peter Costello is how little he contributed to the actual debate. Outside his domination of Labors Shadow Treasurers, identifying an area where the public have gone with Costello’s ideas is almost impossible to find. He did not create the support for free-market economics on the right or amongst the general public, and in the 2nd half of the Howard Government squandered that fiscal principle consistently in order to buy votes. In social policy he was often held up as adopting a somewhat more liberal approach than his boss, but his few efforts were token resistance (like wanting to walk across a bridge to show support for reconciliation. Talk about insignificant!).

Most dissapointing of all to those who liked Costello or simply wanted to hear more voices in Australian politics was his 2003 declaration that he was now going to “speak freely”. What did we hear but silence ? If anything the Treasurer was heard less and less. Peter Hartcher’s book ‘To the Bitter end’ details Costello’s 2007 planned press conference should Howard abdicate and make pete PM. Costello’s main themes were as predicable as they were old. Republic, reconciliation and tax reform. Themes Keating had began to urge on the public 20 years before, and which Costello had never seriously engaged during the 11 years he was effectively N#2 in the country (That Mark Vaile resigned with barely anyones notice, whilst Costello who was never even Deputy Prime Minister of this country gets lauded and lauded shows the ridiculousness of the Coalition system). Whilst Howard read and talked history, Costello talked economic stats. His most famous lines such as ‘one for mum, one for dad, and one for the country’ came from a concern about demographic changes and economic impact, rather than any view positive or negative about a larger populated Australia.

This is why i’ve always preferred Abbott to Costello. Abbot’s views were always much further removed from mine than Costello’s, but Abbott’s seem genuine and part of a larger vision of what Australia could be. He was willing to take unpopular stands, even at the risk of the disapproval of his colleagues. Costello always moved in the middle ranks of the herd, all the whilst wondering why it never pushed him to the front. He was the epitany of that famous (mythic?) French Revolution who saw a mob marching by and exclaimed “I must find out where my people are going so I can lead them”.

Costello is a man who seems to have spent 19 years in parliament, without actually valuing politics. He liked management, he liked having power, he liked the status worshiping journalists metered out (though he could be awfully spiteful if criticized). But in terms of a vision of Australia the day after tomorrow, in terms of a narrative that would bind and remake the country, in terms of actual Leadership, he had nothing to offer. To me that seems the great waste of his time. Perhaps all the better he never took the top job, he was not suited for it. Certainly he was lucky that the Coalition gained power after so short a time in Opposition, and he was quick to indicate (on election night no less) that he would not continue in Opposition. Though he does deserve some respect for the way he has valued the institution of Parliament, and desire to stick through the full term he was elected to as the member for Higgens. Indeed the best part of Costello’s speech the other day came from his discussion of the institution of Parliament:

There is no person in this place that is not important. Everybody had something that got them here and got them elected and everybody has a view
that has to be listened to. We are lucky to have a parliament. That is why I very consciously decided after
the election that I would stay in the parliament— because the parliament is an institution that should be
preserved and valued, not just the ministry.

The media attacked Alexander Downer & Vaile & Co who left Parliament immediately after losing government. Yet Costello who stuck around was also attacked by the media as either wasting space or preparing for another challenge to the leadership. The idea of actually being motivated in the slightest by the commitment he made to serve his electorate is utterly foreign to our press gallery.

For that reason, I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for Costello. As a fellow tall goof, Costello seemed a nice antidote to the relatively humorless Howard and Rudd. He could give a good speech, or make a cutting jibe that the press would repeat for weeks and the public months (roosters anyone?). He is clearly a man for whom family is so very important, and who would put the world on hold to deal with its needs. He even had the constant spur of his brother the Rev. Tim Costello out showing up the Governments mean and tricky ways, and yet never was caught in a public spar with him.

Australian politics is the more boring for his loss, but not necessarily that worse off. If anything it may be nice to bring an end to the theme of journalists for the last 15 years wondering when Costello would lead the party. The floated suggestion of Costello serving as a foreign representative for Australia in some economic role seems to me a good one and well deserving of the man.

I’ve included Costello’s full speech in Parliament on Monday below the fold. It’s worth a read (though loses something in the text. Costello was always much more entertaining in the flesh than on paper)

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