Searching For Leadership in a World of Empty Suits

In a world populated mostly by sheep, the quality of live for the sheep depends almost entirely on those that lead them. It is said that cream floats to the top. That’s true; but so does scum.

Although your humble observer at Asylum Watch does not always agree with the opinions of Walter Russell Mead, he has been a fan of Mead for a long time. This essay on world leadership, at Via Meadia, is Walter Russell Mead at his best. I’m going to share a large part of his essay and then you can judge for yourself if his views on leadership in this asylum we all share are correct.

But the problem is bigger than politics; in civil society as well as in government we are in an age of empty suits and stylish haircuts on hollow heads.


As individuals, many of these people are outstanding: bright, hardworking, public spirited and dedicated to their jobs. They score well on tests and they get good grades in school. They can navigate the tricky path of advancement in the large and clumsy institutions that are the hallmark of our time. There are a lot of things they do well: they are mostly polite, they pay their bills and are reasonably faithful to their spouses and reasonably mindful of their kids. They are good company at cocktail parties and can at least appear attentive to panel presentations at multiday conferences. Whatever virtues are fashionable they are ready to exhibit, whatever opinions fit them for power they are eager to embrace. They look the part.

But they also have their limits: generally speaking they not only can’t think outside the box, they can’t conceive of a reality beyond the box’s comforting walls. They are bad at estimating probabilities, bad at anticipating consequences, bad at policy design and bad at managing change. Most are technical rather than strategic intellectuals; they often understand their own specialties pretty well, but cannot grasp the big picture. Incremental and cosmetic change they can process; deep change, not so much. They color between the lines and they play well with others, but under their mostly well meaning and eminently consensual direction the world is careening toward chaos.

The world has been cursed with this kind of polite incompetence before and it doesn’t end well. The rampant elite foolishness in the run up to 1914, the cretinous military and political leadership on both sides during that war and the idiotic mash up at Versailles and afterwards show what can happen when the world leadership class isn’t up to its job. One of the great ironies of history is that Thomas Mann’s brilliant takedown of the hollow civilization and international chatterati of pre-World War One Europe is set in Davos where an international group of the well heeled and the well informed discussed the problems of the world. They talked and talked and talked until the guns of August called them home in the summer of 1914.

The next generation of clueless leaders stayed out of Davos but their stewardship was no better; the blind leaders of the post World War One era unloosed plagues worse than those Moses brought on Egypt.  After the war, sobered and seasoned by almost fifty years of serial policy failures and global disaster, the western elites somehow managed a burst of statesmanship. People like Konrad Adenauer, Charles de Gaulle and Harry Truman—all of whom would have died in near-obscurity if the war had not cleared a path for them—actually built the foundations of a world order that worked.  This was not just about a handful of politicians at the top; it was about civil societies that were sobered by war and depression, and determined to do the right thing if only because the wrong thing was so horribly expensive.  Businessmen had watched the patterns of international trade collapse and in many cases seen their enterprises physically destroyed by the war. The horrors of totalitarianism during the Fascist era and the threat of Communist takeovers shocked intellectuals and other civic leaders into maturity and responsibility. Even journalists at least for a while were jolted into something like wisdom.

By the end of the 1980s and the end of the Cold War, the temporary surge in sobriety and thoughtfulness was coming to a close. Perhaps because times had been so good for so long, leaders of all kinds tended to become more mediocre and thinking at high levels became duller and more conventional. It’a understandable; life in Western consumer societies, and especially in the comfortable institutions through which elites generally move, offers many pleasures but imparts little wisdom. The World War Two generation lived in a world of real terrors where choices were clearly fateful; their successors thought they lived in a world whose foundations were secure. With the big issues settled, they could focus on detail.

Political leaders lost the ability to think seriously about risk; take Helmut Kohl’s twin monetary mistakes with respect to the ruinous East German/West German 1 for 1 monetary union and the even dumber and more reckless decision to dash for the euro. The Clinton/Blair era of flash, glitz and fizzy finance was incomparably less serious than the kind of statecraft found on both sides of the Atlantic after the war. The era of George W. Bush, Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder was even worse. Japan’s response to its bubble was a generation of passive decline.

