Moral leadership is needed in today’s world

Heads of state are supposed to display moral as well as political leadership, both at home and abroad.
Sunday 25/02/2018
A displaced Yemeni child sits on sacks of Saudi-provided humanitarian food aid at a camp in Marib, on January 26. (AFP)
Moral imperative. A displaced Yemeni child sits on sacks of Saudi-provided humanitarian food aid at a camp in Marib, on January 26. (AFP)

Some years ago, a cartoon in the New Yorker neatly encapsulated one of humanity’s great moral dilemmas. A small boy, gazing at his briefcase-clutching, tidily dressed father asks: “Dad, how can I do good and get a slice of the pie?” The boy’s question seems more relevant than ever to the world’s politics.

Media, including television and newsprint, have been preoccupied with the puzzle of US President Donald Trump. Is he a maverick but shrewd politician who not only engineered adoption by the ancient and resilient Republican Party, routing more experienced candidates, most of whom would have made credible occupants of the White House but then went on to defeat pollsters, pundits and an experienced former first lady and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton? Clinton had the advantage, too, of being the first female candidate of one of the major parties for the presidency and following the first president of African-American descent.

Is Trump the “stable genius” he believes himself to be or is he a self-gratifying narcissist with the attention span of a child? This is what the journalist Michael Wolff, who camped for a week or two at the White House at the beginning of the Trump regime, said. The genius case seems to cover supply-side economics. Wall Street is up, unemployment and the dollar down.

Doing good as well as getting a slice of the pie is a simple moral dilemma. Part of Trump’s problem is that he is a head of state. Heads of state are supposed to display moral as well as political leadership, both at home and abroad. The 19th-century commentator Walter Bagehot called the British monarchy the dignified part of the constitution. Parliamentary battles might well be essential for the preservation of sectoral freedoms or achieving social progress but the crown was expected to exemplify parliamentary outcomes only.

Queen Elizabeth II is the longest ruling British monarch. She has been married for 70 years and reigned for 66 of them. There is, at present, real anxiety in Britain about the wisdom of imposing a state visit by an individual like Trump on the queen.

Her subjects need not worry; Queen Elizabeth learned her constitutional dance steps before most of them were born. She has had to receive Robert Mugabe and honour Nicolae Ceausescu. She is not bland or void of opinion. She is a mistress of nuance and uses body language with infinite subtlety. The actress Helen Mirren caught this very well in her Oscar-winning portrayal.

The nearest the queen has got to constitutional impropriety was being overheard expressing a wish that the Scots would think long and hard before they voted to leave the rest of her United Kingdom.

Spanish King Felipe VI, by contrast, has been dragged into the Catalan crisis. While he no doubt agrees with his government, his broadcast did sound uncomfortably close to that government’s inept overreaction.

Bagehot would not have considered Trump a dignified part of the US Constitution. Nor in the way of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harry Truman or Lyndon Baines Johnson does he appear as a consummate politician, now standing aloof, now getting his hands dirty.

US President Ronald Reagan’s genius was simple: He made Americans feel good about themselves. He was witty, an entertainer. The East Coast liberal establishment deeply disapproved of him. It could not lay a hand on him because he behaved like a happy man, one comfortable in his own skin. He was considered a figure of the far right by people who forgot he had twice been elected governor of California during California’s free-love, let-it-all-hang-out supremacy. Reports of him knocking off work at 5 o’clock in the afternoon, like reports of his insistence that memoranda be printed on one page, only fuelled his legend.

Whether mythical or not, accounts of Trump going to bed at 6.30pm, by himself and with a cheeseburger, a mobile phone and three television screens for company, do not generate the same awe.

President Barack Obama was unable to achieve what he would have liked to achieve because the White House, during most of his two terms, was camped beside a hostile Congress. His strategic sense, geopolitically, was imperfect but he started out with the incomparable advantage of being a walking emblem of healing.

This was a healing of what the great American novelist Philip Roth called “the human stain.” He meant the racial tensions augmented rather than quelled by northern victory in the Civil War. To those still affected by the human stain, Obama was unforgivably intelligent, eloquent and dignified.

So, in a different way, a more populist way, was his wife. The Obamas were, in actuality, what John Fitzgerald Kennedy and first lady Jacqueline Kennedy were believed to be: decent, dignified, scandal-free and fun.

During the two months between his election in 2016 and his inauguration last year, Trump did show signs of respect for the good manners displayed by one who was still president. It is worrying that such head-of-state characteristics as dignity and self-control do not seem, so far, to have been taken to heart.

The point of moral leadership is that you exemplify as well as act. Even non-Catholics, even non-Christians seem to find Pope Francis the world’s most moral leader at present. All the great religions have one governing ethic. To find yourself you must lose it.

There are two huge stains on the world’s map at the start of 2018. One involves the exploitation and treatment of those seeking, as mankind has always sought, a safer and better life through migration. The second stain is Yemen.

Call the conflict there rebellion, call it sectarian, call it power rivalry, the brutal truth remains that the United Nations and other agencies are ready and willing to relieve suffering with supplies of food and medicine for a starving civilian population. They are being allowed limited access only.

Pope Francis is neither Iranian nor an Arab, neither Sunni or Shia. He is only peripherally European. He comes from Latin America. Let him preside, even for a few months, over the provision of international relief. It is hard to imagine him failing to persuade Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, now ruling Saudi Arabia. Under the cover of the Winter Olympics, even North and South Korea are talking. We, in our hemisphere, should be able to talk things over as well.