The South China Morning Post


Friday  February 12  1999

Strong foundations, not leaders


Now that King Hussein of Jordan has been buried and the foreign dignitaries have departed we can contemplate what comes next. How much does it matter that Jordan has a new king?

The best guess is that in strategic terms it does not matter a great deal. Of course every time a leader is replaced there is a rolling of the strategic dice, but in practice the range of numbers on the dice depends far more on the underlying political and social factors that shape stability. In most cases, leadership is a much-overrated commodity, and conventional wisdom has it that the roll of the leadership dice matters much less in democracies.

Consider the case of Jordan - a country that could hardly be described as democratic in the Western sense - but where the primary concern following the death of King Hussein is the prospects for the Middle East peace process rather than violence in the Hashemite kingdom. King Hussein's passing is clearly a loss for those who counted on him to broker peace in the region, but his home base seems fairly robust.

Compare Jordan with neighbouring Iraq and one has a sense of the importance a change of leadership might have in an unstable regime. The Western powers are investing so much diplomatic, financial and military effort in overthrowing Saddam Hussein because they believe a change of the man at the top will make a difference.

Of course the roll of the dice is most variable when one considers the range of possible successors to Saddam. There could be chaos and fragmentation of the entire country or there could be an equally thuggish successor.

Western strategists formally hope for someone more amenable to striking a deal that would allow for the lifting of sanctions and an end to developing weapons of mass destruction. In practice, the West would settle for nearly any leader who was not a supporter of Saddam in the hope that they could then have the excuse to remove themselves from their uncomfortable hook. At a minimum, a change of leader would allow the West the opportunity to declare victory and go home.

Russia - a far more democratic country than Iraq - is clear evidence of how a change of leader may make a big difference. President Boris Yeltsin's brief and depressing turn at the King Hussein's funeral reminds us how near we are to a succession in Russia. But the real uncertainty is derived not so much from the fact Russia might become rudderless, but that the ship of state is already badly foundering. Russia is in crisis because of failed policies. A new leader offers some prospect of taking tougher decisions necessary to sustain real reforms over the long term.

Russia's and the Soviet Union's recent past is evidence of how variable the impact of leadership change can be in such fluid political and social conditions. The death of Leonid Brezhnev made possible real changes under Yuri Andropov but he was too ill to sustain the early reforms. Konstantin Chernenko, his successor, was a throwback to the past, but he in turn was succeeded by Mikhail Gorbachev, a man who made the revolutions of 1989 and 1991 possible, albeit sometimes inadvertently.

When China changed from Mao Zedong to Deng Xiaoping it also began a real process of reform where the character of the reformist leader mattered a great deal. But what mattered more was the fact Maoism had bankrupted China and reform was a more reasonable option.

When Deng died he left a far more stable country, albeit one embarked on serious reforms. His successors, led by Jiang Zemin , are often derided as "weather vanes" because of their tendency to blow with the winds - a characteristic that mattered little when the winds were blowing fair in the Chinese economy, but which is proving to be a hindrance to reform now the storm clouds have gathered.

Once again, what matters is the underlying political and social dynamics, with the quality of leadership taking a distinctly secondary role.

When looking at more democratic countries, there is clearly much more basic stability that comes from having a system with shock absorbers for most change. Thus the assassination of president Kennedy proved to have no significant impact on policy. When Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was murdered, his successor failed to capitalise on the brief mandate for peace that emerged. It was only the dislocation caused by the election of the opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu that led to the real unravelling of the peace process, but that is the kind of change of policy one often sees in democracies as the result of electoral politics.

Thus a sudden change in leadership in Japan or Singapore would not have a huge impact on public policy, albeit for very different reasons. Japan's system seems relatively immobile for reasons apparently well beyond the capacities of any prime minister to engineer change. Singapore, by contrast, is well-run with a superlative civil service and therefore well-placed to weather the shock of a sudden change of leader.

A sudden change of leader in Hong Kong would matter even less, but largely because real power is understood to lie in Beijing or with Beijing's friends in Hong Kong. Thus while there is a strong correlation between a high degree of political pluralism and the insignificance of leadership change, the real correlation is that mature democracies tend to be in more mature political and social systems.

When democracies have a rotting social base and political process - arguably the case before Margaret Thatcher came to power in Britain - then a change of leadership can make a huge difference. That is why with a booming economy, the fate of President Bill Clinton in the United States Senate will matter even less than the death of King Hussein.

Gerald Segal is Director of Studies at The International Institute for Strategic Studies, London.

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Compare Jordan with neighbouring Iraq and one has a sense of the importance a change of leadership might have in an unstable regime




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