Beyond Great Forces

How Individuals Still Shape History

Prince Charming: Mohammed bin Salman in London, March 2018 Alastair Grant / AP

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

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