Leading from Conviction

Andrew Roberts’s new book, Leadership in War, is a rebellion against the kind of theory that dominates scholarship in international relations. International relations scholarship in academia has an uneven emphasis on the balance of hard power between states, but it rarely considers individuals and the impact of a regime’s nature. This leads to an almost-Hegelian-dialecticism which suggests that the outcomes of conflicts are often preordained according the states’ powers. It is no wonder that Roberts, author of best-selling biographies of Winston Churchill and Napoleon, among others, objects. Herodotus observed that character is destiny. Roberts is here to tell you why character and regime matter.

Roberts’s book is not the sort of book that teachers and professors assign their students, which is exactly why it should be. He is a master storyteller. It is impossible to get bored reading him. More importantly, it upends the prevailing dogma by tearing apart monocausal theories of international relations. It is not that the teachings of those theories are necessarily wrong. Rather, they are incompleteand indeed secondary—to the role individuals play in geopolitics. In war, leadership matters as much as power. And as important is the nature of the regime that the leader operates within. Very often, autocrats are victims of having to always be right. That no subordinate or a separate body of government ever holds them accountable allows them to make mistakes obvious to everybody else. Even ideas not obviously flawed, in liberal regimes, are still litigated enough for their flaws to come up.

Leadership in War examines wartime leaderships of nine great leaders “who made history,” and he uses great to reflect on the quantities of the impacts they made on history, not their qualities. The nine case studies include civilians—Winston Churchill, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Margaret Thatcher—military leaders—Horatio Nelson, George C. Marshall, and Dwight Eisenhower—and Napoleon and Charles de Gaulle, who erased the line between civilians and military officers and performed as both simultaneously. Indeed, some of these figures have gone down in history as heroes, some as villains, and some as gray figures.

The title of the last chapter of the book, “The Leadership Paradigm,” solidifies the book’s thesis: Leadership cannot be emulated or explained to details; it is a paradigm, and it is fluid. In war, especially, it is often creates the psychological and material capacity to react to the enemy’s next move. All the figures in the book made their marks on history in their own ways.

Character and Leadership

It is important, however, to point out that some of these great leaders are remembered for not just their evil natures but also for their eventual failures. After all, Roberts would have never been able to publish this book had Hitler been successful in his evil enterprise. Stalin, Roberts observed, spent unnecessary amounts of Soviet blood and treasure because he was not a great commander in chief. According to Roberts, it was “Stalin’s disastrous mismanagement of prewar Russian foreign policy [that] allowed him completely to miss the buildup to Operation Barbarossa, lay in his total faith in Marxism-Leninism.” After all, the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact is not just a dark moment in Russian history just because of its moral shortcomings but also due to its failure as a policy.

Hitler and Stalin, Roberts points out, had a fundamental similarity: Weak constitutions of character. There were two Hitlers during the war, the one Goebbels told the German people about, the perfection of man, one of great strength and ethics, and the real one, the petty, unconfident, and insecure man who had to make up for his otherwise forgettable life before his rise to power by bragging lies. Similarly, Stalin offered little to his people apart from his misplaced faith in the strength of his ideology. After the Axis’s invasion of the Soviet Union, he retreated to his dacha, and nobody heard of him for days. When four Soviet leaders finally drove out to him to find out what was going on, they found a depressed Stalin, awaiting his arrest.

More importantly, the successful leaders, and their peoples, benefited from leaders whose powers were vast but not unlimited.

There is a second fundamental reason for the two men’s failures, in which they are joined by Napoleon. All three men headed illiberal states. Churchill, Eisenhower, Marshall, and indeed Thatcher were powerful leaders in their countries, but their powers came with limits. This allowed for their subordinates to question their judgments and challenge their assumptions. Hitler, on the other hand, at some point refused to even receive intelligence reports because he feared it would cloud his judgment. Churchill and Thatcher both had to manage domestic politics during wartime, and their responsiveness to the parliament and the oppositions within and outside the Conservative Party and even their own administrations allowed for them to notice their blind spots.

As they managed politics, in many ways, politics also managed them for the better, a luxury denied to the authoritarians. In July of 1812, Roberts writes, Napoleon “could have stopped in Vitebsk or Smolensk on the way into Russia.” He was aware of Russia’s cold winters, having studied King Charles II of Sweden’s disastrous campaign there, while much of the central column of his army had died of typhus, many more alive but sick of it, but “audacity had always served him well.” Audacity marked the beginning of Napoleon’s end, but that did not have to be the story had there been a parliament or a group of subordinates who would have told him to halt his advance.

The only objectionable assertion of the book, albeit a fatally destructive one in war, comes in the chapter on Eisenhower. Roberts writes:

Roosevelt chose Eisenhower as supreme commander in January 1944 because he was both a natural leader and also someone with exceptional political instincts. Generals need also to be statesmen and in wartime politicians have to be strategists, because there is no clear divide between politics and strategy in modern war any more than there was in ancient time, when the post of strategos, or general, in fifth-century B.C. Athens implied political leadership as well as naval or military.

