How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
History used to be told as the story of great men. Julius Caesar, Frederick the Great, George Washington, Napoléon Bonaparte, Adolf Hitler, Mao Zedong—individual leaders, both famous and infamous, were thought to drive events. But then it became fashionable to tell the same stories in terms of broader structural forces: raw calculations of national power, economic interdependence, or ideological waves. Leaders came to be seen as just vehicles for other, more important factors, their personalities and predilections essentially irrelevant. What mattered was not great men or women but great forces.
In his 1959 classic, Man, the State, and War, the scholar Kenneth Waltz made the case for this new approach. He argued that focusing on individual leaders or human nature more broadly offered little purchase when it came to understanding global politics. Instead, one should look at the framework of the international system and the distribution of power across it. In the midst of the Cold War, Waltz was contending that it mattered little whether Dwight Eisenhower or Adlai Stevenson occupied the White House, or Joseph Stalin or Nikita Khrushchev the Kremlin. The United States and the Soviet Union would pursue the same interests, seek the same allies, and otherwise be forced by the pressure of Cold War competition to act in a certain way.
Academics embraced the “structuralist” Zeitgeist, and in subsequent decades, although some theorists expanded their list of the primary movers in international relations to include regime types, institutions, and ideas, they continued to downplay leaders. Today, at a time when vast impersonal forces appear to define our world, that bias against the individual might seem justified. Economics, technology, and politics are all changing in ways that seemed unimaginable only decades ago. Developments in communications, transportation, climate, education, cultural values, and health have fundamentally altered relationships among people within communities and across the globe. The information revolution has given rise to the super-empowered individual and the superempowered state and pitted them against each other. Meanwhile, power is being redistributed across the globe, with the unipolar era of American primacy that followed the Cold War giving way to an unpredictable multipolarity. Such are the faceless beasts wreaking havoc today.
Structural factors and technological change no doubt drive much of states’ behavior, but they are not the only pieces of the puzzle. Even today, individual leaders can ride, guide, or resist the broader forces of international politics. And so there are still some men and women who are charting their nations’ paths—some beneficial, some disastrous, but all inconceivable without those leaders’ individual characters.
Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS, is the most obvious example of a leader defying the pressure of both domestic politics and international circumstances and, in so doing, redefining both, for better and worse. For decades, change in Saudi Arabia moved at a glacial pace. The question of whether women should be allowed to drive, for example, had been debated since 1990 with no resolution. Saudi leaders ruled collectively, ensuring that any policy changes were accepted by all the major branches of the sprawling royal family and the religious establishment. Although the ruling elite talked about the importance of fundamental reform for years, they did little to nothing, thwarted by conservative clerics, powerful economic interests, and a consensus-oriented political culture.
Then came MBS. MBS means to upend Saudi Arabia’s economy and society (but, crucially, not its political system), and he has begun secularizing Saudi society, overhauling the kingdom’s traditional educational system, and reforming its stunted economy. Like an earlier generation of autocratic modernizers—Benito Mussolini of Italy, Kemal Ataturk of Turkey, Stalin, and Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi of Iran—he is determined to drag his country into the new century and isn’t put off by the human cost of doing so. Whether he succeeds or fails, MBS has defied the risk-averse logic of Saudi politics and is betting everything on his far-reaching reforms.
On foreign policy, MBS has broken with decades of tradition.
On foreign policy, MBS has also broken with decades of tradition. From 1953 to 2015, under Kings Saud, Faisal, Khalid, Fahd, and Abdullah, Saudi Arabia had a modest international role. It mostly relied on others, primarily the United States, to secure its interests, tossing in a little checkbook diplomacy from time to time. It rarely fought wars, and when it did, it was only as a bit player following someone else’s lead. It kept its squabbles with its Arab allies under wraps and hewed closely to the American line. MBS has charted a radically different course. Holding Lebanon’s prime minister hostage to force him to resign, intervening in the Yemeni civil war, isolating Qatar, killing the Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey, cozying up to China and Russia, threatening to acquire nuclear weapons, forging a tacit alliance with the Israelis at the expense of the Palestinians—all represent breathtaking departures from past policy. Although the kingdom’s changing international circumstances make some of this understandable, MBS has consistently chosen the most radical option, at the far extreme of what international incentives alone would have predicted.
