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The Cult of Transformational Leadership

Good leadership in this century may or may not be transformational but it is important to start with the Hippocratic oath: first, do no harm.

By Joseph S. Nye Jr. for

Joseph S. Nye Jr. is University Distinguished Service Professor at Harvard University and is the former Dean of the Kennedy School. He has served as Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, Chair of the National Intelligence Council, and Deputy Under Secretary of State for Security Assistance, Science and Technology. In his most recent book, Presidential Leadership and the Creation of the American Era, published by Princeton University Press, Nye looks at the foreign policy decisions of the presidents who presided over the most critical phases of America's rise to world primacy in the twentieth century, and assesses the effectiveness and ethics of their choices. The Diplomat is pleased to present an excerpt from the book:

Foreign policy played almost no role in the 2000 election, but the crisis of September 11, 2001, produced a transformational foreign policy. A nonstate actor’s attack on the homeland killed more Americans than did the Japanese government’s attack at Pearl Harbor and had a profound effect on President Bush, his followers, and American public opinion. In 2001 George W. Bush started as a limited realist with little interest in foreign policy but became transformational in his objectives after the crisis. Like Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Truman, Bush 43 turned to the rhetoric of democracy to rally his followers in a time of crisis.

Bill Clinton, the beneficiary of the primacy that was consolidated under the first President Bush, had also talked about enlarging human rights and democracy, but the 1990s was a period in which the American people sought normality and a peace dividend from the end of the Cold War rather than dramatic change. Clinton took a number of important steps in opening trade, creating fiscal stability, and bringing Russia and China into the global economy while simultaneously reassuring allies in Japan and Europe. After initial stumbles related to UN peacekeeping in Bosnia and Rwanda, he used force in a number of humanitarian interventions. But in the view of historian John Lewis Gaddis, Clinton lacked a grand strategy and “allowed an illusion of safety to produce a laissez-faire foreign and national security policy.” Similarly, Zbigniew Brzezinski faulted Clinton for failing to develop a new strategy to take advantage of the opportunities opened by unipolarity.

In contrast, Bush’s 2002 National Security Strategy, which came to be called the Bush Doctrine, proclaimed that the United States would “identify and eliminate terrorists wherever they are, together with the regimes that sustain them.” Preemption was a third element:  America would not wait to act until after it was attacked. A fourth component of the doctrine was what Bush called his “freedom agenda.” The solution to the roots of the terrorist problem was to spread democracy everywhere. In an outburst of enthusiasm at the time, Gaddis called it “‘Fukuyama plus force,’ and designed to make terrorism as obsolete as slavery or piracy. . . . Iraq was the most feasible place to strike the next blow.”

This is not the place to rehearse the problems of the Iraq War. Bush invaded Iraq ostensibly to change the regime and to remove Saddam Hussein’s capacity to use weapons of mass destruction. While he did not do enough to question the intelligence or manage the process, he cannot be blamed for the intelligence failure that attributed such weapons to Saddam since such estimates were widely shared by many other countries. While no weapons were found, American forces quickly overthrew Saddam. But the removal of Saddam did not accomplish the mission, and inadequate understanding of the context plus poor planning and management undercut Bush’s transformational objectives. While some Bush administration defenders try to trace the causes of the 2011 Arab revolutions to American policies in Iraq, such arguments oversimplify causation and are denied by many of the primary Arab participants.

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At home the Democrats were able to use Bush’s foreign policy problems to win elections in 2006 and 2008 that repudiated his policies. Barack Obama won the presidency on a promise of withdrawal from Iraq, a more modest approach to regime change, and the view expressed in his inaugural address that “our power grows through its prudent use.” While it is still too early for a definitive historical judgment on the Iraq War, what is clear at this point is that the twenty-first century opened with a crisis that led to failed transformational leadership. The leader lost his followers.

It is interesting to compare Bush with the transformational leaders of the twentieth century that we have examined. George W. Bush is described as obsessed by the idea of being a transformational president; not a status quo operator like Bill Clinton. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice praised the virtues of “transformational diplomacy,” and veterans of the first Bush presidency like Brent Scowcroft observed that in 2003 the main divisions in foreign policy were not between liberals and conservatives, but between traditionalists and transformationalists. Despite their shared genes, the policy of George W. Bush could not have been more different from that of his father. Members of the younger Bush’s administration often compared him to Ronald Reagan or Harry Truman, but the twentieth- century president he most resembled was Woodrow Wilson.

