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The 21st Century Individual in World Affairs

Spring / Summer 2013 Features

The 21st Century Individual in World Affairs

The 21st Century Individual in International AffairsFewer great men, and less greatness – but more powerful leaders, and many accidental heroes

The early 21st century is filled with powerful individuals – some of them heads of state, some of them activists, and some of them accidental and transitory agents of great change. Who are these powerful individuals? And what’s to be done with them in the general interest?

Of course, few of today’s powerful individuals meet the standards of Thomas Carlyle’s Great Men (and Women). “The history of what man has accomplished in this world,” Thomas Carlyle wrote in 1840, “is at bottom the History of the Great Men who have worked here. They were the leaders of men, these great ones; the modellers, patterns, and in a wide sense creators, of whatsoever the general mass of men contrived to do or to attain; all things that we see standing accomplished in the world are properly the outer material result, the practical realization and embodiment, of Thoughts that dwelt in the Great Men sent into the world[.]”

Carlyle’s ‘Great Men’ were prophets, poets, priests, writers, generals and kings. They were men of action who influenced people in enduring ways. They were artists who imagined new worlds, and then helped to bring them to life. Especially in war, where he focussed on the ‘genius’ of men like Frederick the Great and Napoleon Bonaparte, Carlyle believed that individuals of superior vision, courage and strength changed the world. France, on this logic, did not conquer most of Europe in the early 19th century; rather, Napoleon overran the continent with a rag-tag French Revolutionary Army that he molded into a massive, disciplined machine. Napoleon was the great man who made modern Europe, not vice versa.

In the century and a half after Carlyle wrote his widely read books, scholars have beheaded his great men. Academics, in particular, are not comfortable attributing world-historical change to figures like Napoleon, Frederick the Great or their successors. Writers from Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin to Hans Morgenthau and Henry Kissinger have emphasized the powerful role of forces larger than the individual: industrialization, capitalism, nationalism, democratization and digitization. According to this perspective, individual leaders have little opportunity to change the world around them. Their decisions make a difference, but only at the margins of trends that they cannot control.

The Industrial Revolution, for example, was a necessary development in the 19th century. Leaders and citizens could choose to resist it, but they would fail. The same was true for the rise of nationalism and the dissolution of European empires in the 20th century. Men like Winston Churchill tried to prevent this process, but they could not resist the power of group identities in places like Egypt, Kenya and, of course, India. The historical forces in these cases appeared to move men.

Leaders reacted and adjusted to trends that they could not control. The best that they could do, according to the critics of Carlyle, was to embrace the changes in society and seize various openings. Individuals could not make history, but they could exploit moments of opportunity for nudging policy in new directions. History was not about great men in these accounts. It was about opportunists, manipulators and small men who looked large only because they knew how to ride the waves of change that they neither made nor controlled. Kissinger’s favourite quote on this topic comes from Birsmarck, who confirmed the limits of the individual as he described his own job as chancellor of Germany: “The best a statesman can do is listen carefully to the footsteps of God, get ahold of the hem of His cloak, and walk with Him a few steps of the way.” These were not the words of someone who felt that he could control the fate of his country or the larger landscape of international relations.

Many observers of international relations have adopted the same skepticism about individual power in the context of expanding 21st century trade, warfare and cultural exchange. The world is just too complex and fast-moving for any single individual to matter very much. The forces of change are too large and the relations between societies are too diverse for talented men and women to do very much of enduring consequence. Even President Barack Obama – perhaps the most powerful figure in the world – appears highly constrained, especially by domestic politics, in the pursuit of his preferred agenda for nuclear disarmament, more even-handed Arab-Israeli relations, and an opening to Cuba. If the President has so little influence on the course of international affairs, how can any other individual matter?

And yet the reality is that individuals matter more than ever for international affairs. Historical forces remain powerful, and institutional complexity continues to stymie efforts at rapid policy change, but contemporary globalization empowers many individuals – traditional state leaders and newer non-state actors – to exert influence over a broad international space. This is particularly true for the areas of deepest conflict across the globe. Individual autocrats – Vladimir Putin in Russia, Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and Kim Jong-un in North Korea, among others – have an ability to extend threats over a very wide and diverse terrain. Modern weapons and communications increase their speed, scope and potential destructiveness. The same is true for many of the leaders in the US, Israel and South Korea, who respond to these threats – often with new weapons, strategic postures, and propaganda of their own. Bref, the recurring international crises of our time are driven by leaders with unprecedented technological capabilities at their disposal.

This is the paradox of a world filled with large professionalized military organizations. For much of human history, the power to organize and spread violence was shared among numerous actors of varying size and capacity. Moreover, the control of military organizations was exceedingly unstable. The men with guns were rarely content to follow a single leader – especially a non-military ruler – when alternative figures could offer more resources and glory to the armed forces. Military coups against powerful civilian leaders were therefore very frequent in human history.

