The Cult of Transformational Leadership
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The Cult of Transformational Leadership


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.

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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.

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.

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