The US president is weaker than you think

Presidential Leadership and the Creation of the American Era, by Joseph Nye, Princeton RRP£19.95/RRP$27.95

Having failed to convince the US of the need to prepare for war with Adolf Hitler’s Germany, Franklin Roosevelt quipped: “It is a terrible thing to look over your shoulder when you are trying to lead – and to find no one there.”

The US presidency sounds far more powerful than it usually is. Scholars, journalists and presidents routinely exaggerate its potency. In spite of his many wiles, FDR failed to cure America of its isolationism. It was Imperial Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 that eventually snapped it out of its reverie.

Joseph Nye’s slim volume on presidential leadership offers an elegant antidote to many of the myths. The Harvard scholar – and frequent White House adviser – set out to rank which US presidents had the biggest impact on the country’s rise.

In the course of his research, Nye surprised himself. Rather than alighting on the big “transformational” presidents – notably Woodrow Wilson, FDR and Ronald Reagan – Nye finds that it is the more modest “transactional” leaders, such as Dwight Eisenhower and George HW Bush, who had the largest impact.

Perhaps this is no accident. No other White House occupants came close to matching the foreign knowledge of either Eisenhower or Mr Bush Senior. Ike had been supreme Allied commander in Europe. And Mr Bush had been US envoy to China, head of the Central Intelligence Agency and vice-president. Neither campaigned on the basis of reinventing the world. But both, in Nye’s view, were more effective in extending US power –- and more ethical in how they went about it – than their peers.

Eisenhower managed to keep the US out of big wars during his eight years in office and frequently rejected advice to use the atomic bomb – notably during the crises in Korea, Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam and the Taiwan Strait. “You boys must be crazy,” he told his advisers. “We can’t use those terrible things against the Asians for the second time in 10 years.”

Likewise, Mr Bush was far less gung-ho than most of his team. When the Berlin Wall was falling, he resisted their urgings to hog the limelight. “I won’t beat on my chest and dance on that wall,” he said. His modesty made it easier for the Soviets to stand back.

In contrast, America’s most rhetorically ambitious presidents were often its least effective. Nye is clearly not a fan of pulpits or preachiness. “American exceptionalism meant moralism about European power politics, not necessarily morality,” he writes.

Wilson wrecked US chances of joining the League of Nations he envisaged by refusing to compromise on any detail with the US Senate. Wilson’s Presbyterian stubbornness left most of his dreams – and his famous Fourteen Points for peace – on the ash heap. “Even God only had Ten Commandments,” said Georges Clemenceau, his French counterpart.

Neither John Kennedy nor Lyndon Johnson gets much of a look in. Their decision to escalate the war in Vietnam – thus, in Nye’s analogy, succumbing to the ideological game of dominoes when they should have been playing checkers – gives them responsibility for the single largest US foreign policy mistake of the 20th century, he says. Even Richard Nixon, whose dramatic opening to China changed the nature of the cold war, gets short shrift. US-China detente was a defensive act, according to Nye, rather than an extension of US primacy. Henry Kissinger would probably not be a fan of this book.

Nye is far kinder to Reagan. Like Wilson, Reagan was a moralist. But he clothed his sectarianism “in an ecumenical style”. Although he was ignorant about the world, Reagan’s instinct for people was good. Much like Mr Bush and the Berlin Wall, he ignored his advisers’ scepticism about Mikhail Gorbachev and went on to do profitable business with the Soviet leader. But his impact was not transformational. That distinction belongs to Mr Gorbachev himself. As for the Soviet Union, it was already falling apart before Reagan came to office. He merely helped it along.

A book like this is inevitably subjective. Nye cites “leadership theorists” who say presidents have a mere 10-15 per cent impact on the course of events. Only very rarely is it much bigger – for example, Nelson Mandela in post-apartheid South Africa. As for the future, Nye is complimentary about Barack Obama’s instinct for “leading from behind” – a trait America’s 44th president shares with its 41st and its 34th. But he should rein in those big speeches, Nye suggests. “President Obama and his successors should beware of thinking that transformational proclamations are the key to [success],” he says. Better to be a quiet gardener than a landscape architect.

The writer is the FT’s chief US commentator

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