The institutionalization of military forces under civilian state authority in the 18th and 19th centuries, followed by the creation of a professional ethos among soldiers in the 20th and 21st centuries, has greatly increased the power of governing elites. The largest militaries in the world are today tightly controlled by civilians. Soldiers in these societies define themselves as military experts who should stay out of politics – at almost all costs. Military figures follow powerful political leaders – many of whom have little or no experience under arms. This is particularly true in the US, where few members of Congress or the executive branch of government have ever served in the military.

Presidents and prime ministers can today rely on the loyalty of their military establishments more than ever before. They can expect their soldiers to fight hard, and with sophisticated technology, wherever they are deployed. Most of all, presidents and prime ministers can trust the men and women with guns to protect civilian power. For countries with extremely large military forces – especially the US, China and Russia – assured civilian military leadership means extended influence through violence (or the threat of violence) by the individual at the top of government. The figure possessing what Eliot Cohen calls “Supreme Command” is often now an individual who asserts power through reliable deployments of force, and credible threats to deploy more when necessary.

In some sense, then, Max Weber’s famous state “monopoly of the legitimate use of violence” is more purely a monopoly than ever before. On the other hand, the trend toward military empowerment of the individual applies outside of state institutions, just as it does within. In the last decade, various sub-state and non-state actors mobilized military capabilities of impressive destructive potential. These paramilitary organizations had a long history, but they grew in scale and scope during the early years of the 21st century. Combining extremist ideologies with modern communications and destructive devices – many ‘home-made’ – these groups of violent actors raised the stakes for defenders of traditional state authority.

Paramilitary groups destabilized inherited political institutions throughout the Middle East and North Africa. They inspired new intrusive security measures for worldwide travel and commerce – increasing the costs of globalization for its strongest advocates. Most startling, paramilitary groups drew the most powerful and secure governments – especially the US – into draining, unpopular and often self-defeating commitments around the globe, from Iraq and Afghanistan to Libya and Mali. These paramilitary groups succeeded in shifting American priorities to the least advantageous places for the nation’s core interests. This is the clearest evidence of the contemporary challenges confronting powerful traditional institutions as a consequence of the rise of influential individual-centred groups.

The enduring role of Osama bin Laden in international affairs captures this point. His work to organize, finance and manage Al Qaeda as a global terrorist organization transformed the international strategic landscape. Bin Laden not only planned and coordinated a series of violent attacks across the globe, but also created a worldwide threat empire – a set of terrorist “franchises,” according to Peter Bergen and other observers. Al Qaeda communicated threats through traditional and non-traditional media, recruited participants in diverse societies, and undertook a wide variety of targeted missions of killing and extortion in order to influence local policies. And, of course, Al Qaeda and its affiliates have become a virtual military government in parts of Pakistan, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia and Mali.

Al Qaeda continues to intimidate opponents, infiltrate political alternatives, and rule through violence. Its affiliates remain more politically effective than most internal and external challengers – even those financed by the US and other leading nation-states. Although bin Laden is now dead and many local Al Qaeda groups operate with autonomy, the global organization continues to express his personality and his aims. Absent bin Laden, Al Qaeda would not exist, nor would the US have spent a long, costly decade fighting a ‘war on terror’ – with very mixed results.

Of course, bin Laden’s apparent successes continue to inspire others. The recent terrorist attacks in Boston and Woolwich in London confirm longstanding concerns about a second wave of more diffuse, unpredictable and deadly terrorism led by isolated individuals with access to the Internet and very limited resources. In the case of the Boston bombings, the Tsarnaev brothers – 19 and 26 years old – killed and injured hundreds of innocent civilians and law enforcement personnel, and shut down one of America’s largest cities. They diverted millions of dollars’ worth of national resources, time and effort. They aroused fears that will long outlast their attacks.

Who had more enduring influence on the behaviour of the nation: these two terrorists in Boston or the massive law enforcement apparatus that killed one and captured the other after a week of mayhem? Traditional government institutions have learned to contain the destruction wrought by individuals, but they remain hostage to the unpredictability and fear elicited by small-scale terrorists. It appears, then, that modern weapons, travel and communications have given committed individuals a major ‘first-mover’ advantage over more powerful established institutions.

This is a dark story, but it has many bright spots too. The empowered individuals who can punch above their traditional weight in the contemporary international system are also figures who can persuade and inspire across cultures. More than a century ago, Weber identified the ‘charismatic’ power of a figure who appears capable of speaking and acting as others cannot. The charismatic individual articulates what crowds feel, but cannot express. She also accomplishes great feats beyond the capabilities of most humans, with apparent ease. Historically, Weber identified figures who fit this description through their abilities to electrify assembled crowds with their words, their displays of strength, or their communion with a supernatural force. Like Carlyle, Weber looked to Napoleon – as well as Jesus and Mohammed – as his models for the charismatic individual.