There are uncanny similarities between Wilson and George W. Bush. Both were highly religious and moralistic men who were elected with less than a majority of the popular vote and initially focused on domestic issues without any vision of foreign policy. Both were initially successful with their transformational domestic agendas in the Congress. Both tended to portray the world in black and white rather than shades of gray. Both projected self-confidence, responded to a crisis with a bold vision, and stuck to it. As Secretary of State Robert Lansing described Wilson in 1917, “Even established facts were ignored if they did not fit this intuitive sense, this semi-divine power to select the right.” And Secretary of State Colin Powell described Bush as knowing “what he wants to do, and what he wants to hear is how to get it done.” Contrary to popular political calumny, Bush did not lack intelligence, but he rarely explored beyond his area of comfort. As British Prime Minister Tony Blair observed, “George Bush was straightforward and direct. And very smart.  . . . George had great intuition. But his intuition was less . . . about politics and more about what he thought was right and wrong.  This wasn’t stated analytically or intellectually.  It was just stated.”

Though Wilson started as an idealist and Bush as a realist, both wound up stressing the promotion of democracy and freedom in the rest of the world as their transformative vision. And both defined visions that had a large gap between expressed ideals and national capacities. Many of Bush’s speeches, particularly his second inaugural address about a freedom agenda, sounded like Wilson could have uttered them. Both Wilson and Bush tried to educate the public to accept their transformational visions. But as political scientist Hugh Heclo argues, “Successful teaching requires ongoing learning on the teacher’s part.” Similarly, Barbara Farnham distinguishes long-term education programs to extend the range of acceptability of policies from “selling efforts” that involve manipulation of preferences in the short run. Bush’s impatience hindered both his own learning and his ability as a teacher. In the words of a journalist who spent many hours with him, “He has a transformational temperament. He likes to shake things up. That was the key to going into Iraq.” In his own words, he was not interested in playing “small ball.” That impatient temperament also contributed to the organizational process Bush put in place that discouraged learning.

Wilson succeeded initially in educating a majority of the American people about his League of Nations, but he failed because he refused to make compromises with the Senate. Similarly, George W. Bush was initially able to persuade the American people of his proposed transformation of American strategy, and he was reelected in 2004, but he lost support (and the Congress) by 2006. The comparison illustrates that the prospects for transformational leadership in foreign policy are greatest in the context of a crisis. But even then, success requires a combination of soft power skills to attract people at home and abroad with a feasible vision, and hard organizational and political skills to implement the vision. Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman had the combination. Woodrow Wilson did not. Similarly, George W. Bush articulated transformational objectives but did not develop a successful strategy to accomplish them.

The Obama Presidency

This century’s second president, Barack Obama, also expressed transformational objectives and came to power at a time of crisis. By late 2008 both the American and the world economy were in the midst of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Indeed, some of Obama’s economic advisors counseled him that unless urgent steps were taken to stimulate the economy, there was a significant chance of entering a full-scale depression.  While he also inherited two ongoing wars, nuclear proliferation threats from Iran and North Korea, and the continuing problem of Al Qaeda’s terrorism, Obama’s early months in office were absorbed with dealing with the economic crisis both at home and abroad.

In contrast to Bush, the crisis that Obama faced was economic rather than security related, but Obama’s temperament was different as well. While Obama had expounded a transformational vision in his campaign, his crisis responses were those of a pragmatist. Temperamentally, he was noted for his coolness in analysis under pressure, a term sometimes summed up by the phrase “no drama Obama.” For example, his reaction to success in the highly risky cross- border raid that killed Bin Laden in 2011 but could have destroyed his presidency “was self-contained to the extreme: ‘we got him,’ was all he said.” Political scientist George Edwards criticizes Obama as a man who presented himself as a “transformational leader who would fundamentally change the policy and politics of America” and then overreached by thinking his ability to communicate and educate the public could change more than he could. But this criticism is more telling in regard to Obama’s domestic program than in regard to his foreign policy.