So far, the new era looks no better and the list of unsolved problems grows. The middle class on both sides of the Atlantic and in Japan is in trouble. The euro is poisoning the European Union. NATO is eroding as continuing cutbacks in European defense budgets steadily reduce the alliance’s capabilities and relevance. Pension systems and social entitlements everywhere are unsustainable. The complex international dynamics of Asia and the assorted crises of governance and legitimacy in the Middle East can easily develop in ways that create security challenges as serious as anything in the twentieth century.

In the twentieth century it took a brutal series of hard knocks to wake the Western leadership class into competence and seriousness of purpose. Now the shock has worn off and once again a global ship of fools drifts aimlessly towards no one knows what. One hopes no cataracts or rapids lie downstream, but that seems unlikely. History is rarely dull and our new century looks to be full of surprise.

Yes, it does seem that the scum floats to the top much more frequently than the cream. Sadly, the sheep will have to suffer a leadership void until some disaster awakens a real leader or two.

Well, that’s what I’m thinking. What are your thoughts?

13 thoughts on “Searching For Leadership in a World of Empty Suits

  1. What are my thoughts?

    You summed it up perfectly!

    Sadly, the sheep will have to suffer a leadership void until some disaster awakens a real leader or two.

    The people who will survive what is surely coming down the pike will not be the pampered spoiled uneducated majority. Things are happening so fast now that most days it leaves me speechless.

  2. WRM is a keen observer. I read his blog every day.

    He also has a good article on Venezuela after Chavez, now that the El Caudillo has crossed the River Styx.

    Christopher Hitchens, God rest his soul, had the best take on the many delusions of the Bolivarian Bloviator:

    Chávez, in other words, is very close to the climactic moment when he will announce that he is a poached egg and that he requires a very large piece of buttered toast so that he can lie down and take a soothing nap. Even his macabre foraging in the coffin of Simón Bolívar was initially prompted by his theory that an autopsy would prove that The Liberator had been poisoned—most probably by dastardly Colombians. This would perhaps provide a posthumous license for Venezuela’s continuing hospitality to the narco-criminal gang FARC, a cross-border activity that does little to foster regional brotherhood.

  3. It is not only that the scum floats to the top much more readily than the cream, but that there are infinitely more of them.

    Look at what happens when the cream aims to get the top position in the land so he can make things better, he gets attacked and rebuffed not only by the scum but also by those “principled-cream” who denounce the scum regularly.

  4. I hold with the Peter principal in much of our failure in business.. How this translates to governnment I am not sure. I have seen it played out over and over again.

  5. It’s interesting how often you hear politicians talking and you think, “Good God… The guy is a moron.” Both parties. I agree with the author that we have a dearth of strategic thinkers… Even worse, we have an almost complete absence of people who can understand patterns and see big pictures, let alone communicate them. Unfortunately, the electorate is also full of the same people… the people who can’t understand that even though they like the goodies government gives them, if they don’t take fewer of those goodies, the whole thing will collapse and they’ll get NO goodies at all. You can’t HAVE your cake and EAT it too. Too many people don’t understand that that means that once you’ve eaten the cake, the cake is gone. Don’t eat your seed corn. Most people don’t understand that if you eat that which will be your future crop now, you will have no crop in the future. Do you think the government would ever apply that simple aphorism to taxation, or to regulation, or government spending in general?

    1. What makes my blood boil, Pat, are people like Gates, Buffet, and Soros. who made their fortunes in the free market capitalist system, seem to be working to make sure others can not do the same..

      1. No kidding. Soros is just evil. I think he just wants to rule the world. Buffet is a crony, seeking favors from the government. (Who do you think is transporting Canadian oil without the Keystone pipeline? Hint… choo choo!!) Gates just wants to be cool. He’s never been cool. Maybe the cool kids will like him if he goes to the left.

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