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How we ended up with such a dumb generation of leaders, from Johnson and Biden to Putin and Xi Jinping




This is Dispatches with Patrick Cockburn, a newsletter reserved for i subscribers. If you’d like to receive this straight to your inbox, every week, you can sign up here.

The role of stupidity in determining the course of history is often underestimated by historians. They overlook it as too gross and superficial a factor to be the cause of crucial events, preferring to unearth more sophisticated and intellectually respectable explanations. Calling a leader a fool can be ubiquitous as abuse, but is rarely accepted as the underlying reason for a calamitous decision.

It is surely a mistake. Never lose your sense of the superficial, said newspaper editor Lord Northcliffe and his advice applies as much to historical trends as it does to daily news. Yet experts like to feel like they dig deeper than personal failure and rarely focus on outright stupidity as the reason leaders make unforced mistakes.

This type of individual inadequacy is not equally present in all time periods and it may be that in some time periods the room for chronic blunderers to do damage is greater than in others. It was certainly high in 1914, for example, when stupid leaders such as Kaiser Wilhelm 11 in Germany, Tsar Nicholas 11 in Russia, and the Austro-Hungarian monarchy were taking the decisive steps leading to a European war that smarter leaders could have have. avoided because it goes against their interests and jeopardizes the future of their schemes.

We may now have entered a similar period where powerful political leaders are more stupid and unable to deal with crises than their predecessors. Looking only at the events of the past 12 months, I have compiled a ranking chart of the actions of four national leaders that suggests they are dumber than anyone imagined.

The most disastrous decision in Russian history

Vladimir Putin inevitably comes first because on February 24 he made the disastrous decision to invade Ukraine, having convinced himself that an undersized Russian army would easily overthrow the Kyiv government and that the Ukrainian army would surrender obediently.

Pundits explain this idiocy by pointing to Putin’s isolation in the Kremlin, reliance on ill-informed advisers who were veritable servile courtiers, and a genuine fear that the moment has passed when Russia might prevent Ukraine from move into the orbit of NATO countries.

After spending 22 years in power, the Russian leader suffered from arrogance and an overreliance on his own judgement, but a smarter man might not have lost his grip on reality and taken what will be left. probably remembered as the most disastrous decision in Russian history. .

Bidens lacks foresight

Joe Bidens’ madness is of a different kind and focuses primarily on his vague and overly optimistic promises to produce results he cannot deliver. It gives the impression that the White House can solve problems that are at least partly beyond its control, such as the calamitous American withdrawal from Afghanistan, although this is largely the consequence of Donald Trump’s agreement with the Taliban in 2020 to withdraw US support from the Kabul government. It was the US military that mishandled the details of the retreat, but it was Biden who took the blame because he hadn’t foreseen the rout that was likely to unfold in the field in front of TV cameras.

This habit of over-promising and under-delivering is also true for Bidens’ domestic agenda, making American voters feel weak and ineffective. In the Ukraine war, there is a strange indecision about whether Biden wants the war to end with Ukraine’s successful defense or Russia’s outright defeat. Added to this is an inability to calculate the extent to which economic sanctions against Russia will shape US policy. So the administration was this week working to stop the Europeans from cutting off insurance for tankers carrying Russian crude, a move that will drive up the price of oil and further ruin the Democratic Party’s hopes of holding out. either house of Congress in the midterm elections.

Xi Jinping has become a victim of his own success

China succeeded in suppressing the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic with well-organized confinements, but then did not use the time gained to vaccinate the population. Repeated shutdowns are now squeezing the economy and reducing growth without ending the pandemic any closer.

As with Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and Bidens’ withdrawal from Afghanistan, the weakness of lockdowns compared to mass vaccination as a means of controlling the Covid-19 virus should have been obvious to Xi Jinping, but he was a victim of his government’s initial success in fighting the pandemic that Beijing is trying to replicate under different circumstances.

As for Britain, commentators shy away from portraying Boris Johnson as a moron, instead praising or decrying his political skills to survive the chaotic aftermath of his years in power. In fact, every nationalist leader in the world, from Trump to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has stuck like limpets to their desks through fair or crude means.

The madness of slogans replacing policies

But at the heart of the Johnson years in Downing Street there is a deep madness with slogans replacing policies, a disregard for legality and a chaotic approach to government. Targeting the Northern Ireland Protocol and sending asylum seekers to Rwanda aim to recreate the old pro-Brexit coalition in which English nationalism mixes with anti-immigrant sentiment.

This is a government that thrives on self-created crises that it hopes will distract from its latest scandal and failure. Raw goblets of nostalgia are served to spur memories of supposedly better times, but overall there is a lack of seriousness exemplified by Johnson himself and his cabinet of mediocrities, opportunists and fanatics.

Some may say that those who are pilloried as stupid are simply acting in their own selfish interests, but that is clearly not the case with Putin, Biden and Xi Jinping. A more compelling argument is that the perception that today’s leaders are of lesser quality is a mirage; their predecessors were just as bad, but could hide their incompetence because they didn’t have to make such heavy decisions.

We may also be living in an era, like that before the First World War, when leaders routinely beat the nationalist drum and foolishly welcomed unwinnable conflicts at home and abroad as a way to ensure their own grip on power.

But we must not lose sight of the simple idea that there are many stupid leaders in the world who are all the more dangerous because they cannot make a sensible decision, even in their own interests. Such was the case with Saddam Hussein, in some ways a smart thug and in others a complete idiot who launched wars against Iran in 1980 and Kuwait in 1990 than any shoe shine kid. in the streets of central Baghdad could have told him that he would bring disaster and kill millions of people. . As a German politician remarked about an earlier conflict, it is hard to know where stupidity ends and crime begins.

Other Thoughts

I’ve always been interested in sheer stupidity in history, believing it’s a quality smart people avoid and underestimate, often thinking it’s too crude and simple-minded an explanation for turns. Of the history. But great events do not necessarily have root causes.

I think I first got the idea from my father Claud Cockburn who made that remark about the dangerous stupidity of the Nazis he knew a lot about, having fled Berlin a day before Hitler became German Chancellor on January 30 1933.

He moved to London where he started an anti-fascist newsletter called The week six weeks later. This small publication flourished and over time Claud came to be seen as the center of all anti-Nazi intrigue in London by German Ambassador Joachim von Ribbentrop who became Hitler’s Foreign Minister in 1938.

Claud wrote that the fact that he thought so [that Claud was the centre of anti-Nazi opposition] that he could be crazy enough to think so helped give me a measure of the Third Reich who could employ such an ambassador [] What was terrifying about this man was that he was a jerk and could only be employed by a regime of fucking jerks, who could blow up half the world out of sheer stupidity.

Not that Claud needed further evidence of Nazi misdeeds, which he had witnessed first-hand in Germany. As for their ambassador in London, he wrote that one satisfying thing about Herr von Ribbentrop was that no time should be wasted wondering if there was any good in him. He was all one piece and stupid to boot.

under the radar

The degree of racial division in the United States never ceases to amaze and depress me. The politics of crime is inextricably linked to the politics of race and they poison each other. Reports on massacres and gun ownership often understate or misunderstand this, but note this particularly macabre incident.

Cockburns Picks

It’s a fascinating piece of Ryan Grim in The interception about how progressive groups in the United States have crippled their own effectiveness through internal strife even as their causes are attacked by advocates of regressive legislation. This self-destructive trend spread to Europe and did much to discredit progressive organizations and publications.

This is Dispatches with Patrick Cockburn, a newsletter reserved for i subscribers. If you’d like to receive this straight to your inbox, every week, you can sign up here.




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