It is useful to consider what might have happened if the system had worked as it traditionally had. In 2017, King Salman, who had ascended to the throne two years earlier, sidelined the incumbent crown prince, his nephew Mohammed bin Nayef, and replaced him with MBS, one of his younger sons. Nayef was a close U.S. counterterrorism partner and an establishment man who favored stability above all. Indeed, his initial appointment as crown prince was in part meant to calm any fears that King Salman would take the country in a dramatically different direction. It is hard to imagine that Nayef would have risked alienating the clerical establishment while embarking on high-risk gambits across the Arab world. But owing to some combination of ambition, vision, ego, youth, risk tolerance, insight, and ruthlessness, MBS has done exactly that.
Such top-down revolutionaries are few and far between. Yet when they appear, they are transformative. Stalin turned the Soviet Union into an industrial power, slaughtering tens of millions of people in the process. Mao tried to do something similar in China, successfully uniting the country and destroying the power of traditional elites, but at the cost of millions of lives. His successor, Deng Xiaoping, transformed the country again by dumping Mao’s state-centric economic model, thus enabling China’s remarkable rise.
Across the Persian Gulf, MBS’s great rival is a very different kind of leader, but one who also exercises an outsize impact. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, is a cautious old man. If MBS is defying the impersonal forces of both Saudi Arabia’s domestic politics and its traditional foreign policy, Khamenei sits at the crossroads of Iran’s intersecting domestic and international pressures and directs the traffic as he sees fit.
Today, it is simplistic, but not entirely inaccurate, to say that Iranian politics is a struggle between two opposing camps. A group of reformists and pragmatists seeks to reform Iran’s foreign and economic policies to address the dire needs of the Iranian people. Their approach represents a natural response to Iran’s circumstances: it is a resource-rich country that has been impoverished and immiserated by its own aggressive behavior. Opposing the pragmatists is a group of hard-liners devoted to both aggression abroad and repression at home, and they dominate Iran’s domestic politics. This camp is motivated more by its Persian nationalism and revolutionary zeal than by a cool-headed examination of how to grow Iran’s economy or end its diplomatic isolation.
Khamenei is the pivot. He weighs the international pressure pushing Iran in the direction of the reformists and pragmatists against the domestic pressure from the hard-liners. With these impersonal forces more or less in balance, it is Khamenei who gets to choose which way to tack as each issue comes before him. Sometimes, he sides with the hard-liners—for instance, doubling down on the support of militias in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. At other times, he sides with the pragmatists, as when he accepted the 2015 nuclear deal brokered by the United States, an agreement that promised to revive Iran’s economy through international trade in exchange for limits on its nuclear program.
It was not inevitable that an Iranian leader would act this way. After the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in 1989, one leading candidate to succeed him was Mohammad Reza Golpaygani. Anyone chosen would have agreed with the general contours of the revolutionary framework established by Khomeini, but within those guidelines, much remained unsettled. Compared with Khamenei, Golpaygani was a more traditional conservative, skeptical of what he saw as the regime’s social tolerance by allowing music on radio and television, yet far less revolutionary in his foreign policy views. In the end, revolutionary legitimacy trumped scholarly strength, and the mullahs—with Khomeini’s blessing—selected Khamenei.
There are still some men and women who are charting their nations’ paths—some beneficial, some disastrous.
How might Golpaygani have ruled? Given his preferences, he would likely have erred more on the side of social conservativism and less on the side of aggressive foreign policy. Similarly, he probably would have favored more limits on the clergy’s role in politics, taking a more traditional view that religious leaders should stick to issues of morality. In this scenario, Iran since 1989 would have focused more on enforcing social mores at home and less on stirring the pot abroad. Yet it was Khamenei that ascended to Khomeini’s throne, and so it has been he who has chosen among the competing strands of Iranian policy.
