Ten Miles Square


June 05, 2012 1:34 PM Blaming “Poor Leadership”

By Erik Voeten

If you google “Euro crisis” and “leadership” you get nearly a million hits, many to articles in prominent venues that decry the lack of and quest for leadership that should get Europe and the world safely out of the current crisis. Dan Drezner captures my sentiments very well on this issue:

So what, exactly, is “global leadership” supposed to do at this point? As I read it, those who complain about poor leadership want one of two things. First, they would like national leaders to excercise their “political will,” defy domestic constraints, and push for greater economic growth. Fine, but remember—asking politicians to exercise political will means asking them not to behave like politicians. As a rule, politicians don’t do this.
Second, I think there is a desire for one leader to knock some global skulls together and get Germany to start consuming more and the ECB to print more money and China to stop saving and any other action that would jumpstart the global economy. Again, fine, but in the history of the global economy there has only been one instance in which one country had sufficient economic power to exercise this kind of leadership—the United States of the late 1940s. Truman’s leadership was important—but the U.S. being responsible for close to half of the world’s economic output was even more important. Even if Barack Obama had an iron grip over all of America’s policy levers, he couldn’t do what Truman did with the Marshall Plan and the Dodge Line. Leadership without power is simply someone ranting on a street corner.

To this I would add that you should be careful what you wish for. Kohl and Mitterand were heralded as strong leaders when they created the Eurozone and opened membership to Europe’s weaker economies. Strong leadership may not always work out so well.

The point is not that leaders who make good decisions and have persuasive power cannot make a difference. I won’t underestimate the power of good (and bad) ideas to shape outcomes. But lamenting “poor leadership” provides little guidance on understanding what is going wrong or how things could go better. It is with good reason that good leadership is usually only recognized after the fact and even then perceptions often adjust as facts change (see Kohl and Mitterand). Believing that things will go better if only there were better leadership is like wishing for politicians to “do the right thing:” it is a perfectly reasonable desire but not much of a prescription or explanation.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

Erik Voeten is the Peter F. Krogh associate professor of geopolitics and global justice at Georgetown University.


  • monkey_in_holland on June 06, 2012 4:02 AM:

    What prescription would you offer? I think people railing against the leadership is only a natural reaction given what has happened over the last ten years. There seems to be a fundamental breakdown in the process of governing and little recourse for people to have their voices heard. As you probably know, here in the Netherlands, the government collapsed over the issue of imposed austerity and what happened? Political parties cobbled together enough votes to pass a budget that met the EU deficit targets without giving people the right to vote on it during the upcoming election in Sept. Why is that? Maybe the 60% of the populous who would oppose the cuts.

    Why do you think there's a rise in voting for extremist politicians like Geert Welders? It's not because people are more racist or xenophobic. It's because time and time again the major parties of all political persuasions ignore the will of the people, leaving a political vacuum.

    To answer you question. "what, exactly, is global leadership supposed to do at this point?" Stop perusing an economic/ideological agenda that is making matters worse, not double down on failed policies. Because if they don't, then don't be surprised when there's more civil unrest like in London last year or in Spain and Greece now. But not one member of the EU leadership is talking about this. Why?

    Maybe it goes against a politicians DNA to have a political will, but they are human, so they have the survival instinct and don't want to be blamed for the collapse of the euro project. What domestic restraints are there preventing them from perusing a more growth oriented agenda? The national debts, borrowing costs? Read Krugman. Spain's problem wasn't government debt, it was private.