Friday, April 1, 2011

Leadership Lag in George, Nicholas, and Wilhelm

One of the best non-fiction books I read last year was George, Nicholas, and Wilhelm by Miranda Carter. It is a history of the reigns of Tsar Nicholas in Russia, King George III in England, and Kaiser Wilhelm in Germany. As if there needed to be more evidence, Carter's book explores one of the fundamental flaw of monarchies of any variety; the entire society is threatened when the ruler isn't up to the task.

None of the three rulers in the book were equipped with the intellectual, emotional, or character resources needed to rule effectively, let alone to cope with the massive technological, economic, and social changes happening in the countries they tried to rule, and their inadequacies were a significant part of the road to WWI. One of the triumphs of this book is that Carter doesn't use their inadequacies to turn them into villains. Not even Wilhelm, who of the three acted most like the despot he was accused of being, is denied the complexities of human character. Even though they were powerful people, they were still people. To continue with Wilhelm, Carter showed how childhood emotional traumas shaped his worldview and how that worldview shaped his rule. For George, she suggests he might have been a very successful boarding school dean. Nicholas was just one of those people, we all know some, who just didn't have a mind for the details of well, paying utility bills on time or keeping track of intramural registration deadlines, let alone the details of statecraft.

Carter doesn't psycho-analyze them into innocence either. She strikes a remarkable balance, showing us the complexities involved in all their decisions, without absolving them of the responsibility for those decisions. But, of course, the grand consequence of all of these decisions, the ultimate result of all these flaws, the looming event in history is WWI.

WWI is the problem war in the Western world in the 20th century. WWII is, of course, defined as a conflict against radically destructive nations. Every other armed conflict until the first Gulf War occurred in the context of the Cold War, and none of them, or any of the other subsequent Western conflicts in the Middle East, were anywhere near as destructive as WWI.

Read along with Barbara Tuchman's brilliant Guns of August, (one of the great works of non-fiction) you get the sense that one of the prime causes of WWI was leadership lag. The world was changing rapidly, in terms of economy, technology, and social structures. New ideas were changing the way people thought of the composition of government and the value of monarchs. And yet, there was a persistent idea that if somehow Europe's monarchs could all get together, without parliaments, dumas, or weimars muddling about, they could work out spheres of influence in the Balkans and balance power between France and Germany, and use their familial connections to maintain peace in Europe.

The thing was, though all three were cousins, the importance of those familial connections in European politics was rapidly diminishing. Essentially, the world changed rapidly and the leaders lagged behind. Even though everything was different, Nicholas, Wilhelm, and George ruled as if nothing had changed. Of course, the three kings weren't the only leaders lagging behind the world they lead. One of the motifs of The Guns of August, was the conviction among world leaders and diplomats that a war between France and Germany was bound to happen. Simply put, they assumed there would be a war between France and Germany, and so they made decisions based on these assumptions, decisions that, (you can see where this is going) contributed to the start of WWI.

The argument against monarchy, or anything that concentrates power in the hands of a single individual, has always been simple; monarchs are humans, and very few humans have the ability to see the grand swaths of history and society while maintaining an effective knowledge of the details, with a sense of one's own limitations and the wherewithal to delegate responsibilities to competent others, to effectively lead nations. (An argument against nations? I think so, but that's another essay.) What Miranda Carter does is tell us the stories of three human beings born into unique situations, and she does it in a way that includes those aforementioned great swaths. It's hard to say whether a direct lesson can really be drawn from George, Nicholas, and Wilhelm, (unless you previously assumed “archies” are viable) but Miranda Carter has told a compelling story of a time in history and the people in power, who were passed by it.

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