Lost leaders in need of an enemy

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What if there's nothing up there at the top?

Where are the Captains that govern mankind?

THOSE lines of W B Yeats have been thrumming in my mind for some time past as I read the newspapers, listen to radio or watch television. Most recently, they were prompted by a bleakly accurate dispatch in this newspaper from Sarah Lambert in Copenhagen:

'After heated discussions the 12 rejected Bonn's demand (to lift the arms embargo over Bosnia), opting instead for a commitment to provide more troops, which in practice no member state is prepared to deliver.'

'Commitments' of this kind have become routine, and not just over Bosnia, over pretty well everything. Norman Lamont's indictment of John Major's government - 'short-termism . . . in office, not in power' - applies to every government in the West. It applies to the Clinton administration, to the governments of the European Community and, with particular force, to the Community as a whole. It was the Community, in its collective wisdom, that raised the civil war in former Yugoslavia to the status of an international conflict - with results exemplified in that dispatch from Copenhagen, among many other lamentable symptoms: to recognise successor states of a collapsing multi- ethnic polity before the conflicts between and within those successors had reached some reasonably stable outcome was an elementary error. It is deeply disturbing that the Twelve should have embraced that error with unanimity.

As I write this, I am preparing to leave for Berlin, to address an international colloquium on no less a subject than 'The future of the West'. The more I worked on that subject, the dimmer the prospects came to seem. A 'New World Order' indeed. With those people running it?

With hindsight, we can now see that the Cold War imposed a salutary discipline on the West. The 'anti-Communist glue' stuck us together. Then, for a short time, the aggression of a Middle Eastern dictator, threatening the vital interests of the West, took the place of the Soviet menace. There was a vigorous concerted action, though it ended on an ominous dither: the dictator, pushed out of Kuwait, was left in control of Iraq.

Since Operation Desert Storm it has all been downhill. Democracy, when relaxed, seems to have an inherent tendency to run that way. And within democracy, freedom of expression, proliferating through the late 20th-century communications revolution, greatly accelerates that tendency, pushing towards the destabilisation of democracy itself. This is most obvious in the conduct of international affairs. Television's magic carpet transports its audience to exotic places - Bosnia, Somalia - where dreadful things are happening. There are villains and there are victims. The villains must be stopped, the victims saved; it is as simple as that. So the audience yells at the politicians: 'Don't just sit there - do something]' The politicians know it is not as simple as that, but they get the message, in a modified form.

The message, in the form that gets to them, runs: 'Don't just sit there - sit there and pretend to do something.'

The present almost ludicrously low level of leadership in the West is not just a coincidental proliferation of mediocrity at the top. I fear it is inherent in the conditions prevailing in post-Cold War fin de siecle democracy. The magnified drumbeat of late 20th-century publicity around politicians is both demoralising and stupefying. To run for the office of President of the United States is a near-suicidal ordeal, inviting a fearsome inquisition into every aspect of the candidate's life and family. And the bombardment goes on, even after the election is over.

Certainly President Clinton has made his mistakes. But I doubt whether any president could look good under the kind of attention Mr Clinton has been getting, with the hour-by-hour magnification of trivia, and accompanying negative comment. I don't think any president this century has undergone such an ordeal so soon after his inauguration. And I don't think it is coincidental that his was the first post-Cold War presidential inauguration.

With the end of the Cold War, the deference layer has become eroded. Deference never wholly deserted previous presidents, even in bad periods - Jimmy Carter's last year, for example, or the first half of Ronald Reagan's second term. As long as the Cold War was there, people felt a minimal need to defer to the President, the living embodiment of a threatened nation and order. But no longer. Not a whiff of deference has Mr Clinton enjoyed since his first month in office.

In Britain, the erosion of deference has gone even further than in the US. Here, the prime focus of deference has been the monarchy. Deference levels, with regard to the monarchy, have fluctuated in the past, but they have never been so low as in the Nineties. And as the constitutional monarchy sinks in the public esteem, so does the whole political order of which it has been the centre for a little more than 300 years. If constitutional monarchy were to come to an end in Britain, parliamentary democracy would probably not survive it. It is, after all, through the monarchy that parliamentary control over the armed forces is mediated and maintained.

The Monarchy will survive, but with a lustre already diminished. And with that diminution, the reflected lustre enjoyed by Her Majesty's ministers diminishes also pari passu, disturbing their morale and adversely affecting their mental balance.

Both Bill Clinton and John Major look pretty implausible as leaders of the West in mid-1993. This is partly their own fault, partly a result of post-Cold War relaxation and irresponsibility. Democracy may not recover its vitality until the emergence of new external threats. And these may already be discerned over the horizon in the form of nuclear instability in and around the former Soviet Union, and in the global population explosion. We shall have to realise that the world is an even more dangerous place after the Cold War than it was before.

(Photograph omitted)