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Obama’s rhetoric both in the 2008 campaign and during the first months of his presidency was both inspirational in style and transformational in objective. As several experts describe the campaign, “This image of a new domestic agenda, a new global architecture, and a transformed world was crucial to his ultimate success as a candidate.” Of course, campaign rhetoric always sounds more transformational as challengers criticize the incumbents, but Obama continued the transformational rhetoric with a series of speeches in the first year of his presidency, including his inaugural address; a speech at Prague proclaiming the goal of a nuclear-free world; a speech in Cairo promising a new approach to the Muslim world; and his Nobel Peace Prize speech promising to “bend history in the direction of justice.” In part this series of speeches was tactical. Obama needed to meet his promise to set a new direction in foreign policy while simultaneously managing  to juggle the legacy of issues left to him by Bush, any of which, if dropped, could cause a crisis for his presidency. Nonetheless, there is no reason to believe that Obama was being disingenuous about his objectives.

Obama had an “activist vision of his role in history,” intending to “refurbish America’s image abroad, especially in the Muslim world; end its involvement in two wars; offer an outstretched hand to Iran; reset relations with Russia as a step toward ridding the world of nuclear weapons; develop significant cooperation with China on both regional and global issues; and make peace in the Middle East.” As Martin S. Indyk, Kenneth G. Lieberthal, and Michael E. O'Hanlon have observed, his record of achievement on these issues in his first term was mixed. “Seemingly  intractable circumstances turned him from the would-be architect of a new global order into a leader focused more on repairing relationships and reacting to crises—most notably  global economic crisis.”

It is too early for a definitive judgment on Obama’s foreign policy, and it played a relatively small role in the 2012 campaign. The Economist called the first term “a mixed bag,” but the columnist David Brooks praised it as “flexible, incremental, and well adapted to the specific circumstances of this moment.  Following a foreign policy hedgehog, Obama’s been a pretty effective fox.” Some of the half-empty glasses were the results of intractable events; some were the product of early administration naiveté, such as the initial approaches to Israel, China, and Afghanistan. But Obama was quick to recover from mistakes in a pragmatic way.  In the words of James Fallows, his main trait was to be adaptable to new realities rather than a prisoner of his transformational ideas. Fareed Zakaria praised Obama’s “strategic restraint.”

Although Obama did not disavow his rhetorical expressions of transformational goals regarding such issues as climate change or nuclear weapons, in practice his pragmatism was more reminiscent of incremental leaders such as Eisenhower and the first Bush. Despite his relative inexperience in international affairs compared to them, Obama showed a similar skill in reacting to a complex set of foreign policy challenges. This was demonstrated by his appointments of experienced advisors, management of a careful White House–centered process, and, above all, keen contextual intelligence, honed in part by having an African father, an anthropologist mother, and a childhood spent partly in Asia. At the same time, more of his life was spent in American elite institutions and involvement in domestic politics. Obama’s contextual intelligence about the world without much career experience remains something of an anomaly compared to Bush 41 or Eisenhower.

This is not to say that Obama had no transformational effects in his first term. He changed the course of an unpopular foreign policy; shifted from labor-intensive counterinsurgency to less costly uses of military and cyber power; increased American soft power in many parts of the world; and began a rebalancing of attention on Asia, the fastest growing part of the world economy. David Sanger detected what he called an “Obama Doctrine” (though he faulted the president for not communicating it more clearly): a lighter military footprint combined with a willingness to use force unilaterally when American security interests are directly involved; a reliance on coalitions to deal with global problems that do not directly threaten American security; and “a rebalancing away from the quagmires in the Middle East toward the continent of greatest promise in the future—Asia.”

The contrast between the killing of Bin Laden and the intervention in Libya illustrates the Obama Doctrine. In the former case, Obama personally managed a unilateral use of force.  In the latter case, he demonstrated smart power by waiting until an Arab League and UN resolution provided the legitimacy that ensured that the soft power narrative would not be that of another American attack on a Muslim country. Then he shared the leadership of the hard power operation with NATO allies. An incautious comment by a midlevel White House official characterized the Libya policy as “leading from behind,” and this became a target for political criticism, but as we saw earlier, Eisenhower was a great exemplar of knowing that sometimes it is most effective to keep a low profile and to lead from behind.

Indyk, Lieberthal, and O’Hanlon summarize  Obama as “a  competent  pragmatist” who  has “protected American interests  well given the circumstances, . . . but  he has not yet put  his indelible  stamp  on foreign  affairs  or bent  the arc of human  history  in the positive transformational way to  which  he aspires.” The merits of Obama’s first-term shift from a transformational to an incremental approach are debated. Some critics argue that he was too cautious to take advantage of the revolutionary times, particularly in the Middle East. He made a big bet on a surge in Afghanistan (which may or may not pay off) and another on violating Pakistani sovereignty to kill Bin Laden (which worked), but most of his strategic choices have been cautious and hedged. There has been nothing akin to the Truman Doc- trine and the Marshall Plan or George H. W. Bush’s backing of German unification.