If Khamenei is the most obvious example of a leader who makes the ultimate choice of which current to ride when the impersonal forces are in conflict, he is hardly the only one. In different circumstances, German Chancellor Angela Merkel plays the same role. During the eurozone crisis, the international economic forces affecting Germany consistently called for a more proactive approach to Greece’s insolvency and the economic troubles of Germany’s other eurozone partners. Yet Merkel instead took the more conservative path, which resonated with Germany’s domestic politics, even though this ended up dragging out the crisis. At the same time, on the issue of refugees, she embraced liberal international norms and took in hundreds of thousands of Syrians at a time when domestic politics in Germany and the rest of Europe was turning against charity to foreigners. Another chancellor might have made different choices: indeed, the politician who held the number two position in Germany at the time, Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, favored a more generous approach toward the Greek government, but on refugees, he bowed to domestic pressure and called for caps on admissions.
Bashar al-Assad and Nicolás Maduro are marked men. When it comes to both Syria’s president and Venezuela’s, there are many people who want them out of power, if not dead. And yet by remaining alive and in office, they have compromised the best interests of their countries.
Both Syria and Venezuela are desperate nations, racked by internal conflict, tormented by starvation, shedding refugees in epic quantities, and beset by various external powers. There is nothing about the power or the international position of either Syria or Venezuela that has caused its anguish. Both suffered a horrific breakdown in their internal politics, but in both cases, there were fixes that could have been made long ago to end the misery. Getting rid of Maduro would have been a huge step toward alleviating Venezuela’s pain, just as getting rid of Assad could have made it possible to reach a compromise to end the Syrian civil war.
It’s not that simple, of course: many Venezuelan elites, particularly the military, are unwilling to depose Maduro, and many Syrian minority groups, particularly the ruling family’s own Alawite community, feel the same way about Assad. Yet there is also no question that the principal grievance of the Venezuelan opposition, and of the United States, has become Maduro himself, and should he find a comfortable exile on a Caribbean island, it would be far easier to resolve the conflict. Likewise, in years past, both the Iranians and the Russians at times floated to the United States the idea that they were willing to sacrifice Assad as long as their own interests—and those of the Alawites—were protected. If Assad had found himself on the wrong end of an assassin’s knife or under an enforced vacation during a visit to Tehran, a new leader might have proved willing to make more concessions to the opposition and lay the groundwork for a negotiated peace. Yet both leaders’ continued hold on power, in the face of both international and domestic pressure to go, has locked their countries into needless agony.
Some might scoff at this argument, contending that vast impersonal forces—the ruthless domestic politics in a country roiled by civil war and a regime’s inherent desire to survive—make it unimaginable that any leader in such a position would ever step down. Yet it is worth remembering that South African President F. W. de Klerk did just that. De Klerk had plenty of incentives to fight for apartheid to remain in power, just as his predecessors did. Indeed, when de Klerk assumed power, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, an antiapartheid activist, said that the leadership change was “just musical chairs.” If de Klerk had remained committed to apartheid, the most likely outcome would have been South Africa’s descent into even greater racial violence or quite possibly an all-out civil war, not much different from what is happening in Syria and Venezuela today. Yet de Klerk did the opposite, dismantling apartheid, allowing free elections in 1994, and yielding power when he lost. Despite a background that suggested he would fight to preserve the apartheid system, he recognized both the need to avert civil war in South Africa and the opportunity to bring his country into the ranks of civilized nations.
Fortune favors the bold, and some leaders are skilled at seizing opportunities as they arise. Russian President Vladimir Putin exemplifies how a wily leader can parlay a relatively weak position into a much stronger one. In 1999, Putin replaced Sergei Stepashin as Russia’s prime minister, becoming the fifth person to occupy the post in two years. Few expected this creature of the Russian system to shake things up, but within weeks, he capitalized on violence in Chechnya to renew the war there, gambling (correctly) that a no-holds-barred fight would increase his popularity, and soon succeeded Boris Yeltsin as president.
