Blaming “Poor Leadership”

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.

One Response to Blaming “Poor Leadership”

  1. Curious June 5, 2012 at 5:38 pm #

    Just a little footnote: Mitterrand was gone by May 1995 and Kohl by October 1998. Granted, both made the initial deal to create EMU in 1991. But the ECB was only up and running in mid-1998 and the euro, partially, by 1999. Though Kohl was definitely involved in some major implementation decisions about the euro from 1993-1998, Mitterrand really wasn’t, since so many of the fateful decisions about the size of the zone only occurred 1996-1998 (i.e. Spain, Portugal, Italy, Ireland). And neither had a hand in permitting Greece to join in 2000.