Trump to renegotiate Paris climate change accord

June 2, 2017

President Trump returns from his eight-day humiliation tour of the Middle East and Europe to announce he would be pulling out of the Paris environmental treaty

“They won’t be laughing now” he said, arguing that earlier global arrangements had taken America as suckers.  Not laughing, maybe, but weeping in frustration.

Make the Planet Great Again, Justin Trudeau tweeted.

President Obama was able to overcome political opposition at home in signing up America for the Paris accord.  The two countries yet to sign are Syria and Nicaragua.

Donald Trump is sticking to his election pledge to create jobs in the rust-belt states. This may not create the kind of jobs the displaced coal miners voted for. Opponents argue that growth in jobs will come to workers able to retrain for new skills.

China and the EU are seen as moving more closely together on this issue. President Trump’s announcement was early justification of Chancellor Merkel’s claim this week that the EU could no longer take for granted shared interests with the USA and the UK on climate change.

Timing bad for Theresa May?

More locally, Theresa May, an early ally of President Trump, is regretting the timing of the announcement. She is a week away from a General Election she called, fighting on the basis her strong and stable leadership as she negotiates the UK’s departure from the EU. An earlier lead in the polls is shrinking. Attacks on labour leader Jeremy Corbyn seem to have failed to exacerbate his earlier woeful ratings as a future Prime Minister.

The Prime Minister’s non-show at a televised debate this week gave opponents the chance to weaken her case further, by describing her as weak and wobbly. Caroline Lucas, co-leader of the Green party, had a particularly positive impact on the audience.

The Prime Minister called the Trump decision disappointing.  She could have been referring to the effect it could have on the final election result.


So, Is President Obama a weak leader?

October 26, 2014

President Obama has received continued criticism for being a weak leader. His military actions against IS in Iraq and Syria are now being used to demonstrate the contrary argument. I suggest that such assessments need to be made with great care

Popular and political judgements of a leader’s competence need to be tested carefully. Too often they are reactions to a single critical incident.

Critical incidents may not be all that critical

A news story often follows a ‘critical incident’. For example, the IS made headlines over brutal videoed execution of an American hostage. President Obama said at a Press Conference that there was no American strategy in place for dealing with the emerging Islamic State. The  remark  was widely taken to illustrate the President’s weakness as a leader.

Was it weak leadership to speak the truth?

A leader is expected to offer reassurance. Obama’s sound-bite was uncomfortable to hear. It could be used in Media Training as an example of a remark that might have been better expressed. An example of a weakly-expressed point. But was it weak leadership to speak the truth? Would it have been any better to say “We know exactly what to do, as you will learn very shortly” ?

Was it strong leadership to launch the air campaign against IS?

British politicians appear to be believe so. They debated the issue and voted overwhelmingly in favour of supplying air support in Iraq (where the new regime requested military support against IS) Here is where some careful testing of ideas is required. One view is that a strong leader is decisive and ‘sends signals of commitment and willingness to act’ unilaterally if necessary.

There seems a wide consensus that the initiative has little chance of a simple successful ending without ‘boots on the ground‘.

Yet there has been a remarkable level of regional and international support of at least a symbolic kind.

Strong leadership?

And the question of what is strong leadership remains a matter of perspective.  If strong is understood as having the power to bring about desired change, President Obama is in a relatively weak position for someone in the role generally perceived as that of the most powerful political leader in the world.


The leadership dilemma: On being right and appearing weak

September 2, 2013

One repeated theme in the desperate series of events taking place in Syria is the dilemma facing leaders embroiled in them. Politically, so often doing what a leader believes to be right risks public perceptions of being a week leader

The struggles are clear if we look at the behaviours in the UK last week [August 24-30th] of Prime Minister Cameron and the leader of the Opposition, David Miliband as well as the impact on those of President Obama.

Early in the week, the bloodshed in Syria escalated in the deaths of hundreds of civilians apparently from a chemical weapons attack. President Obama had indicated earlier that use of chemical weapons would pass a ‘red line’ resulting in intervention by the USA. After the attack, the White House indicated that some military response would occur.