Big bets, however, often involve big risks, and we saw above that they raise important questions of what risks and costs foreign policy leaders should impose on their followers. Such bets should at least meet the just-war criterion of having a reasonable prospect of success, but even that is hard to judge. One of history’s great strategists, Otto von Bismarck, successfully bet in 1870 that a manufactured war with France would lead to Prussian unification of Germany, but he also bet that he could annex Alsace-Lorraine, with enormous costs that became clear only later in 1914. Wilson made a costly and mistaken bet on the Versailles Treaty. Kennedy and Johnson made mistaken bets that Vietnam was a game of dominoes, not checkers, where Eisenhower, who coined the domino terminology, refused to intervene. And Nixon, who bet successfully on an opening to China, made a nearly simultaneous but mistaken bet on the destruction of the Bretton Woods monetary system. Franklin Roosevelt and Truman made positive transformational bets before and after World War II, but only after initial cautious approaches.

As we saw earlier, there is little evidence to support the general assumptions of leadership theory and public discourse that transformational foreign policy leaders are better in either ethics or effectiveness. For one thing, the concept of transformational leadership is too ambiguously defined to be useful unless it is more carefully specified. But even with objectives distinguished from style, the evidence does not support the view that leaders with transformational objectives or inspirational style are better. Other leadership skills outlined in the first chapter are more important than the usual distinction between transformational and transactional leaders.

Here it is useful to compare Woodrow Wilson with the first Bush. In the long term Wilson’s vision was partially vindicated, but he lacked the leadership skill needed for its execution and implementation in his own time. With Bush 41, the “vision thing” and his educational impact were very limited, but his execution and management were very good. Perhaps the facetious moral of the story is that at some mythical day in the future, genetic engineers will be able to produce leaders equally endowed with both sets of skills. Comparing the two Bushes, who shared half their genes, makes it is clear that nature has not yet solved the problem.

This is not an argument against transformational leaders in general. As I have argued elsewhere, leaders such as Gandhi, Mandela, or Martin Luther King, Jr. can play crucial roles in transforming a people’s identity and aspirations. Nor is this an argument against transformational leaders in American foreign policy. Franklin Roosevelt and Truman made crucial contributions to the creation of the American era, and others, such as Nixon with his opening to China or Carter with his emphasis on human rights and nuclear nonproliferation, have reoriented other important aspects of foreign policy. But in judging leaders we need to pay attention to both acts of omission and acts of commission; both things that happened and things that did not happen; dogs that barked and those that did not.

As Gautam Mukunda observes, “Despite the positive connotations of the word innovation, most innovations fail. Extreme leaders are important because they make choices most leaders would not make.” A key question is how much risk democratic followers want their leaders to take in foreign policy, and that depends very much on the context.  The big problem in foreign policy is the complexity of the context, where one has to understand not only international and transnational systemic effects, but the intricacies of domestic politics in multiple societies. This additional complexity gives special relevance to the Aristotelian virtue of prudence—avoiding excess or deficiency. We live in a world of diverse cultures and know very little about social engineering and how to “build nations.” When we cannot be sure how to improve the world, prudence becomes an important virtue, and hubristic visions can pose a grave danger. In foreign policy as in medicine, it is important to start with the Hippocratic oath: first, do no harm. For these reasons, the virtues of transactional leaders with good contextual intelligence are very important. A Bush 41 without the ability to articulate a vision but able to steer successfully through crises turns out to be a better leader than a Bush 43 with a powerful vision but little contextual intelligence.

In trying to explain the role of secretary of state, George Shultz once compared it to gardening—“the constant nurturing of a complex array of actors, interests and goals.” But Shultz’s Stanford colleague and eventual successor, Condoleezza Rice, wanted a more transformational diplomacy, “not accepting the world as it is, but trying to change it. Rice’s ambition is not just to be a gardener—she wants to be a landscape architect.” There is a role for both, depending on the context, but we should avoid the common mistake of automatically thinking that the transformational landscape architect is a better leader than the careful gardener. Good leadership in this century may or may not be transformational, but it will require a careful understanding of the context of change.

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Joseph S. Nye Jr. is University Distinguished Service Professor at Harvard University and is the former Dean of the Kennedy School.

Copyright © 2013 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission.