The Presence of Leadership

Alongside the perennial lament about “uncertainty” in global markets and politics, nothing is decried quite as often as “lack of leadership.” From the euro-zone crisis to intervention in internal conflicts to Britain’s place in Europe, and on to America’s crisis of governance and China’s rising nationalism, the purported absence of leadership is regularly cited as a primary cause of our global economic and political malaise.

Looking back over Europe’s past six months, however, a curious picture emerges, one that suggests a realization on the part of some its leaders that the time for prevarication must come to an end.

Angela Merkel’s steadfast refusal to succumb to the false choice of fast-forwarded federalism or inevitable break-up of the European Union; Mario Draghi’s come-what-may affirmation of the European Central Bank’s commitment to the common currency; François Hollande’s perilous intervention in Mali at its hour of Islamist danger; and David Cameron’s bold combination of a call for genuine reform of the E.U. with a promise of an in-out referendum for the British people — whatever else may be said about these decisions, they are object lessons in leadership.

Nothing makes this clearer than the findings of a recent poll that only one in three Britons would vote to stay in the E.U. if given an in-out choice in a referendum. This is a nightmare prospect for the British prime minister, not least in light of the eloquent case he made in his Europe speech last month for a strong and vital role for Britain in an open, diverse and competitive Europe.

Given the history of referendums as captives of populist politics, the poll result cannot come as a surprise. What Cameron’s speech makes clear — and where he was willing to demonstrate genuine leadership — is that the true starting point for debate has to be recognition of the rapidly changing global economy and the need to think in aggressive and innovative ways about how to keep Britain, and the E.U., competitive for the next generation.

What Cameron referred to as a “global race of nations” is a very real phenomenon, however unwelcome the prospect may be in some of the more unreconstructed corners of Europe. Faced with this reality, reform of the E.U. is not just an opportunity, but a necessity, unless the aging and shrinking societies of Europe are prepared to doom themselves to a state of accelerating decline.

This Cameron understands, and so does a far greater number of business and political leaders on the Continent than the reaction to his speech would suggest. A “coalition of the willing” for a more multifaceted, more flexible, more engaged E.U. — with Britain as a core member alongside a pivotal Germany — is waiting to be built.

This is the leadership challenge — and opportunity — that Cameron has set himself.

You’d think a French president faced with as acute a long-term economic crisis as any on the Continent would have better things to do than commit blood and treasure to stopping an Islamist takeover of an African state of little strategic consequence.

Yet faced with the prospect of Qaeda-linked jihadist groups sweeping the state of Mali and imposing an internally brutal and externally destabilizing form of rule, Hollande acted — for France, and for Africa. That he did so at the request of the Malian government, and that France enjoyed the support of Mali’s neighbors and an endorsement from the United Nations Security Council, only underscores the risks of reversal should the situation on the ground grow difficult, as it most likely will.

Creating long-term stability in the Sahel and defeating the militant groups operating with near-impunity throughout the region’s ungoverned spaces are noble objectives that few would call remotely realistic. The shadows of Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya will continue to bedevil proponents of intervention everywhere — as will its glaring absence in the far more strategically significant case of Syria.

Yet Hollande refused to make the best the enemy of the good, and sent in the military. For a man suffering from invidious comparisons with his hyperactive predecessor, this was not a case of cowardice.

At stake in Mario Draghi’s promise last summer to do “whatever it takes to preserve the euro” was not so much lives as livelihoods, and yet it was of no less significance to the future viability of the European project. For those more inclined to respond to widening sovereign spreads than to the consistent message from Berlin that Europe, for Germany, was always as much a political project as an economic one, Draghi’s statement came as a shock — and a very costly one to those on the other side of the trade.

What Draghi did was to cut through the endless debates about debt and inflation and the internal logic of the single currency to back his deeds with an unshakeable statement of intent.

This was not a case of promises with uncertain actions to follow. Draghi acted before he finally spoke, with the introduction of a long-term refinancing operation for banks and the subsequent plan to an unlimited, if conditional, E.C.B. bond-buying program.

In many respects, Draghi perfected the art of “showing force in order not to use it,” to use Kofi Annan’s phrase from a different context. Yet the recent economic data showing that the economies of France, Italy, Spain and Holland all shrank in the fourth quarter of last year — along with the deepening trans-Atlantic anxiety about how Europe and the United States can manage a successful exit from the era of easy money — suggest that Draghi’s achievement was but the first of a series of necessary and controversial further steps to come.

No one has shown a steadier hand — or a more impregnable composure — in the face of Europe’s existential crisis than the German chancellor. In many respects an uninspiring domestic politician, Angela Merkel has nevertheless emerged as a singular leader in Europe, just as powerfully defined by what she refused to do as by what she was willing to concede in the heat of the moment.

Balancing a recognition of the reality of market forces with a principled refusal to let speculators define the Continent’s political fate, Merkel has led Europe through the crisis in the only way a German can be allowed to — through shrewd coalition-building, insistence on fiscal responsibility, a willingness to reap the whirlwind of populist backlash, and an unflinching focus on the long view that a united and peaceful Europe with Germany at its core is not a matter of choice for Berlin, but a cause worthy of the exercise of its immense power.

The decisions taken in Berlin, London, Paris and Frankfurt may not deliver the intended results, and the leaders who took them may not be rewarded — Mario Monti’s grim fate in this week’s Italian election results makes that plain. There are perils aplenty in the calls Draghi, Hollande, Cameron and Merkel made. But at least they cannot be accused of a lack of leadership.

Nader Mousavizadeh is chief executive of Oxford Analytica and the co-author, with Kofi Annan, of Interventions: A Life in War and Peace.

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