Modern communications magnify the potential reach of charismatic figures, allowing them to expand their audience, replay their performances, and control their environment. The ability to manipulate an audience and manufacture a particular reaction has grown with creative use of film and sound technologies. Anyone who has followed the international ‘Gangnam Style’ craze, and the wide appeal of the South Korean singer Psy, recognizes the power of controlled charisma disseminated through the Internet and social networks.

The same dynamic attracted international attention – as many as 100 million views – to the documentary video about Central African warlord Joseph Kony, produced by the organization Invisible Children. Human rights activists disseminated an emotional image of Kony as the charismatic embodiment of evil – the mass murderer of African children. Kony is, in reality, one among many homicidal warlords, but modern media made him into a convenient and all-encompassing devil.

Similar dynamics have made charismatic international celebrities of many other diverse figures. Social media magnify this phenomenon through the easy circulation of image, sound and text from one group to another. For the first time, geographical distance does not seem to matter very much for rapid communications. Connection to the Internet and satellite services matters most. In the past, control of territory and transportation across distance posed serious limitations for the charismatic individual; today, compelling non-traditional figures can reach a broad audience with extraordinary ease and rapidity.

Social media have an immediacy that captures the emotion of the moment. They break down geographical barriers. They have a real-time rapidity that allows them to remain up-to-date – sometimes minute-by-minute. With social media, viewers can have real-time eyes and ears inside a crowd that is oceans away. They can identify with powerful individuals up close. They can also join thousands of others, communicating with an apparent directness and intimacy once only possible for those who were physically proximate to the individuals of influence (in other words, for the courts of the powerful). New groups continually assemble (and reassemble) online around the global conversations generated by a charismatic figure – even if that figure is not personally part of the discussions.

Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire in December 2010, became an international martyr as his story circulated on social media. Bouazizi sparked the Arab Spring demonstrations that brought down governments in Tunisia and Egypt, and foreshadowed the subsequent crises in Libya and Syria. He showed how the unknown individual – the everyman – can become the universal individual – the model citizen – for so many viewers of social media. Bouazizi’s charisma moved people to the streets, and encouraged policy-makers – including President Obama – to embrace a series of uncertain political changes in respect of regimes long allied with the US.

Julian Assange is another example of the empowered individual on the Internet and in social media. Assange has used a Wikileaks website to circulate classified US government documents to interested readers around the world. He has changed mainstream debate in the US and Europe by exposing the often duplicitous and callous nature of policy-making. He has also made it much more difficult for governments to operate in secrecy. Assange has turned the Internet and social media into popular checks on government power, and, to be sure, effective platforms for his ego. Assange created international pressure for greater government transparency, and more critical views of the ‘knowledge’ and positions promoted by powerful governments – particularly in the US. The global conversation initiated by Assange continues today, and it constrains the public support for traditional uses of legitimate state force around the world.

The contemporary international system is defined by powerful individuals in state and non-state positions. It is also defined by the constant shifting of attention and legitimacy among these individuals. One week’s charismatic celebrity is another week’s discredited dissident. And one week’s political strongman is another week’s leader under siege. Egypt’s former ruler, Hosni Mubarak, learned this lesson – dramatically – in early 2011.

Foreign policy has become more uncertain and unstable because it is more individualistic. Personalities matter more than ever before, but they have short half-lives of influence. How should citizens and state leaders approach foreign policy-making in this context? How can they recognize the individualistic nature of policy in our time, while acting in ways that encourage stability and longevity?

The solution brings us back to Thomas Carlyle. The great men who made the biggest impact for Carlyle were the ones who nurtured followers and successors. They did not rule from atop the mountain, but came down to the people in order to improve them and prepare new leaders to carry on their legacy. Leaders must be educators if they are to establish enduring policies. Powerful and talented individuals must persuade, inspire and improve those who support them today in order to expand the pool of powerful and talented individuals for tomorrow.

This seems obvious, but it is often forgotten in many societies today. Successful individuals must build institutions that will carry on their legacies. They must invest in the schools, businesses and state organizations that will bring people and resources together for the future. Individualism, in fact, requires effective and dynamic institutions if it is to be a force for enduring change and improvement.

As things stand now, powerful people are doing too little to build new institutions. They are doing too much for themselves. The individualism of our time has created a bias toward small government, laissez-faire economics, and austerity. The systematic underinvestment in institutions frees the empowered individuals of today, but it limits the possibilities for followers. As such, it constricts the potential legacies – and, ultimately, the historical importance – of these individuals, even as they are empowered.

The calling of our time echoes Carlyle’s demand for great leaders, as well as Weber’s meditation on the institutionalization of the best individual qualities. We need great men and women who devote themselves to revitalizing our institutions of government and education. They must imagine improved alternatives. They must make our ugly politics bright and hopeful again. They must see themselves as part of history, just as they make history.


Jeremi Suri is the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs and a Professor of History and Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of five books – most recently: Liberty’s Surest Guardian: American Nation-Building from the Founders to Obama.

(Illustration: David Plunkert)

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