Transformative leaders have helped shape course of history

(FILES) In this file photo taken on December 5, 1986 British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher looks on December 05, 1986 as she chairs the EEC Economic Summit held in London's Queen Elizabeth Conference Hall. Would the late Margaret Thatcher have voted for or against Britain's EU membership? The Iron Lady is pitting Conservatives against each other ahead of an in-out referendum expected later this year. The row over the former British prime minister's allegiances deepened on February 12, 2016 as pro-European Conservatives unearthed an old letter written in 1997 in which she wrote: "The majority of our people want Britain to be in Europe, and so do I". / AFP / STEVE WILKINSONSTEVE WILKINSON/AFP/Getty Images

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Historians have long debated whether they should put the emphasis on individual leaders or on social, cultural and economic trends and forces in interpreting the past. The so-called “great men” approach to history has largely fallen into disrepute as more and more economic and social historians have come to occupy centre stage. And yet there are still eminent historians such as Prof. Margaret Macmillan, late of the University of Toronto and now of Oxford University, who make a point of highlighting the role of the individual in major events. And she is right to do so, because leaders have repeatedly emerged who have changed the course of history in their countries or in the world at large. For want of a better term, these are often described as “transformative” leaders. And the 20th century was rich in them.

One of the most notable political leaders of the first half of the century was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He was elected president when the United States was suffering through the worst effects of the Great Depression. Unemployment was sky high, economic activity was anemic and social unrest was brewing. Roosevelt’s response to this situation was to launch a series of socioeconomic initiatives that collectively came to be known as the New Deal. Roosevelt’s actions not only reduced unemployment and stimulated economic activity, they also restored hope to millions of Americans. And, of course, Roosevelt went on to lead the United States successfully through the Second World War.

Another leader of the same generation was Winston Churchill. After a decades-long and very checkered political career, he emerged to lead his country in the Second World War. At a time when Britain was suffering a long series of military defeats, he used his considerable oratorical skills to rally the nation and hold out the promise of eventual victory. And when victory did occur, Churchill was widely saluted as the saviour of his country. Two other British leaders who immediately followed Churchill are less well known but were in many ways equally transformative. Clement Atlee and Aneurin Bevan, on taking office in 1945, decided to implement the recommendations of the seminal Beveridge report and create the modern British welfare state, featuring the National Health Service, unemployment insurance and a variety of pension schemes. Britain would never be the same again.

Yet another leader of this period had an equally staggering impact on his country. This was Charles De Gaulle. Following France’s defeat by Germany in 1940, De Gaulle broadcast a message to his countrymen in which he proclaimed that “France has lost a battle, France has not lost the war.” From that point, he went on to create the Free French movement, which by war’s end was able to field several divisions of troops to participate in the final defeat of Germany in 1945. In 1958, De Gaulle re-emerged on the political scene to save France from the political and military morass into which it had descended. He created the Fifth French Republic under a new constitution, extricated France from its destructive war in Algeria, and during his 10-year presidency did much to restore the pride and confidence of the French people. The bad old days of the Fourth Republic, when French governments changed two or three times every year, were never to return again.

The western leaders mentioned above were paralleled in their time by Asian counterparts. Mohandas Gandhi’s single-minded campaign of civil disobedience and peaceful resistance eventually wore down the British colonial government and India gained its independence in 1947. And in China, Mao Zedong’s armed resistance, which had lasted 20 years, eventually succeeded with the proclamation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Although Mao’s rule produced a long series of disasters for the Chinese people, he nevertheless transformed the country beyond recognition. And when Mao died in 1976, he was followed by an equally transformative leader in the person of Deng Xiao Ping. When confronted by advocates of Marxist orthodoxy, Deng famously replied that “it doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice.” With this pragmatic approach, Deng launched China on a program known as the Four Modernizations. It was from there that China began its remarkable economic transformation, which leaves it today as the world’s second largest economy.

In the late 1970s, Great Britain was suffering from serious socioeconomic woes. The currency was weak, the economy was stagnant and the trade unions were creating chaos. Then along came Margaret Thatcher. In a matter of a few short years, she turned the situation around. While her methods were sometimes brutal and controversial, she beat the trade unions into submission, she restored confidence in the currency, and she presided over an extraordinary period of growth in the financial sector. Her decision to go to war against Argentina when it attacked and occupied the Falkland Islands set her apart from most of her immediate predecessors and gave rise to a surge of patriotic fervour in Britain.

Another transformative leader of the 1970s was President Anwar Sadat of Egypt. He came to office following the death of Gamal Abdel Nasser and not long after Egypt had suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of Israel. He went about systematically preparing the Egyptian armed forces to redeem their honour and managed to do this in the Yom Kippur war of 1973. But Sadat was not content with this. He undertook a veritable revolution in Egyptian foreign policy by severing Egypt’s political and military links to the Soviet Union and aligning his country with the United States. He then launched a personal diplomatic initiative in the direction of Israel, culminating in the Egypt-Israel peace treaty of 1979. He did this despite high levels of domestic discontent and almost universal condemnation on the part of other Arab countries, which severed diplomatic relations with Egypt. His courage was rewarded with assassination at the hands of an Egyptian military extremist three years later.

In somewhat different ways, Nelson Mandela was also a powerful agent of change. His long imprisonment by the government of South Africa gained more and more international attention over the years. He came to be seen as a vivid symbol of the struggle against apartheid and the racist government that upheld that abhorrent system. From his prison on Robbin Island, he established his credentials as the leader of post-apartheid South Africa. When he was finally freed and elected president, he displayed a generosity of spirit toward his recent tormentors that led to his being portrayed as a secular saint. That liberated South Africa did not descend into open racial warfare is in large part due to Mandela’s moderation and magnanimity.

On the world scene today there is only one leader who can be truly described as transformative, and that is Donald Trump, and for all of the wrong reasons. During his election campaign and during his two years in office, he has completely upset the international apple cart. He has deliberately gone about undermining international institutions such as the United Nations, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the European Union and the World Trade Organization. He has repeatedly criticized or insulted some of the United States’ oldest and closest allies such as Canada, Great Britain, France and Germany. He has only added salt to these wounds by embracing and praising vile despots such as Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong Un and Rodrigo Duterte. (In a recent tweet, the president of the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations Richard Haass said, “U.S. foreign policy now aligns with an Axis of Illiberalism.) He has disrupted the international economic order by launching trade wars against Canada, Mexico, the European Union and China. And through his mendacity, his racism and his boorish brashness, he has become the most universally reviled president in the history of the United States, to the great detriment of his country’s standing in the world. Rarely, if ever, has any leader been able to disrupt so much in such a short time.

Transformative leaders come in all shapes and sizes, but their influence can frequently match that of social, cultural and economic trends in shaping the course of history.

Louis A. Delvoie is a  Fellow in the Centre for International and Defence Policy at Queen’s University.