Putin represented a sharp break with the past. Yeltsin and the pre-Putin prime ministers under him had favored accommodation with the West, acquiesced in NATO interventions in the Balkans, recognized Russia’s seemingly irreversible military weakness, and largely abandoned Russia’s former friends, such as Syria. Putin offered something new. Fearing that parts of the former Soviet Union were becoming too close to the West, he supported separatist movements in Georgia and Ukraine, annexing Crimea outright. Farther afield, he has backed Assad with limited military commitments to showcase Russian power, and he is even taking sides in Libya’s civil war. Most dramatically, Putin rolled the dice and covertly backed the U.S. presidential campaign of Donald Trump as part of a broader effort to intensify polarization in the United States and other Western countries. It’s hard to imagine all of this as part of any long-term plan. Rather, Putin has proved a master of Russian and international politics, cutting and thrusting whenever his foes present an opening.
A different faceless bureaucrat coming to power after Yeltsin might have shifted course, too. Russia’s weakness abroad and economic collapse at home left the Yeltsin regime with few enthusiasts. Yet the course of such change probably would have been more modest, with less emphasis on adventurism abroad. Stepashin, for example, had little interest in renewing the war in Chechnya, and he ended up joining a political party that favors improved ties with the United States and even membership in the EU. Putin, by contrast, has evinced a combination of pride, cynicism, nationalism, and comfort with risk, all of which have made him willing to take on the West around the world at a time when many observers have considered his country weak.
L’état, c’est moi (I am the state), words often attributed to Louis XIV, may seem to reflect a bygone age, when the purpose of the state was to reflect the glory of one person. But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has dominated his country’s politics for nearly two decades, embodies how egoism can still shape foreign policy. For decades, different Turkish regimes had pursued the country’s complex set of interests in largely similar ways: trying to stay out of the imbroglio in the Middle East, aligning Turkey with NATO and the United States, and portraying the country as a secular, westernizing nation that deserved membership in the EU. By the turn of this century, Turkey seemed to be growing ever more stable and westernized as it moved away from domestic military dominance. Long friendly toward the West, it was now on the path to democracy, turning into a normal European state, with strong institutions.
Erdogan had other plans. Since he became prime minister, in 2003, Turkish policies have repeatedly whipsawed. The regime supported its Kurdish citizens and then persecuted them; worked with Assad, tried to overthrow him, and then cooperated with him again; rejected Russia and then embraced it; cooperated with Israel and then denounced it. Domestically, Erdogan shelved democratic reforms and heightened his repression.
Putin exemplifies how a wily leader can parlay a relatively weak position into a much stronger one.
Part of the about-face can be attributed to opportunism and realpolitik, but much of it reflects Erdogan’s response to perceived personal slights and his pursuit of glory. In 2010, an Israeli raid on a flotilla trying to break the blockade of the Gaza Strip led to the deaths of ten Turks on the ship the Mavi Marmara. Despite decades of close strategic cooperation between Turkey and Israel, Erdogan demanded an apology, recalled the Turkish ambassador to Israel, and moved closer to Hamas in Gaza. A year later, he viewed Assad’s crackdown on demonstrators as yet another slight, since it gave the lie to his claim that he could temper the Syrian dictator, prompting Erdogan to back an array of opposition forces against Assad. An analysis of the Turkish leader’s verbal output by the scholars Aylin Gorener and Meltem Ucal found that he scored high in believing he can control events and in distrusting others but also that he sees the world in black and white, is hypersensitive to criticism, and has trouble focusing on the implementation of policies. Erdogan seems convinced that he and only he is equipped to save Turkey from its enemies.