This thesis is an undermining of what Peter Feaver calls in his landmark essay on civil-military relations, “The Right to Be Right,” civilian supremacy. Feaver argues:

[Political concerns do not fall] within the scope of unique military expertise; on the contrary, [they hinge] on political or strategic considerations for which the professional competence resides at the presidential level. It is the president’s job to generate public support, and it is the president’s job to place the policy bet on how much the American people will tolerate.

The United States Constitution names the President as Commander in Chief, and it mandates the Congress to be a check on and a balance against the President in time of war—as well as peacetime. Through their votes, Americans legitimize their civilian leaders, not military commanders, to set strategy in war. In return, as Feaver argues, it is also their task to assess the domestic political considerations of policy and strategy, as they are professional politicians, unlike military commanders. Military commanders do not have the platform to fundamentally persuade the public opinion in a certain direction, neither do they have the President’s political expertise and legitimacy. Finally, military commanders have their independent political views. Regardless of the merits of those views, preferences, and biases, they are irrelevant, as only the President is the entire nation’s only elected representative.

The Power of Unshakable Conviction

As far as the military commanders go, one could not find two figures more different than Eisenhower and Nelson. Eisenhower was even-tempered, cold, and subordinate, while Nelson at some points exited the realm of courage for recklessness and was warm-natured and rebellious, even against his superiors. Yet, they are both revered as extraordinary war commanders. Both men’s subordinates loved them because of one of the very few universal lessons of leadership: They understood their followers. As Roberts writes, in leadership, “a capacity to empathize is [very] important.” Indeed, Eisenhower and Nelson, but also the successful civilian leaders of the book, more than anybody Churchill, benefited from that skill.

Empathy is a two-way road. Soviets and Germans rarely heard from Stalin and Hitler—only once in 1944 did Germans. To the contrary, Churchill and Roosevelt, and later Thatcher, gave frequent radio addresses and public speeches, and they would demonstrate to the Americans and the Brits their empathies with them. In return, Americans and Brits also empathized with their leaders, trusted them, and followed them into danger, only to come out triumphant. Americans and Brits followed those leaders because those leaders allowed them into their hearts and minds.

This Stalin certainly lacked, and Hitler never succeeded in taking advantage of, despite his philosophical belief in the supremacy of the German people. For all of Goebbels’s propaganda, the Führer’s own words could have made a world of difference—and we should thank God that he was too much of a coward to lead his people. Their legitimacies rested upon negativity. Hitler’s charisma that brought him to power was built upon a lie, as Roberts points out, that Germans had been betrayed in World War I. That the Triple Entente was eating their lunch and the Jews their dinner was powerful to incite emotions, but not one of patriotism but of anger and resentment. Stalin’s claim to power, similarly, rested upon the premise that the bourgeoisie was eating the lunch of the proletariat. Philosophies and ideologies of victimhood, it turns out, are not as powerful in ideological mobilization for war as premises of patriotism and freedom. Romantic and positive feelings among peoples in war serves them and their leaders better than negative emotions on resentfulness and hate.

Charles de Gaulle, another gray character in the book, once told a British officer that “you think I am interested in England winning the war. I am not. I am only interested in French victory.” He was a pain for the Allies’ leaders. Prior to Operation Overlord, in Eisenhower’s list of worries about what could go wrong, the weather was second. De Gaulle occupied the top spot. Yet, the French people remember him as perhaps their greatest national hero. And they should. De Gaulle’s convictions in the greatness of the French people was unmatched. He was the patriots’ patriot. This allowed his soldiers to follow him blindly. But that almost blinding patriotism, one that Churchill and Roosevelt shared for their own countries, was tamed by American and British leaders. What could have been a fatal flaw turned out to be a force for good—but only because there was an external check on it.

There is a single trait that all nine figures of the book shared: Unshaking convictions. For some of them, it was patriotic beliefs in their peoples. For the military officers, it was faith in their men and cause. For Stalin, it was Marxism-Leninism. For Hitler, it was not a romantic but a philosophical faith in German supremacy. But some of them were paralyzed, while the other ones enabled, by their convictions. First, those successful leaders benefited from other positive character traits. Churchill was deeply intelligent, as was Thatcher. Hitler and Stalin, in contrast, were idiots and cowards. They believed that the alleged truthfulness of their philosophies was enough for success.

More importantly, the successful leaders, and their peoples, benefited from leaders whose powers were vast but not unlimited. Liberalism allowed for their misplaced ideas to be challenged. This might be the most important—and equally subtle—story Leadership in War offers. As the United States returns to an era of great power competition, we should be grateful that our liberal system, one that allows for the American President, regardless of whom that individual is, to be challenged rather than reassured. This gives us miles of advantage against China, Russia, and Iran. Certainly, this is not a guarantor of victory, but it is an asset second to none.

Students and practitioners of strategy will be well-served by reading this book. The practitioners of strategy are indeed those in government and think tanks, but also those who show up at the polls. After all, the premise of the book is the role of individuals in war, and voters are those who choose the commander in chief.