This is not an argument against transformational leaders in general. In turbulent situations, leaders such as Gandhi, Mandela, and King can play crucial roles in redefining a people’s identity and aspirations. Nor is it an argument against transformational leaders in American foreign policy in particular. FDR and Truman made indelible contributions to the creation of the American era; others, such as Nixon, with his opening to China, or Carter, with his emphasis on human rights and nuclear nonproliferation, reoriented important aspects of foreign policy. But in judging leaders, we need to pay attention both to acts of commission and to acts of omission—dogs that barked and those that did not. For example, Ike refused to follow numerous recommendations by the military to use nuclear weapons during the Korean, Dien Bien Phu, and Quemoy-Matsu crises, at one point telling an adviser, “You boys must be crazy. We can’t use those awful things against Asians for the second time in less than 10 years.” In 1954, he explained his broader thinking to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Suppose it would be possible to destroy Russia, he said. “Here would be a great area from the Elbe to Vladivostok … torn up and destroyed, without government, without its communications, just an area of starvation and disaster. I ask you, what would the civilized world do about it?” George H. W. Bush likewise largely eschewed transformational objectives, with one important exception: the reunification of Germany. But even here, he acted with caution. When the Berlin Wall was opened in November 1989, partly because of a mistake by East Germany, Bush was criticized for his low-key response. But his deliberate choice not to gloat or to humiliate the Soviets helped set the stage for the successful Malta summit with Mikhail Gorbachev a month later.
Transformational leaders are important because they make choices that most other leaders would not. But a key question is how much risk a democratic public wants its leaders to take in foreign policy. The answer very much depends on the context, and that context is enormously complex, involving not only potential international effects, but the intricacies of domestic politics in multiple societies. This complexity gives special relevance to the Aristotelian virtue of prudence. We live in a world of diverse cultures, and we know very little about social engineering and how to “build nations.” And when we cannot be sure how to improve the world, hubristic visions pose a grave danger. For these reasons, the virtues of transactional leaders with good contextual intelligence are also very important. Good leadership in this century may or may not be transformational, but it will almost certainly require a careful understanding of the context of change.
Decline, for example, is a misleading description of the current state of American power—one that President Obama has thankfully rejected. American influence is not in absolute decline, and in relative terms, there is a reasonable probability that the country will remain more powerful than any other single state in the coming decades. We do not live in a “post-American world,” but neither do we live any longer in the American era of the late 20th century. No one has a crystal ball, but the National Intelligence Council may be correct in its 2012 projection that although the unipolar moment is over, the U.S. most likely will remain primus inter pares at least until 2030 because of the multifaceted nature of its power and the legacies of its leadership.