Another lesson taught in business school is that sometimes leaders are faced with a set of choices that are not optimal. That is, all the possible decisions have significant downside. No good choices available. Guantanamo Bay. Drone missile strikes.The alliance with Pakistan. President Obama has continued these foreign policy decisions made by his predecessor, distasteful and problematic as they are because they are the least bad of a set of poor options. That is a problem that commentators don’t have. Taking responsibility for the effects of actions taken or not taken. I have found commenting on political choices while considering this difficult.
Take David Cameron, Prime Minister of Great Britain. He was faced with going along with an agreement that was clearly not in the best interest of the nation he represents. Germany and France had decided to tax and regulate in some way, financial businesses and transactions. London is where 90% of this business occurs in Europe. This could be seen as a direct attack on London’s place as Europe‘s financial centre. And patently unfair. And an assault on his country’s sovereignty. And a political disaster for him because of his party’s core antipathy to the European project in general. So how could he say yes? Yet no brings problems as well. Now Great Britain may not be at the table when decisions are being made. The European governments may choose to regulate their banks and investment firms no matter where they have their headquarters. It sends an overall message of Great Britain, alone. So, what would I have done? I can say that I have a reflexive sympathy for the British government’s position. British commentators have opined that the French knew Cameron should not say yes, but thought he would be forced to because he had no options. Screwed either way. I support his decision because it was made in the knowledge that in the final calculation, he must do what is in the perceived best interests of Great Britain. Grand ideas of European unity cannot be paid for solely by job losses and surrendered control over the most important industry in Great Britain.
It is easy to attack this decision if you are not in “the big chair”. Many commentators disagree with Cameron, I think partly because they do not have to answer to and for the public in the country in which they live. They are not responsible so they can be swayed by ideas of unity (doesn’t that just sound like a good idea?) and the belief that any issue can be compromised if the talk is clever enough. Leaders who have to take responsibility for the decisions for the people or the institutions they represent have a harder row to hoe.
It is possible that leaders can be venal and opportunistic. And that their concerns can be only selfish or at best familial, tribal or party based. Pointing this out is what is needed, if it is there. It is also possible that there could be disagreements on paths taken based on ideology or just seeing things differently. People of good will can disagree on what to do. Yet in those cases, there could be some kind of respect shown to those on the other side of the issue. That is conspicuously lacking in much of the commentary today. In particular, on policy questions it seems as if those in the west who act to protect the interests of their state are often seen as uniquely devious. It is as if they could not possibly be honest and that other actors in the world, especially those in charge of undemocratic societies, are incapable of acting in a way that reflects their internal policies, which are often violent, underhanded and openly repressive. This is puzzling and adds to my reluctance to write anything. It shouldn’t, but it does.
So where does this leave me? Mute and confused most of the time. Not because of a lack of understanding of the issues or an informed opinion on some of them. But there is an unwillingness to add to debates that are, in my mind, not serious. They do not reflect the complexity of the issues and the difficulty of the task of those whom we have put in charge.
Yet I need to write when I am moved to do so. If I can keep my own reservations in mind, I may even produce something word reading.