Jonathan Delaney is a Professor of International Relations and 20th Century History at Montgomery College, Maryland, and worked within the Veterans Coalition for the McCain-Palin campaign. He is also a former adviser to Conservative MEP Geoffrey Van Orden. Here he rails against the current generation of world leaders whom he accuses of being unwilling to tackle our most pressing problems.
Has the well run dry? Are there no more good ideas left? Never mind ones that are original, creative or groundbreaking (that’s obviously too much to ask), I’d settle at this point for some that don’t simply recycle current policies or repeat past failures. In both Europe and America, the problems with which our politicians supposedly contend are largely the very same that have plagued our countries for decades past.
Education? Healthcare? Immigration? Taxation? Welfare entitlements? Public order and licentiousness? The desirable size of government and reducing corruption and waste? Point to a time during the last fifty years when these were not the primary issues. These problems have not persisted for want of time, evidence or money.
Or is it that politicians no longer have much nerve? Once upon a time, our leaders would propose ambitious ideas to match the enormity of what faced them. Whether ultimately successful or not, a succession of twentieth century leaders possessed courage rarely seen today. In response to regular, and increasingly destructive, outbreaks of European warfare, Woodrow Wilson created the League of Nations, the first attempt at a body for global mediation.
To rebuild a devastated continent after the Second World War, George C.
Marshall championed the eponymous Marshall Plan for Europe. Seeking to
alleviate the hardships of mass unemployment and dire want on a more
domestic level, William Beveridge stated his case for social security
reform in the United Kingdom through the Social Insurance and Allied
Services report. Harry Truman took the soul-destroying decision to use
atomic weapons in order to force an end to a war that otherwise could
have been prolonged substantially.
Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, correctly identifying the lack of
past progress, broke with conventional wisdom and confronted the Soviet
Union, exposing its weaknesses to such astonishing effect. This is to
say nothing of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a period
of time littered with inspirational leaders of the calibre of
Washington, Lincoln, Garibaldi, Cavour, Bismarck, Nelson and Napoleon.
Now try saying Brown, Berlusconi, Sarkozy and Obama (or, indeed, any of
Of course, contemporary politicians are more vulnerable to failure than
their more distant predecessors. Never before has it been – in theory,
at least – so simple a task to peacefully replace one government with
the next. But today’s governments do not fail because they aim too
high. They fail because they do not even attempt to succeed.
How else to explain the proliferation of failure-free policies? The
environment, social mobility and equality, to name but three, are the
perfect foil for politicians’ hyper-allergy to failure. There are no
objective criteria for success in these areas and no comprehensive way
of measuring the value they bring. If, as many suspect, our efforts to
counter climate change do not bring the anticipated results, then it is
simply because not enough money has been poured into the endeavour. If
social mobility is less than targeted, that is due to a lack of
investment. If equality cannot be legislated, then a more intense
redistribution of income will work. With beliefs such as these, the
only failure possible is through limiting the available funds. Having
removed the contamination of potential failure, it is no wonder that
politicians of a certain hue are rushing to proclaim these concepts as
our most pressing challenges.
Which they most certainly are not. We should all be more
environmentally friendly where we can but rather than fret about a
theoretical, distant future climate meltdown, it makes more sense to
worry about the short-term nuclear threat posed by North Korea and,
soon, Iran. Rather than obsessing about the need to ensure that
everyone has the same material benefits, focus should be on emphasizing
the link between effort and opportunity. Instead of pretending that
militant Islam does not exist, politicians would be wiser to name the
threat for what it is and act accordingly.
But with the chance to succeed as few ever do comes also the risk of
dismal failure, played out on the world stage. Politics was once the
refuge of successful men who had proven themselves in other arenas,
most notably business, war or academia. Neither their reputation nor
livelihood depended entirely upon the retention of high office. This
insulation and self-knowledge allowed some leaders to achieve results
that could not even be contemplated today.
The professionalization of
politics, degrading a once noble pursuit to the rank of a routine
career, has brought with it a concomitant decline in the standards of
those seeking office. How many politicians can you name who have
sacrificed anything for their country? Here’s an easier one: how many
can you name who expect their country to provide them (and their
extended blood-lines) with a gilded existence?
One recent exception, however, stands out. Leaving aside vicious
partisanship, idiotic conspiracy theories and wilful ignorance, George
W. Bush and Tony Blair refused to sustain the status quo in the Middle
East and attempted to solve that region’s long-standing aversion to
pluralist society and democracy. Their fate, unfortunately, is a stern
lesson to anyone else who dares to act in the confidence of their own