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So where is it all going, folks? Does anyone have an instinct?
When I wrote about why Margaret Thatcher mattered, I concluded “that the political figures who matter have two rare gifts.”
First, they are able to perceive the gathering of historical forces in a way their contemporaries were unable to do. What do I mean by “the gathering of historical forces?” I mean, they are able to sense the big picture. Lenin was able to discern a convergence of trends in Czarist Russia — the migration of the peasants, the rise of revolutionary consciousness, the weakness of the Czarist government, the debilitation inflicted upon Russia by the First World War — and to recognize what this convergence implied: The old order could now be toppled — not merely reformed, but destroyed. Czar Nicholas II could not perceive this. It is thus that Lenin now matters and Nicholas II does not.
Second, when promoted to power, those who matter are able to master those historical forces. Chiang understood perfectly that China was vulnerable to communism and understood as well what communism in China would mean. But he was unable, for all his energy and efforts, to master them. And so, tragically, he does not matter.
Churchill perceived the forces of history and then mastered them. In 1933, Hitler was widely regarded outside of Germany as no more than a buffoon. Churchill knew better. His assessment of Hitler was at the time astonishingly prescient and singular. He perceived the unique danger of Nazism when others could not see it or refused to believe it. He was steadfast in his warnings. When at last Churchill acquired power, he discharged his responsibilities in a fashion as to gain him immortality.
When politicians matter, they matter because of these gifts.
Thatcher had these gifts. She perceived — as did many of her contemporaries — that Britain was in decline. She perceived that the effects of Marxist doctrine upon Britain had been pernicious. But unlike her contemporaries, she perceived that Britain’s decline was not inevitable. And she perceived too that socialism was not — as widely believed — irreversible.
Simultaneously, she sensed a wider and related tide in history that no other leader, apart from Reagan, sensed at all. She understood that the Soviet Union was far from the invulnerable colossus it was imagined to be. She sensed, in fact, that it was unable to satisfy the basic needs of its population. It was corrupt, moribund, and doomed.
Having perceived the gathering of historical forces, she mastered them. She reversed the advance of socialism in Britain, proving both that a country can be ripped from a seemingly overdetermined trajectory and that it takes only a single figure with an exceptionally strong will to do so. She did not single-handedly cause the Soviet empire to crumble, but she landed some of the most devastating punches of the Cold War, and extraordinarily, emerged unblooded from the fight.
I wrote those words in 2007, and as you can see immediately, my own ability to perceive the gathering of historical forces will not leave me numbered among the immortals. Shortly after I wrote that conclusion, Lehman Brothers collapsed. The world’s confidence in capitalism was shaken by the subsequent events nearly as greatly as its confidence in communism after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
If you had told me then that in 2015, the better part of the Islamic world would be consumed in anarchy and savagery; that hundreds of thousands of desperate refugees would be streaming across Europe’s borders, threatening its unity and stability; that Russia would determine to re-prosecute the Cold War; that China would surpass America as the world’s largest economy and expand its military influence beyond its own shores; that the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty would be in shreds, that the United States would begin a long, slow, melancholy retreat from the world stage — or even that Jeremy Corbyn would be the leader of a Labour Party whose own former director of media relations said, in 2002, “We are all Thatcherites now” — I suppose I wouldn’t have published that book.
So I don’t have the gift. I did grasp that Turkey was by no means a model democracy, and I said so before it was a truism. I saw exactly how serious the events in Syria were, and what their implications would be. But I have no strategy now for mastering these disasters, and I’m not sure at this point what one might even look like, or how I would recognize it.
So let’s hear from you. What will the world be like in six months, next year, in five years, in twenty? What are the most important gathering historical forces? What is the big picture? Which political figure, if any, has shown a sign that he — or she — has the ability to master them? If none of them do, and if the task by some accident fell to you, how would you approach it?