The House is recalled

Mr Cameron returns from holiday early and recalls MPs to the House for a motion backing direct action against the perpetrators of the chemical attack, and implicitly supporting the imminent US actions. Mr Cameron was at one with many Western commentators that the Syrian regime was responsible and that action to respond to ‘discourage and degrade’ future use of chemical weapons in Syria. Initially Mr Miliband supported the principle of military involvement. Both leaders also took pains to recognize the intervention in Iraq by Tony Blair was increasingly seen as ill-judged, and the public would need reassuring of the possibility of a limited strike without unintended longer-term consequences. As I write those words it seems inconceivable that Cameron and Miliband believed the military case that such a ‘hygienic’ strike was possible.

In a few days, the recalled members of Parliament had made it clear to their respective leaders that many of them would not support military action. Both back-pedalled. Miliband found a form of retreat that called for time, which Cameron did not seem to have if the American action were to be supported. Cameron proposes a watered-down motion seeking agreement in principle on military action, and promising further debate before actual action.

Defending the indefensible

Cameron skilfully almost defended the indefensible. Miliband had a bad attack of first night nerves. The subsequent debate was at times muddled. Some speakers seem to have stuck to their original drafts ignoring how the motion had changed. The mood of the house however was of individuals with honourable intentions to support or oppose according to conscience or argument, regardless of leadership intentions. Enough conservatives opposed the motion for it to defeated. Immediately, Cameron said he ‘got it’. There would be no UK support for US military action.

The American response

A few days later President Obama indicated that the intended action would be delayed, following a proposal put to his own legislators. It was widely interpreted as a response to the UK political debate

Doing right and appearing weak

What do I mean by ‘doing right and appearing weak’? The three leaders changed their positions during the period of a week. Obama had made the commitment to act in Syria if the regime crossed the red line of using chemical weapons. He believed he had the moral right to do so, and the support of the American public. He was risking appearing week by delaying. Now pollsters suggest the public considers him even weaker, although several commentators have recognized that his search for consensus in and outside The US is attempting to avoiding unintended consequences of action. [One defense was made by an earlier politician, ‘when events change, I change my mind, what do you do?’. The issue is more how often the leader changes]

Mr Cameron is judged weak when he tried to seek cross-party support for military action by offering a second vote so that in principle he could support any American action.

Mr Miliband quickly learned that he could not deliver opposition support to a military venture. It may have been a cunning plan on his part, but if so he looked thoroughly miserable as he spoke in the house to his new position.

It is rather easy to see how seeking consensus, and changing one’s position are seen as signs of a weak leader. Seeing what is the right course of action is altogether trickier.


Greece Demonstrates, Syria bleeds

November 14, 2012

In Greece, Political leaders continue to battle for the country’s economic survival. The ruling coalition is introducing increasingly unpopular austerity concessions. Refugees from Syria find there is little compassion for their plight. Leadership lessons are hard to find

The political and economic turmoil in Greece continues.

Last week [7th November 2012] judges and doctors participated in a general strike. As politicians deliberated, over 80,000 angry protestors including a group of policemen in uniform, demonstrated outside the Parliament buildings.

The Greek dilemma

The Greek dilemma is increasingly seen as misery and decline inside the Economic community, or misery and decline outside it.

If Greece leaves

The most vulnerable members of the Economic community such as Greece, Spain and Portugal all have the most recent history of military dictatorships ‘rescuing’ the country at its time of need. Is there any evidence of that about to happen? It seems at least a possibility, if Greece leaves the EEC.

Meanwhile, in Syria

Meanwhile the national turmoil has implications for the bloody conflict waging in neighbouring Syria. [14th November 2012]. Even the cold statistics make heart-breaking reading.

The Syrian Red Crescent charity says two and a half million people have been displaced within Syria, and a UN refugee agency considers the estimate on the conservative side. Nearly half a million Syrians have fled to neighbouring countries, the UN says. Figures of more than thirty people have been killed since the uprising against President Assad began over the last eighteen months.

Civilians flee in their thousands into camps on the Turkish border.

Life savings for an eight mile boat journey.

I watched a BBC Newsnight report last night, which showed desperate Syrian families prepared to spend their life savings in a risky crossing of eight miles, into Greece. Hardly surprisingly, those who arrive find the bitterness of people at their own plight, and a mood of heightened xenophobia against immigrants in general.

Leadership, what leadership?

I would like to draw some instructive leadership lessons from these stories, but they are hard to find. Perhaps there is the paradox to consider of the weakness of strong leaders and the limits to autocratic rule. Maybe we should think about the inter-connectedness of events which make dominant theories of leadership too simplistic to help us understand events and find actions which protect the interests of those most at risk.