An alternative leader, even one who managed to channel the same anti-Western political coalition that Erdogan has, would probably have pursued a remarkably different foreign policy. Indeed, members of Erdogan’s own party have espoused different views on the Kurds, Syria, and other core issues. Had one of them taken power instead, that leader might still have pivoted to the Middle East and away from Europe, but it is far less likely that he would have acted so erratically or personalized politics to such a degree. A more pragmatic head of state might have cracked down sooner on the Islamic State (or ISIS)—for years, Erdogan allowed the group to use Turkey as a jihadi highway to Syria—cooperated more with Saudi Arabia and other opponents of Assad, or even tried earlier to strike a deal with the Syrian dictator.
At times, egoists can approach absurdity and drag their countries into outright disaster. Idi Amin, who seized power in Uganda in a 1971 coup, took on more and more titles as his ego ballooned, eventually becoming “His Excellency President for Life, Field Marshal Alhaji Dr. Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, CBE.” Uganda’s foreign policy swung wildly: a country that had taken a pro-Western, pro-Israeli stance soon struck up a close relationship with the Soviet Union and Muammar al-Qaddafi’s Libya and openly supported terrorists. At home, Amin expelled Uganda’s Asian minority and killed hundreds of thousands of civilians from rival ethnic groups. With his circle of support steadily shrinking, he blamed Tanzania for his country’s problems and, in 1978, invaded it. Tanzania promptly counterattacked, driving Amin into exile.
Some leaders drag their countries or causes down, needlessly reducing their performance on account of their own particular weaknesses. On paper, Ayman al-Zawahiri has the perfect résumé for the head of a terrorist group. As the journalist Lawrence Wright has recounted, Zawahiri formed his first terrorist cell in 1966, when he was only 15 years old, to plot against the Egyptian regime. He then spent several years in Egypt’s jails, moved to Pakistan to aid the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, and was by Osama bin Laden’s side in Pakistan when al Qaeda was founded, in 1988. So when U.S. forces finally caught up to bin Laden in 2011, Zawahiri was the obvious successor as leader of the terrorist group.
Yet al Qaeda’s star has dimmed under Zawahiri’s leadership. Although the fall of secular autocrats, such as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and the outbreak of civil wars around the Arab world presented a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for jihad’s leading brand, it was a rival group—ISIS—that seized the day. Whereas bin Laden tried to transcend the divisions within the jihadi movement, Zawahiri often aggravates them, especially by denouncing his rivals. Zawahiri’s public statements betray a pedantic tone, an overbearing manner, and impatience with critics. Those who met bin Laden often described him as charismatic. No one says that about Zawahiri. Not surprisingly, al Qaeda has stagnated on his watch: the core organization has not conducted a major attack in the West for over a decade, and its affiliates tend to shun the global jihadi agenda in favor of local concerns.
Even mature liberal democracies are not immune to the charms of a dominant personality.
The United States has hunted Zawahiri since the mid-1990s, and it is useful to consider what might have happened had it knocked him out. His replacement might have tried to make the movement more appealing by establishing his own credentials as a warrior. Perhaps he might have made al Qaeda more like its eventual rival, ISIS, by coming out of hiding to join the fight directly, planning more attacks in the West, or engaging in more gruesome behavior, such as beheadings. Or another leader might have moved away from al Qaeda’s global agenda, embracing the local and regional politics favored by many al Qaeda affiliates. But it seems unlikely that he would have done what Zawahiri has: giving uninspiring speeches while ISIS takes over the leadership of the global jihadi movement.
Other leaders, by contrast, punch above their weight. Exhibit A might be Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, or MBZ, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and the de facto leader of the United Arab Emirates. Once, the country’s foreign policy consisted of trying to keep its head down and get even richer, following Saudi Arabia wherever it went. Although the UAE has a population of just ten million (only a tenth of whom are actually UAE citizens), under MBZ, it has reshaped the Middle East. MBZ helped engineer the 2013 coup in Egypt, intervened in Yemen to turn back the advance of the Houthi rebels, pushed the blockade of Qatar, and backed a warlord in Libya’s civil war who is now banging on the gates of Tripoli. Thanks to MBZ’s military reforms, UAE forces demonstrated surprising competence in the fighting in Yemen, which made the UAE, for a time, the dominant player in much of the country. In a chaotic region, MBZ has managed to leverage his country’s wealth and military prowess to make the UAE thrive.
