New shots in the form of tariffs targeting Chinese products were fired in a widening trade war launched by President Donald Trump on Friday (The Washington Post). China swiftly retaliated with the artillery of its own tariffs on an assortment of American products. In coming weeks and months, there is a risk that events could spiral out of control leading to widespread economic casualties across the global economy.
With the harm that could be inflicted on companies, consumers, and employees, this is a time that calls for genuine political leaders to step forward. The deepening trade war has already exposed the reality that many elected officials who campaign as leaders are, instead, mere politicians. The nation will need to look to others to provide the required leadership.
When a candidate campaigns for political office, that candidate can promise just about anything to anyone. After all, if the candidate is defeated, there is no accounting for his or her rhetoric. There also is no way to know whether the vanquished candidate meant what he or she said, much less would have tried to deliver on it. As a result, the defeated candidate can parlay the name recognition from his or her failed campaign into greater prospects for electoral success in a future campaign. If, on the other hand, the candidate is victorious, the now elected official can then go on to blame the pressing needs of governing for having evaded his or her promises.
It is no coincidence that mere politicians—elected officials who do little more than occupy office but accomplish little during their tenure—often engage in the loudest rhetoric and most elaborate excuses for their failures in office. They are bold when seeking office, but meek when holding it. The two highest-profile Senators who pursued the 2016 Republican Presidential nomination, Senators Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Marco Rubio (R-FL), are examples of mere politicians. They are not the leaders the nation needs to bring an end to the Trump trade war.
In the past, both Senators forcefully proclaimed the virtues of free markets. In his first year in the U.S. Senate, Cruz tweeted,
The American free market system has been the greatest engine for growth and prosperity that the world has ever seen #CallwithCruz
— Senator Ted Cruz (@SenTedCruz) September 10, 2013
In the midst of his 2016 Presidential campaign, Rubio declared (American Presidency Project),
“…we need new leaders — leaders who will apply the free market principles of our founding to the economic realities of our time — who will once again place Washington’s faith in our economy, rather than forcing our economy to place its faith in Washington.”
Alas, events revealed that their professed commitment to free markets was largely empty political rhetoric. There was no will to fight when those principles were challenged. In the face of President Trump’s deepening world trade war, they assumed few risks to contest the Administration’s intensifying protectionism. They simply stood aside, ceding the economic battlefield. As of the writing of this piece, neither Senator has co-sponsored Senator Mike Lee’s legislation (S.177) or Senator Bob Corker’s bill (S.3013) that would require Congressional authorization for the President to impose trade barriers, thereby disarming the President of the capacity to unilaterally launch and wage trade wars.
Words are cheap. Anyone can say anything to anyone when no meaningful risks are involved. Empty rhetoric is the currency of mere politicians. Such elected officials possess little courage or imagination. They are ordinary figures, even if some exhibit grandiose ambitions for higher office that far exceed their capacities to govern.
It is at the precise moment where words begin to have consequence that those who are genuine leaders distinguish themselves. Leadership is about translating words into action and forging abstract vision into concrete reality. Genuine leaders possess an abundance of courage and imagination. Such leaders are great figures, even as some of them embrace the role of humble citizens in their own personal lives.
In a seminal article published in the May-June 1977 edition of Harvard Business Review, “Managers and Leaders: Are They Different?” Harvard Business School Professor Abraham Zaleznik wrote about the qualities and approaches that set leaders apart from managers. Much of those differences are relevant when it comes to contrasting political leaders from simple politicians, though the latter can be far less effective than skillful managers. Zaleznik wrote:
Where managers act to limit choices, leaders develop fresh approaches to long-standing problems and open issues to new options. To be effective, leaders must project their ideas onto images that excite people and only then develop choices that give those images substance…
Leaders work from high-risk positions; indeed, they are often temperamentally disposed to seek out risk and danger, especially where the chance of opportunity and reward appears promising.
In that context, challenges are actually opportunities that call for leadership. Genuine leaders answer such calls. The Trump Administration’s trade war in particular, and its managed disengagement of the nation from world affairs in general, is a clear example of the kind of challenge that summons leadership.
The outcome from confronting that challenge is highly uncertain. The political risks of taking on the mercurial and famously unforgiving President are not insignificant. The perils of tilting against the rising currents of ethno-populist nationalism that grip the Republican Party of Donald Trump are enormous.
One cannot blame Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio for their flight to safety. They have made the expedient choice that comes naturally to politicians for whom surviving the next election is the highest priority. Most elected officials fall into that category. Therefore, it is no accident that truly transformational leaders, great figures along the lines of a George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Konrad Adenauer, Charles de Gaulle, and Lee Kuan Yew are exceedingly rare.
Remarkable leaders of their caliber assume risks when nothing is certain and everything can be lost. They bring people together in pursuit of great causes rather than seek success through division. They apply imagination to principle to solve problems and seize opportunities rather than relegate themselves to a futile defense of an unsustainable status quo.
Today, the nation needs more leaders and fewer politicians. The hazards of the Trump Administration’s misguided economic policy, short-sighted foreign policy, and narrow-minded divisiveness may actually be an appetizer for the even greater risks that lie ahead from the combination of the nation’s mounting structural fiscal deficits and the realities of a shifting global balance of power.
Genuine leaders can produce extraordinary results. Today, and especially tomorrow, genuine political leadership could be key to whether the nation will take renewed charge of its destiny or whether it will wind up becoming a prisoner of events.