The Quiet Warrior

A new paradigm for the presidency. A response to Joseph Nye, Jr.

By Robert D. Kaplan

Tagged Leadership

Leadership ultimately resides within the mystery of character. But character, like culture, is not immutable. It can grow and–with experience–change for the better. Joseph Nye, Jr. has written a profound essay that, at root, seeks to explore the character of an ideal twenty-first-century leader [“Picking A President,” Issue #10]. His emphasis on contextual intelligence acts as a guide to flesh out and add structure to a truism that we all learn through life: Emotional intelligence is far more important than intellectual intelligence. Mastering complexity–which, as Nye intimates, is the real art of leadership nowadays–is not just a matter of a high IQ, but of temperament.

But Nye doesn’t quite go far enough, for he is opening up a subject that contains a wealth of implications. Indeed, emotional intelligence demands not just a strong character, but more specific abilities that elaborate further on Nye’s argument: the ability to deal with solitude, to be a good manager, to be highly organized, to possess cultural street smarts, and to think methodically while emotions swirl around you. Moreover, Nye downplays the need for what I have called the “pagan ethos”: We need leaders who can be both emotionally intelligent and politically ruthless. Ironically, in a twenty-first century defined by networks and dispersed power centers, we need strong leaders more than ever.

The more complex our civilization becomes–with its rapidly expanding scientific and policy-making mandarinate–the more comfortable a leader in our age must be with loneliness. For it is lonely being the only non-expert in the room when you are being briefed. But because it is the very vast size and intricacy of our political and military establishments which make them so singularly vulnerable, our salvation will lie with generalists who are not intimidated by the specialists under their command. Of course, this can be taken too far. As retired Army General Barry McCaffrey told me, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had “an astonishing ability not to listen to experts.” The value of experts–and, for that matter, of all the policy papers churned out by Washington think tanks–is that collectively they provide leaders with boundaries on individual issues, beyond which they venture at their own risk. Effective modern leadership is less about thinking boldly out of the box so much as it is about working out creative solutions within the box. So just as modern leadership is lonely, it is also consultative.

Complex civilizations beget complex organizations. And as leaders run governments and militaries, which are ever more immense human machines, management experience will increasingly be a factor defining character. As Nye puts it, “nurture” is becoming more important than “nature” in leadership selection. There is a reason why so many of our general officers in the military are impressive: They have risen through the ranks. One of the idiotic notions raised during this autumn’s presidential campaign has been that experience doesn’t matter. Sure it does. Yes, Vice President-elect Biden made some big analytical mistakes regarding Iraq, in opposing the first Gulf War as well as the surge. But these very mistakes, and the decades he has spent in Washington, add seasoning to his character. He has been around. He has likely felt intellectually humbled at times. He knows how vast government machines of different parts work and don’t work. Unless he is truly full of arrogance and bombast (as, admittedly, some have alleged), he should be a better leader for it. Contrarily, what we should fear more is someone green, who has made few mistakes, and who is thrown into a whole different context of leadership. For that situation would require someone, as Nye suggests, of extreme emotional intelligence to continue to function well.

A key ingredient that makes our world so different than those of previous centuries, and therefore so much more challenging for leaders, is speed, not just of interactions, but of military deployments, and of war itself. In an age when it took weeks to mobilize and transport armored divisions across the seas, it was possible for American presidents to consult the people and Congress about doing so. In the near future, when combat brigades can be inserted anywhere in the world in 96 hours and entire divisions in 120 hours, and with a great deal of our military actions focused on lightning air and computer strikes, the decision-making time to use force or not will be severely compressed. We still think too often of war as grand, set-piece affairs with long overtures, battles, and finally victory parades. To the contrary, the twenty-first century will see virtually non-stop deployments, limited wars, and humanitarian rescue operations in a plethora of geographical and cultural milieus around the globe. Nye’s contextual intelligence will be at a premium, because of the quick pace and constancy of decisions that will need to be made. But so too will seasoning and emotional street smarts, amplified by the kind of instinct that comes from years of managerial experience, be crucial, even as impulsive judgments will be the enemy of good leadership. Everyone is attracted to the proverbial genius with a messy desk, with papers that he never gets to the bottom of. But reading Nye, I feel more secure with someone who is organized and methodical in his decisions, who works gradually towards a solution rather than has a rash inspiration at the last minute. Because of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the increasing speed of military actions and reactions, risk and bravado will exact ever more severe penalties as the years go on. Of course, there is always a danger in being overly rational: Ronald Reagan may not have been rational in believing in the early 1980s that communism would collapse, while British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was quite rational in seeing the ascent of German military power as inevitable. Still, despite these exceptions, good twenty-first-century leadership will veer toward the one who is systematic rather than inspired.

