Human systems often are too large, and too complicated, for single leaders to have undue influence. We often like to think that human history would have changed had we added a good leader here or shot up a bad leader there. But killing Hitler would not have changed the security challenge faced by a rising Germany. It certainly would not have solved Europe’s deep-seated anti-Semitism, nor stopped the Soviets from wanting to take Eastern Europe. Europe’s political and social systems were used by him, but few of the things he attempted – unification of Europe under a single continental power, racial purity through violence, military terrorism as the means – were novel, and would have probably been tried by someone else.
But while leaders rarely create trajectories, they can nudge them. Leaders often have hinge decisions in their hands – the choice whether the inevitable change they face will be violent or peaceful, fast or slow, efficient or inefficient. They cannot stop the choice from coming; geopolitics ensures that human systems evolve towards certain outcomes based on geography, demography, and culture. But they can shape how that choice is made.
For our purposes, I’ve chosen leaders who made logical geopolitical choices – who went with the flow instead of trying to change the river. Hitler and Stalin won’t make it, as a result, because both tried, through terror and sheer will, to overcome the geopolitical shortcomings of their states. At the end, neither of them succeeded (though Stalin got to die thinking he did).
Here are five leaders who truly mattered.
Deng inherited Mao’s massive nightmare of a totalitarianism. Totalitarian systems are expensive, unwieldy, and, despite their outward appearance, unstable. One crack in the fear wall can cause the whole thing to come crashing down. Deng understood this well enough and knew that Chinese communism would not survive long if they didn’t shore up the system to be more in line with human nature. His capitalist reforms acknowledged a geopolitical reality – communism could not deliver the economic growth needed to sustain such a large and populated nation-state.
But it was in 1989, at Tienanmen, that Deng was given a choice that was truly a hinge one. Instead of negotiating or allowing the protests to spread, he ordered his tanks to crush the student protests and thereby reinforce the fear that’s held together Chinese systems since ancient days. In 1989, remember, the Soviets were failing to make use of their own military forces to shoot their way to stability, and by the end of the year had lost Eastern Europe. Deng played the old emperor’s card – he made his subjects bow at the end of a bayonet and thereby delayed the inherent instability that comes with a nation-state as large and diverse as China.
It’s likely he just bought time; China tends to go through phases of madness. But imagine the world today if Chinese communism had gone under just like the Soviet version.
Wait, what the fuck? Yes, even crooks can make a difference. Nixon’s got two crowning achievements for making this list – ending the nonsensical Vietnam War and using China against the USSR.
The Vietnam War was unwinnable minus outright colonization and population replacement. Lyndon Johnson thought, like Hitler and Stalin before him, that he could just bomb his way to victory by killing enough of the enemy. But short of following the Roman tactic of creating wildernesses and calling them peace, this strategy was never going to work. Moreover, an empty Vietnam would have just ended up being swallowed up by China, and nobody was about to suggest Americans move to Vietnam to replace the slaughtered Vietnamese.
Nixon understood this; North Vietnam could not be broken traditionally, thanks to lavish support from China and the Soviets. He also understood Vietnam didn’t have the power to spread communism much beyond Indo-China – and hence rendered the Domino Theory moot. In fact, after the war, Vietnam got stuck in its own Vietnam by invading Cambodia, fighting a ten year war against fellow Marxist guerrillas (and never quite succeeding). So he ended the war; Vietnam and Laos went red, but the Cold War was won anyway because Southeast Asia was never to be decisive.
Nixon also knew that geopolitics trumps ideology. The Chinese and Soviets were supposed to be communist bedfellows, but were actually nation-states built on the ruins of imperial systems. Mao and Stalin got along well enough, but once Stalin exited stage left, Mao grew increasingly worried that Moscow wanted him under its domination, as well. Rivalry was inevitable when both believed they were destined to rule Asia. Nixon exploited this to the hilt and forced the Soviets to suddenly worry about their eastern flank. Not bad for a man who had to resign the presidency.
Following Anthony Eden’s disastrous Suez adventure, Britain’s Conservative Party understood that a natural limit had been reached on imperial power. Under Prime Minister Macmillan, who spoke of “the winds of change” sweeping through Africa, Britain rapidly – and sometimes irresponsibly – decolonized virtually all of its African empire. Africa had been a boon to industrializing Britain, providing cheap natural resources at a time the country really needed them.
But by the 1950s and 60s, Britain no longer needed monopolies on these resources like before. It’s economy was quite different and the world was coming under American economic domination that valued open borders and freer trade. Holding onto African possessions was largely a matter of protecting its colonial communities and prestige rather than providing easy growth back home. In fact, continued occupation was increasingly becoming a drag on growth and the treasury.
Macmillan’s government chose to go with the flow rather than fight the inevitable. Britain might have held onto certain colonies much longer that it did, but saved British lives and cash by pulling out in the early 60s instead of fighting colonial wars like Portugal and France.
Sheikh Zayed Al Nahyan
Who in the hell was this? Certainly he was smarter than the average tribal despot. The ruler of Abu Dhabi from the 1960s until his death in 2004, this Persian Gulf sheikh understood early on how weak his position was and acted accordingly. First, he used his oil cash to bribe the six other ruling families of Trucial States to join a federation that he called the United Arab Emirates. Rather than attempting conquest like his Omani and Saudi neighbors, he co-opted local elites through bribery and incentives that led to a peaceful union (the only successful Arab federation in history).
But that was hardly enough to secure his position. His borders were drawn up to please his bigger and more violent Saudi neighbors, cutting off direct access to Qatar, while he himself stayed close to the British government. Moreover, he used his oil wealth to purchase influence and weapons from the UK and United States, inviting both to set up military bases in his country that ensured that neither Saudi nor Iran would attempt land grabs. He then spread his oil revenues all over the place, building farms and cities from sandy deserts, costs and environment be damned.
The result was a cult of genuine personality where people were not terrorized into worshiping him. After all, who doesn’t love a dude who throws money out of Landcruisers while driving through the desert?
Oh, sure. Had to throw that in there, huh? But Mandela deserves massive credit for not going down the road of revenge so many other African leaders danced down. To be fair, Mandela had to learn the hard way that violence was no way to preserve South Africa’s stability and state power. But once he did, he understood that cooperation based on nationality rather than race or language was the surest way to ensure South Africa’s position as the most powerful state in Africa.
It was a legacy of apartheid that the best trained segments of South African society were still behind their gated white communities. But rather than go all Mugabe on their asses, Mandela kept them running the essential parts of the state and economy and avoided the civil wars, economic collapses, and massive inflation of his neighbors. That was a choice that saved South Africa from decades of misery and perhaps even disintegration. Not bad for a man who spent a good chunk of his life in prison.
Any others? Who do you think made the right choices geopolitically? Who saw the reality and went with it rather than absurdly scream, “Iraq will be a democracy” over and over again? Let me know in the comments!