Individuals aren’t everything, of course: countries still have national interests, domestic politics, bureaucracies, and other forces that can play profound, even overwhelming, roles in shaping foreign policy. Yet it is equally facile to use such terms as “national interests,” “domestic politics,” and “bureaucratic resistance” without recognizing how leaders create, bend, exploit, override, or succumb to these factors.
Consider how individuals interact with institutions. If MBS had somehow come to power in a Saudi Arabia that was a mature liberal democracy, for example, he would no doubt have had a harder time fundamentally reorienting his country. In autocracies, which by definition lack democratic checks and balances, it is particularly easy for leaders to dominate policymaking. But autocracies can also produce weak leaders who merely reflect the impulses of their countries’ bureaucracies, militaries, or ruling elites. Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika remained in power for years even though he was nearly comatose, serving as a front for the country’s political elite until he resigned at the age of 82, earlier this year. Meanwhile, the likes of a Putin or an Erdogan can step into a more pluralistic system and bend it to his will.
Trump has dramatically altered the course of U.S. foreign policy.
Even mature liberal democracies are not immune to the charms of a dominant personality. Today, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt is revered as a demigod, but in his day, he was denounced for all manner of highhanded and dictatorial behavior, ranging from trying to pack the Supreme Court to enacting supposedly socialist economic policies. Before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt shaped popular sentiment when he rearmed the country, offered the United Kingdom military aid, and pushed Japan to the brink, paving the way for the eventual U.S. entry into World War II. Roosevelt remade the United States’ institutions as much as he was constrained by them, using his economic policies to expand the federal government’s power and the war to lay the groundwork for the country’s subsequent global military dominance. As the philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man.”
In his own way, Trump has also laid bare the limits of institutions. Whereas Roosevelt cajoled, guided, and shaped American institutions, Trump has derided and corroded them, largely on behalf of his own ego and prejudices. Yes, the American bureaucracy has saved this president from some of his worst instincts—for instance, talking him out of withdrawing troops from Syria and quitting NATO. Yet contrary to his appointees’ advice, his party’s long-standing preferences, and even his own political interests, Trump has dramatically altered the course of U.S. foreign policy. He has rejected the Paris climate accord and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, walked away from the Iran nuclear deal, raised tariffs on China, rooted for far-right candidates in European elections, and moved the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. At home, Trump has revealed that many supposed traditions of American politics—such as refusing to hire your relatives, pretending to be upset by corruption, revealing your personal financial activities, not threatening to arrest your political opponents, and promptly filling important cabinet positions—are powerless against a wrecking ball. His tenure has been marked by thoughtlessness and chaos; this does not appear to be a well-crafted plot.
Individuals can rise above institutions, norms, systemic forces, and domestic politics, leaving their countries stronger or weaker than they might otherwise have been. Leaders can create new enemies or friends, weaken or strengthen alliances, disregard norms, or take risks when others might have balked. They can fundamentally alter the national aspirations and overarching strategies of a country. Otto von Bismarck rendered Germany peaceful and a pillar of the European status quo; his successor, Kaiser Wilhelm, made Germany the greatest threat to European stability and the main instigator of World War I.
Once the role of individuals is taken into account, politics becomes less certain and more contingent than simple models of international relations might have it. In good times, this insight should make one cautious, since one man or woman in the wrong place at the wrong time can set a country on a dangerous course. In bad times, however, faith in the power of individuals can serve as a source of hope. For although leaders can make the world more dangerous, they can also make the world safer and more prosperous. In a democracy at least, this means that while choosing leaders is a burdensome task, it is also one that everyone should welcome.
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