Statesmanship in short supply

NATO leaders take a walk during their meeting in Brussels on May 25, 2017
Western leaders are constantly on the move, giving them little time for deep discussion or reflection. This NATO get-together in May lasted less than a day (source: dpa)

“We, the Leaders” is the rather arrogant opening of the resolutions issued after G20 meetings. The meetings get lots of attention, but are also excessively expensive for “We, the Citizens.” They require enormous amounts of energy and manpower in terms of preparation, security and logistics. Does the return justify the cost? Most of the heavy lifting is done by advisors beforehand. The final statement is usually hollow lip service. It is worth asking if “We, the Leaders” are really leading, or just reacting.

At the end of May, United States President Donald Trump took a highly publicized trip to the Middle East and Europe. He visited Saudi Arabia, Israel, the West Bank, Rome, Brussels and ended his trip at the G7 meeting in Taormina, Italy. Expectations for the trip were mixed. Certain circles within politics and the media were disappointed when President Trump did not commit the many blunders they had thought he would.

For domestic consumption

But the trip leads us again to question the priorities and time management of world leaders. Unfortunately, it appears that they tend to allow events to dictate their actions, rather than think through strategies and scenarios. Such contemplation requires concentration and time, both of which are lacking.

World leaders are constantly on the road, either in their own country or abroad. The domestic encounters are so short that a deep divide remains between the political elite and the ordinary people. Foreign trips are so rushed it seems there is only enough time to say hello and goodbye – there is little opportunity for learning, understanding and deeper discussion.

What leaders say and do while abroad must be seen in terms of domestic politics

This leads us to believe that what leaders say and do while abroad must be seen in terms of domestic politics. International trips provide politicians with publicity back home.

To solve international problems and maintain friendships, meetings from time to time certainly help. But the plethora of state visits and high-level international summits is not necessary to achieve those goals. Instead, these frenetic activities deprive political leaders of the time and mental energy they need to think carefully about future scenarios.

Therefore, the main purpose of these meetings must be to raise their profile back home; many of the statements they make while abroad are primarily meant for domestic consumption.

During President Trump’s trip to Saudi Arabia, American and Saudi companies signed several agreements that will benefit the U.S. economy. Some of the deals – like the high-profile orders for military equipment – probably would have come anyway, but they were arranged to be concluded during the trip to provide some positive publicity. Nevertheless, the visit itself and the U.S. government’s readiness to allow American firms to sell so much military hardware to the Saudis reassured Riyadh that the U.S. will remain a stalwart ally.

King Salman of Saudi Arabia (R) greets U.S. President Donald Trump as he arrives in Riyadh on May 20, 2017
The deals done during President Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia may have been made anyway, but the trip reassured Riyadh that the U.S. will remain a stalwart ally (source: dpa)

On the next stretch of his trip, in Israel, President Trump met with the Israelis and the Palestinians, and showed courtesy to all sides.

Probably the most interesting meeting President Trump had was at the Vatican. This was certainly good for his standing among the large number of Catholics in the U.S., a majority of whose votes Mr. Trump won in last year’s election. Importantly, part of his discussion with Pope Francis concerned the dire situation of persecuted Christians in the Middle East.

At the NATO meeting in Brussels, President Trump repeated his mantra that the Europeans are not paying enough for their own defense – a claim which is somewhat justified. However, the message may have been aimed more at the U.S. audience. He was rather noncommittal during a meeting with European Union leaders, though he did call Germany’s trade surplus “bad,” which also sounds as if it were meant more for American voters than anyone else.

One thing leaders seem to be able to agree on is increasing controls, to the detriment of personal freedom

President Trump’s trip received so much publicity primarily because the public expected scandal and blunders. Close analysis shows his behavior and remarks – though they may seem weird to Europeans – make sense when seen in the context of U.S. perceptions.

Leaving President Trump’s trip aside, let’s turn to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s schedule. She is frequently on the move, and it is difficult to see how a few hours in an African country, for instance, can give her a better appreciation of the situation there than reading reports at home. It takes time to reach a deeper understanding of foreign policy matters – but most European leaders have similarly hectic schedules, which do not allow them time for concentration.

Useful distraction

Then there are the summits of the G20 (the world’s 20 largest economies) and of the G7 (the major democratic industrial countries). These meetings are very frequent and grab plenty of headlines. But the statements that come out of them only scratch the surface of the real substantive matters.

The last G7 meeting in Taormina is a case in point. That President Trump agreed to fight protectionism gained more attention than the actual matters being discussed. Mr. Trump was also heavily criticized for not agreeing to endorse the Paris global climate agreement – because, he said, he needed more time to think it over. Resolutions concerning ecology are popular, but environmental policies should not be based on populist sentiment and must be implemented with great care. The unintended consequences can be extremely detrimental.

In past meetings, the G20 “leaders” have set targets for economic growth – for example at the Brisbane, Australia summit in 2014. This is all well and good – but again, the key is the implementation. At that same meeting, they agreed to increase regulation, which is bad for growth in an already over-regulated global economy.

Western political leaders are more driven by perceptions and pressure groups than long-term strategies

Indeed, the one thing leaders seem to be able to agree on is increasing controls, to the detriment of personal freedom. This is a tool to preserve the status quo, regardless of the well-being of the “res publica.” Here democrats and autocrats meet in agreement.

Time to think

Real leadership is based on long-term, well-thought-out strategies and wise decisions based on deep reflection. This requires concentration and a proper mindset, not only by advisors, but by the leading politicians. And concentration requires time. Dedicating the time to think through the issues is what makes for statesmanship.

Unfortunately, Western political leaders are more driven by events, perceptions and pressure groups than by long-term strategies. No wonder, considering their hectic schedules, the frequency of these summits and the number of topics they address. Is that a source of the problem? Probably – since we have to assume that our political leaders are intelligent, the reason for this lack of statesmanship must be that they do not have enough time to concentrate on the problems they need to solve.

Another problem is the “professional politician.” Many Western leaders have made their careers by moving up the party ladder. This makes them purely political animals, ensconced in party politics from election to election. This, together with the fact that they have little experience with life on “Main Street” means the distance between the political class and the population continues to grow.


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