Mary Dejevsky: Cool realism is a political virtue, too

No ideological recipe or vision could have replaced sound judgement in 1989
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When world leaders, past and present, met yesterday at the Brandenburg Gate to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall, many high-flown words were spoken about freedom and unity, miracles and dreams. And if such language cannot be invoked to describe that euphoric night, when can it? There was, and is, no going back.

What might have struck many, however, was the generally low-key and down-to-earth speech made by the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, at the Bornholm Bridge – her first stop yesterday afternoon and the first of the city's checkpoints to fall. There was no disguising her delight; as a 35-year-old researcher, she had been in the exultant crowd that night. But even on this day of all days, Ms Merkel was her common-sensical self, a woman more at home with the nuts and bolts of politics than elevated rhetoric and big ideas.

Cross the Atlantic and you might be surprised to find something similar. As presidential candidate, Barack Obama was inspirational all right; his flights of rhetoric lifted crowds across America, and beyond. Whether recounting his own extraordinary career, calling on black voters to rise above racial injustice, or denouncing speculation, he showed himself as the supreme orator.

It is a gift, however, that he has struggled to transfer to the White House. Still compelling on the big occasion – his masterly speech in Cairo comes to mind – he has tended to concentrate on analysis, on exposition of the arguments, on trying to convey complexity. After the shootings at Fort Hood last week, he expressed the required condolences and warned against drawing premature conclusions.

But his matter-of-fact statement was very far from the rallying cry delivered by Bill Clinton after the suicide bombing in Oklahoma City. Still less did it recall Ronald Reagan's eloquent tribute to the astronauts killed in the Challenger disaster. Mr Obama still has to find a presidential voice for America that meets the expectations he raised.

Add to this what is increasingly seen as his "dithering" over Afghanistan – the White House is suggesting it could be weeks before he decides whether to send more troops – and Mr Obama already finds his effectiveness in question. Digs are made at his inexperience, and Republicans, cock-a-hoop after victories in two state governors' elections, are already talking the President down as a one-term wonder.

The US President and the German Chancellor might seem, on the face of it, very different politicians. But the principal criticisms, voiced even by supporters, are almost identical. While, in principle, voters like what they are doing – Ms Merkel, after all, recently led her party to electoral victory with an increased majority – they find them wanting in one key respect. What is it, they ask, these elected leaders actually stand for? What is their vision? Where are their big ideas?

In a season when the Western world is celebrating 20 years since the fall of communist regimes across Central and Eastern Europe – summed up in the demolition of the Berlin Wall – the nostalgia for big ideas may be understandable, and with it the notion that any national leader without an overarching philosophy is defective in some way. But it is built on two misconceptions.

The first is that any one big idea actually precipitated the fall of the Berlin Wall and everything that followed. It is true that, in the big-picture background of autumn 1989 lay Ronald Reagan's designation of the Soviet Union as the "empire of evil" and his appeal to the then Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, to "tear down this Wall". But by the time the Wall fell, President Reagan had been succeeded by the far less visionary and more pragmatic George Bush, whose idealism, even two years later, stopped short of encouraging Ukrainians to vote for independence.

What actually toppled the Wall was the build-up of popular discontent within the GDR, the example of passive resistance from Poland and elsewhere, and a series of chance errors by East German leaders, as well as the Kremlin's refusal, or inability, to use force to preserve its empire. None of this had much to do with big ideas, although it could be rationalised afterwards as reflecting people's instinctive yearning for freedom and democracy.

The second misconception about big ideas is that they are always desirable, and somehow superior to an ability to deal competently with the matter in hand, be it day-to-day government or an all-out emergency, such as the serial fall of communist regimes in Europe.

In fact, there was no ideological recipe and no long-term vision that could have substituted for the snap judgements that had to be made in the autumn of 1989 by Helmut Kohl, George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev. They faced circumstances that none of them – and you can add in here the French and British leaders, as has recently emerged – could possibly have anticipated.

Chancellor Kohl, now old and ill, said again last week that German reunification had never featured in his thinking, even though it might reasonably have been the dream/vision/big idea (take your pick) of any post-war West German politician to preside over a united and democratic Germany. But when the chance came, he seized it, with a sense of responsibility and assurance that, even with hindsight, inspires awe. Messrs Bush and Gorbachev, all too conscious of the perils, played their part as guarantors.

You could, for argument's sake, draw a contrast between the practical, hard-headed way in which these leaders approached truly cataclysmic events, and the big ideas that the second George Bush brought to his office, and ask how his simplistic idealism benefited anyone. That is before you take the more obvious shots at the harm done by really big ideas, such as Marxism, Communism or National Socialism, that place philosophical completeness above the most elementary humanity.

There is much to be said for the calm competence and analytical skills that Chancellor Merkel and President Obama respectively bring to their jobs. They are qualities that should be prized in political leaders far more often than they are. In this age of self-promotion and chasing the next big idea, those who accept the world as it is may in the end achieve more than those who strive to shape it to their vision.