A World in Crisis, and No Genius in Sight
An old order is being swept away, and political leaders everywhere seem lost.
By Peggy Noonan
The leaders of the world aren’t a very impressive group right now. There’s a sense with some of them of playing out a historical or cultural string, that they’re placeholders in some way. Many are young, yet so much around them feels tired.
Which has me thinking, again, of the concept of the genius cluster. They happen in history and no one knows why. It was a genius cluster that invented America. Somehow Franklin, Jefferson, Washington, Adams, Madison, Hamilton, Jay and Monroe came together in the same place at the same time and invented something new in the history of man. I asked a great historian about it once.
How did that happen? He’d thought about it too. “Providence,” he guessed.
There was a small genius cluster in World War II—FDR, Churchill, de Gaulle. I should note I’m speaking of different kinds of political genius. There was a genius cluster in the 1980s— John Paul II, Reagan, Thatcher, Vaclav Havel, Lech Walesa, Lee Kuan Yew in his last decade of leadership in Singapore.
The military genius cluster of World War II—Marshall, Eisenhower, Bradley, Montgomery, Patton, MacArthur, Nimitz, Bull Halsey, Stilwell—almost rivaled that of the Civil War—Grant, Lee, Stonewall, Sherman, Sheridan, Longstreet.
Obviously genius clusters require deep crises, otherwise their gifts are not revealed. Historic figures need historic circumstances. Also members of genius clusters tend to pursue shared goals.
Everything feels upended, the old order that has governed things for 70 years since World War II being swept away. Borders have disappeared before our eyes. Terrorism, waves of immigration transforming whole nations, Islam at war with itself and parts of it at war with the world. In the West, the epochal end of public faith in institutions, and a dreadful new tension between the leaders and the led. In both background and foreground is a technological revolution that has actually changed how people experience life.
It is a world crying out for bigness, wisdom, steady hands and steady eyes.
We could use a genius cluster.
I’m not quite seeing its members coming, are you? Maybe they’re off somewhere gaining strength.
But the point we’re in feels more like what a Hollywood director said was the central tension at the heart of all great westerns: “The villain has arrived while the hero is evolving.”
Let’s hope some evolve soon.
This thought is inspired by the past week’s Brexit aftermath. To limit criticism to the political players, the European Union did not distinguish itself, the British government didn’t even create a contingency plan in case Leave won, and the victors actually scrammed while markets convulsed and the pound fell. When Leave leader Boris Johnson finally did speak, what he said was astonishing.
The vote was significant, he wrote in the Telegraph, but shouldn’t be misunderstood: “It is said that those who voted Leave were mainly driven by anxieties about immigration. I do not believe that is so.” Instead they had “a sense that British democracy was being undermined.” The public wanted to seize back some control.
Well, yes. But immigration was very much part of the seize-back-control story. It’s in all the polls.
Then: “And yet we who agreed with this majority verdict must accept that it was not entirely overwhelming.”
It was 52% to 48%, not huge but decisive enough. And wait a second, “we who agreed” with the verdict? He led the campaign! He didn’t “agree” with the outcome, he was its most prominent advocate!
Whatever changes come, he added, they “will not come in any great rush.”
There’s a line between calming markets and undermining your cause. He crossed it.
What a failure of nerve. It likely contributed to the restiveness that led the other main Leave proponent, Michael Gove, to bolt away from Mr. Johnson and announce he would run to replace Prime Minister David Cameron.
Contrast what Mr. Johnson wrote with the statement, days later, of Home Secretary Theresa May, who had been pro-Remain though relatively quietly, certainly relative to Mr. Johnson.
“Brexit means Brexit,” she said. “The campaign was fought, the vote was held, turnout was high and the public gave their verdict. There must be no attempts to remain inside the EU, no attempts to rejoin it through the back door and no second referendum.”
“Politics,” she added, “isn’t a game.”
Thank you, madam, and well done.
Ms. May is a moderate conservative with a steady hand who is said to be somewhat ideologically opaque. But here she was blunt and clear. More, she seemed to intuit the damage to be done to the public’s trust if Parliament threw the decision back in its face. Part of politics is simply knowing what people need when they need it. In this case it was the unambiguous taking of a stand.
In the end, Mr. Johnson bowed out of the contest for party leader. He is a witty and clever man, a showman who may have more lives than a cat. But he won’t be part of a genius cluster anytime soon.
EU leadership since the referendum has been wholly lacking. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” purred European Council president Donald Tusk, quoting Nietzsche.
In this case what doesn’t kill you this time will likely kill you next, so you might want to wake up.
The EU should be supple now, not brittle and predictable, which is to say bureaucratically brutal. It should surprise the world and demonstrate some give. It should grant Britain a relatively smooth exit.
Let people see the decency and constructiveness of it and come to doubt their own antipathy.
You’re not such a bad lot. Strategic pliancy would actually be an assertion of strength. If the European Union is a prison, as Brexit supporters felt, it makes sense for the warden to make an example of Britain to keep the other inmates in line. But if the EU is a place of peaceful commerce it has an opportunity to show it. Take it. The Brits aren’t the only ones who hate you.
The EU was founded for one great reason: to redirect the energies of a continent twice convulsed by world war and turn them to peaceful pursuits—trading goods, making money, each nation knowing the other in a context of constructiveness. It succeeded! But in the past 30 years it expanded, took on more power and authority, made more demands, fell too in love with its ability to apply limits. Even during the Brexit debate the EU’s conversation was not of devolving power to member states but taking more to Brussels. As Boris Johnson noted in March, when he seemed to remember such things, the result, in Britain, was public alienation, which contributed to a sense of “disengagement,” which has contributed to “the rise of extremist parties.”
That was an accurate diagnosis. I add only that the EU inculcated in its officials and apparatchiks an outrageous and insular snobbery that left them incapable of seeing critics as anything but ignorant, racist knuckle-draggers. They noticed, didn’t like it, and rebelled when they could.
Here’s to rebellion. Happy 4th.