This brings me to another attribute of leadership. Nothing is great, writes Seneca, “which is not at the same time calm.” Gladiators, the first century A.D. Roman philosopher goes on to say, “are protected by skill but left defenseless by anger.” More than at any other time in history, a leader will need to control his emotions. For states and groups that refuse to play by our rules will be periodically committing outrages. Overreaction will be painful as technology brings the Middle East closer to us than Europe ever was. The more unpredictable and violent our world becomes, the more calm a leader will have to be–without, of course, becoming complacent.

Calmness can be related to a modest acceptance of fate. I emphasize the word “modest.” For fatalism is bad, just as assuming that your legions can overcome any obstacle at any time is also bad. Yet in foreign policy, a modest recognition of fate will lead to discipline more than indifference. The realization that we cannot always have our way is the basis of a mature outlook in foreign policy. In fact, fear is a good thing for a twenty-first-century leader to have, for it will keep him grounded and inside the box, which is where he will need to be 90 percent of the time. This is not appeasement. Munich is an overused analogy. All interventions should be governed by knowing the worst about a place before you insert forces. For it is only the worst of places where interventions are ever contemplated in the first place.

When dealing with interventions, cultural intuition will be crucial, and that is another aspect of Nye’s contextual intelligence. Army General David Petraeus told me that one of the most useful periods of his career was to study at Princeton, where he saw the military for the first time from the perspective of civilians and where he learned how to make his case to people from a very different American cultural background than his own, who were initially hostile to his viewpoint. It follows, therefore, that without being an expert or even familiar with a distant culture, a modern leader will, nevertheless, have to be able to discern how the actions of his country will be received in another. Just as the more comfortable a general officer is with civilians, the more effective he will be as a leader, the more of a global cosmopolitan a leader is, the more effective he or she will be as the chief executive of his or her own particular country.

But alas, it is not all that simple. Thus far, I have been talking about the softer attributes of a leader. But he will also require harder ones. Nye refers to my argument for a “pagan ethos,” the theme of a book I wrote eight years ago, Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos. In that book, I used the term not in a war-mongering sense, but as a reference to the philosophers of antiquity, whose writings show a considerable overlap with Judeo-Christian values, such as the moral philosophy of Cicero and Plutarch. Indeed, the classical legacy of thought applies well to foreign policy leadership in the twenty-first century. Foreign policy, despite the growth of international and regional organizations, is still governed by a more limited, sadder morality than domestic policy. Because not all states and groups adhere to laws and regulations, when handling foreign affairs a leader will still periodically find himself operating in a state of nature. Thus, in addition to being a methodical manager, he will on occasion have to act and think like a warrior.

This leads us to Machiavelli, who in his day was a popularizer of ancient
wisdom, just as his Prince was an instructional guide against the fatalism of the Catholic Church at the time. Machiavelli believed that through hope and self-interest one could succeed against fate, and thereby shape and improve the world. Isaiah Berlin writes that “Machiavelli’s values are not Christian, but they are moral values”–the Periclean and Aristotelian values of the ancient polis, which secure a stable political community. And because the well-being of the polis is of supreme importance, a leader in antiquity as well as in the twenty-first century is judged by strangers, for his countrymen do not know him personally–he governs, as Nye says (obviously borrowing from Benedict Anderson), an “imagined community.” And because the citizenry do not know the leader personally, pagan morality–the philosophy of Sun Tzu and Thucydides both–emphasizes results rather than good intentions. Strangers don’t care about how hard you tried, or that your heart was in the right place even as you failed. They care only about what you achieved for them. The game is not about Judeo-Christian moral perfection, but about the political-communal result. In this vein, non-democratic or quasi-democratic leaders like Deng Xiaoping of China and Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, though they were far from being morally perfect, have been great modern leaders in the classical sense because they improved dramatically the lot of their citizens.

But it is not crudely a matter of the end justifying the means. Machiavelli uses the example of Agathocles in fourth-century B.C. Sicily to show that a leader who uses more than the minimum amount of cruelty necessary to achieve a positive communal result is not a good leader. And thus a pagan ethos is supremely relevant to twenty-first century leadership. What we ideally should want is a quiet warrior: not someone who beats his chest to the outside world, but who works more in the understated manner of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, while also knowing how, when necessary, to play the role of Winston Churchill.

Seneca also wrote that often you can’t know the truth: “We just follow probability. That is how everything that has to be done gets done.” Likewise with a modern leader: For in an exceedingly complexified world of massive bureaucracies, on a planet where globalization will lead to many unstable interactions, even as it fails to bridge many cultural differences, leaders will find themselves groping in the dark toward the truth in far off places–and having to do so quickly–rather than having a sudden inspiration about it. Nye is right. Contextual intelligence will be pivotal, as will be occasional ruthlessness, since emotional insight can lead to unsettling conclusions, which, in turn, require a very tough response to challenges. The twenty-first-century leader will need to work overtime to protect the nation from its enemies, and foster its well-being in an international community.

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Robert D. Kaplan is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.

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