By John Shaw
July 31, 2018
With John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage as a model, Jentleson (Public Policy and Political Science/Duke Univ.; American Foreign Policy: The Dynamics of Choice in the 21st Century, 2003, etc.) offers portraits of 18 transformative leaders who advanced international peace, justice, freedom, and human rights.
The author focuses on five significant areas in which these individuals achieved unprecedented change: managing major power rivalries (the United States–China rapprochement and the end of the Cold War), fostering international cooperation, reconciling politics of identity (in South Africa, the Middle East, and Northern Ireland), achieving freedom and human rights (in India, Poland, and Burma), and fostering global sustainability in health and the environment. He acknowledges that some of the individuals certainly have not always been admirable or morally exemplary. Henry Kissinger, for example, is included for his contributions to opening the relationship between the U.S. and China in the early 1970s despite his controversial political roles in other areas. Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi has been condemned internationally for her apparent disregard of brutality against her nation’s Rohingya minority. Gandhi had “a peculiar and sometimes troubling attitude toward sex” and treated his wife and children cruelly. But Jentleson makes a persuasive case that his choices have demonstrated “actor indispensability,” applied to a leader who “acts significantly differently than another leader in the same situation would have acted.” He contrasts Woodrow Wilson’s unsuccessful efforts to found a League of Nations—a “prescriptively flawed” plan from an arrogant, racist, and politically clueless leader—with Franklin Roosevelt’s considerable “personal capital” and astute political skills that led to the founding of the United Nations. A few of Jentleson’s choices may be unfamiliar to most readers: Peter Benenson, for example, a charismatic, energetic British lawyer whose campaign to free two Portuguese political prisoners evolved into Amnesty International; and Gro Harlem Brundtland, three-time prime minister of Norway and director-general of the World Health Organization, whose Brundtland Commission made sustainability a global priority.
An informative addition to the burgeoning field of leadership studies.
Foreign Affairs G. John Ikenberry
“Great man” accounts of history have long been out of favor with scholars of international relations. But Jentleson reminds readers that leaders do matter. He looks across the twentieth century to identify 15 “transformational” people who bent the flow of politics in the direction of peace and reconciliation. They include the U.S. diplomat Henry Kissinger and the Chinese leader Zhou Enlai (for their roles in the United States’ opening to China), U.S. Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt (for their work building international institutions), and Mahatma Gandhi, Lech Walesa, and Aung San Suu Kyi (for their efforts to advance freedom and protect human rights). Jentleson observes that there is no single recipe for good political leadership, but many of the figures had some common traits, including “personal capital” (derived from strong bonds with a community and a reputation for personal courage or moral conviction), an abundance of political skill, and the ability to use the right combination of carrots and sticks to enlarge the space for compromise. None of the leaders he profiles was without flaws, but each found a moment when his or her charisma, wit, or rugged determination helped move history forward.