European Affairs

Ethical Leadership in an Unethical World     Print
William J. Peterson, Jr.

Savage Century: Back to Barbarism
By Thérèse Delpech, Translated By George Holoch

Reviewed by William J. Peterson Jr.

In her book, Savage Century: Back to Barbarism, Thérèse Delpech blends her unique talents as strategist and historian into a forceful reminder of how the violence on an unprecedented scale that marked the 20th century was primarily a result of weak and mindless leadership. In offering this analysis, she is not writing history for its own sake, but offering a warning that similar fecklessness now could breed even greater violence in our century. Her book provides its insights into history in order to illustrate why strong political leadership is so important now. Written in French in 2005, the book only recently appeared in English, and it still seems right on target. With a global financial system teetering, the fight against terrorism continuing and a new more multi-polar world emerging unsteadily, leaders would be well-advised to bear in mind her account of how crises that start on “the periphery” of the geo-political centers can, if not recognized, gradually engulf the center in a global upheaval.

In her narrative, Delpech starts with “peripheral events” that occurred in 1905: the Russo-Japanese war, the French-German conflict in Morocco and other developments that foreshadowed a “globalized” world of interconnected economies and security. The implication – that these scattered signs amounted to a watershed in history – were lost on Europe’s political leaderships, a failure of vision that would contribute to the demise of Europe as the world’s dominant region. As outside events pressed into Europe, the consequences of these inroads led to devastating European wars and to the totalitarian regimes that aspired to world power. This sad history of the 20th century, Delpech contends, was aided by the short-sightedness of European leadership.

Europe gets the most of her attention because it was the scene of the century’s worst historical episodes. Nowadays, she notes, Europe is seeking to reclaim political, intellectual, and financial relevancy while at the same time participating in a redefinition of global financial and governance systems. In this effort, Europe hopes to benefit from a renewed, stronger transatlantic relationship with the new U.S. administration. But that can only succeed, Delpech warns, if history lessons are internalized by leaders. By this, she means more than just the adage according to which people who forget history are doomed to repeat it. She has provided precise lessons from the past that are liable to be forgotten in over-optimistic assumptions about the present.

The complete collapse of politics and ethics that occurred in the last century not only casts a dark shadow over Europe, it also reveals a worldwide growing capacity for indifference to human rights. In contrast to Arthur Schopenhauer’s belief that feelings are central to ethics in everything, Delpech clearly places the opportunity in the hands of those who have the ability to stand up and apply a strong political vision – which she insists must put basic human rights ahead of compromises with governments that rule by violence. What is needed, as her title suggests, is an “ethical” approach to statesmanship. Schopenhauer argued that ethics are rooted in “our ability to sympathize for fellow human beings.” But Delpech refines this definition into strategic terms: “It is not feelings that are most cruelly lacking,” but it is “political thinking” and “political vision” rooted in the understanding of human nature. The absence of this political vision, she writes, explains why Russian President Vladimir Putin will continue with his authoritarian bent, why China will continue its indifference to human rights and why North Korea will continue to execute its citizens in secret death camps.

A central point in this book is her view of how Europe can assist the world from its experience in the 20th century:

What is now at stake is Europe’s capacity to assume international responsibilities in a deeply troubled world. And from that point of view, the internal lessons just mentioned are insufficient. The unprecedented historical eruption from which the entire twentieth century arose does not speak only for the madness of Europe and of national passions. It is evidence of a wider adventure concerning humanity as a whole: the sudden appearance of storms whose warning signs on the horizon we Europeans have too long pretended to ignore, storms no one can control once they have been unleashed. When such sudden acceleration of history occurs, it signals the defeat of political action, which can do nothing but run after events until it is swallowed up by them. If Europe has any message to transmit to the world, it is truly this one.

If freedom and democracy were challenged in the 20th century by fascism, communism, and the rise of totalitarian ideologies, then freedom and democracy in the 21st century can be challenged by the consequences of new, still incompletely-understood threats (that are often unseen in key respects) such as technological, biological, and unethical warfare (in the sense that there are no rules of war anymore). Her book conveys a weighty sense of fear for what we are capable of now – perhaps without our realizing it.

In November 2008, U.S. intelligence analysts released a report (Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World by the National Intelligence Council) about the state of world affairs in 2025, and not surprisingly the analysis tells of a much more unsecure world and declining influence for the West. A de-militarized, isolated Europe, a growing number of non-state actors who will hold substantial political power and the continued Al-Qaeda presence in Afghanistan and the Middle East are some of the major external threats western powers face.

Along with these threats, there is the immediate financial crisis. As America sought to defend and then reconstruct a torn continent after WWII, Europeans acknowledged in unity their great debt to the U.S. This book calls for Europe, their greatest ally, to step into a greater role of responsibility in world affairs in tandem with the U.S. but does not do so with confidence. As Churchill said, “The only thing worse than having allies is not having allies.” China and India are less financially affected by the current, deep financial crisis, meaning that political influence is moving away from the U.S. and Europe and heading East where the money is. How Europe and the U.S. will work together or not will define this century for its citizens just as they did for the last.

The questions undoubtedly remain the same: the EU’s ability to persuade members to unify on major internal positions such as energy diversification, enlargement, and the economy to name a few. If they become proactive decision-makers on external and internal affairs, then Europe stands to become more relevant on the international stage. Unfortunately, signs do not point toward significant new momentum in this direction. Two current challenges come to mind: Europe’s acknowledged need for diversification of its energy types and its sources of supply, and the risk of protectionism. Ironically, these problems are often discussed as foreign challenges to Europe, but in fact there are no good “external” solutions for energy and trade. Instead, the solutions closer at hand are internal – creating an open, integrated energy market in Europe and commercially moving toward increased competition. Both these changes require exceptional leadership in European capitals, hopefully to be matched in Washington.

William Peterson is a Fellow with The European Institute.

 

 

This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number 10, Issue number 1-2 in the Winter/Spring of 2009.

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