Problems of personality in international leadership

Qatar is finding itself still isolated from the other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries more than two weeks after the crisis started. It is no coincidence that the recently empowered Saudi leadership led the rift against independent Qatar. The timing came right after a visit to the Saudi kingdom by U.S President Donald Trump when he personally gave his blessing to King Salman and assured him of a new American approach of allowing autonomy in domestic and international dealings for their ally.

Qatar is finding itself still isolated from the other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries more than two weeks after the crisis started. It is no coincidence that the recently empowered Saudi leadership led the rift against independent Qatar. The timing came right after a visit to the Saudi kingdom by U.S President Donald Trump when he personally gave his blessing to King Salman and assured him of a new American approach of allowing autonomy in domestic and international dealings for their ally. This is creating waves and forcing some to choose sides: already nine African nations are siding with Saudi Arabia and King Salman.

Historically, it was the spread of newspapers and rise of mass media that first propelled modern politics with the change to liberal democracy in the mid-eighteenth century which tended to break down monarchies. However, recent changes to communications and the rise of social media seemed to have once again pushed personalities to the apex of power in numerous countries, with America being the most conspicuous.

 

This century has seen a worldwide resurgence of egos on the international stage – last fall the Financial Times called it the ‘Cult of the Strongman Leader’. An almost quaint throwback to earlier eras when nations would follow the whims of a single leader who shaped the world. Jonathan Swift would satirize this in his classic story Gulliver’s Travels, and just as problems arising in that story some of today’s world leaders are concerned with personal relationships, disregarding reason and history.

 

Globally, leaders are showing a constant barrage of paying tribute to President Trump (whether at home in the White House or abroad: as witnessed by the red carpet treatment in Riyadh). The difference between paying homage and paying tribute is rather subtle in theory, but explicit in practice. The former is a diplomatic way to recognise others within the context of history; the latter- flattery. Statesmen traditionally pay homage to other heads of state out of diplomatic formality, while narcissistic leaders are far more susceptible to those coming to pay tribute with phony adulation, and finding quick personal offense from those who are not kowtowing to them.

 

With different egos and feelings, there is a tendency to have a more personalised approach when practising international relations, and as seen with Qatar, that can be dangerous with resulting conflict and long lasting scars. And, with the sudden, unannounced departure by Qatari peacekeeping forces from the disputed Djibouti-Eritrean boarder, the African Union is now getting involved. As the East African Community was looking towards Djibouti for membership and Rwanda’s close ties to the country, the ripple effects from the American president’s ad hoc policies are easily seen all over this region.

Rhetoric from the American president can be regionally devastating, or even a global threat; particularly when there is confusion. The June 15 signing of $12 billion in new aircraft deal with Qatar shows a disjointed White House that is dysfunctional, irresponsible and seems dependent on how Trump feels at the moment and his relationships.

It was in 1885 that the entire African continent was carved up in Berlin by various personalities as the negotiations carried on through meetings and social activities such as games and meals (where the Belgian King Leopold was skillful at developing alliances and friendships to get what he wanted). The results were much to the unfortunate detriment of people living all over the continent, as they were conveniently left out of any decision-making.

International relations are at risk of reverting into much more about who likes whom with the personal feelings and honour once again taking on a bigger role. Examples abound, such as Turkish President Erdogan consolidating power, bettering his close personal relationship with Russia’s Putin while trading insults with various EU leaders.

The Greek Philosopher Thucydides explained that, traditionally, there were three primary reasons for countries to go to war: fear, national interest, and honour. It was assumed by many that with maturity and reason ‘honour’ as a risk for war had faded into history. However, personalising the international arena means that era is possibly returning.

A requirement for peace and prosperity is balance, and this only comes from mature, sober second thought. The type of leadership that is needed globally are statesmen rather than self-absorbed politicians.

Obviously, there is nothing unusual or wrong with strong leadership personalities, so long as they are statesmen looking out for the actual welfare of the entire society that they are leading. Thousands of years ago Plato called such statesmen-leaders ‘philosopher kings’, and one can see the benefits of that type of leadership in Singapore: a country that went from abject poverty and third world ‘failed state’ into a first world leader. All while being surrounded by larger countries that were incompetently ruled – neighbouring Indonesia and Philippines (along with war-ravaged areas such as Vietnam). Yet Lee Kuan Yew was able to steer Singapore towards prosperity and strength.

As Rwandans head to the polls on August 4, by all accounts it looks like the country will re-elect a statesman who understands the need for stability. President Paul Kagame put things into perspective when he stated: “There are African leaders who have the dangerous habit of leading their people into an abyss”. That statement might now apply to many in the ‘developed world’, who need to be moving forward rather than regressing to the past.

The writer is a Canadian scholar currently working as an associate professor at a university in Japan. He has conducted regular visits to Rwanda and has given talks at the University of Rwanda and at the Kigali Independent University.

rmiller@mua.ac.ke

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