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Understanding The Power of Character

Politics: Commentary December 10, 2003

Printable Version

Nations have no permanent allies, only permanent interests.
— Lord Palmerston

Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely
— Lord Acton

        Those who are victorious plan effectively and change 
        decisively. They are like a great river that maintains its 
        course, but adjusts it flow… They have form but are 
        formless. They are skilled in both planning and 
        adapting and need not fear the result of a thousand 
        battles; for they win in advance, defeating those that 
        have already lost.
                        — Sun Tzu

All of the thoughts above are truisms of history for they expose the reality of the world as it exists and has existed. What is unique is how the rise of terrorism on a global scale requires one to look at the first two comments from the reference point of Sun Tzu’s theory of strategy that leaders must be able to change to meet the challenge of the times. Change in perspective is easy when a country is in chaos and is driven by crisis. Any solution usually looks better than what exists. Yet true leadership is particularly difficult at the time that individuals or nations are at a peak of power for it is often in that unique state of semi hubris that the greatest opportunities to exert power wisely exist and the greatest mistakes are made.

Lord Acton’s observation is not always correct. George Washington could have had a third term or been considered royalty yet chose to decline and set a direction that built a great nation. Marcus Aurelius dominated the world as it was known for well over fifteen years, yet kept to a stoic belief that looked to the good of the people. Perhaps no better parallel can exist than the examples of Athens in its battle with Sparta and Athens final decline in the Peloponnesian Wars. Athens began the war at a peak with one of its most thoughtful leaders, Pericles, in charge. As a leader he understood the realities, economic, political, and cultural that kept a people together. After his death from plague, there was movement toward ever more political and ruthless leaders that did not hesitate to change and match the culture of the times with increasing savagery and a far longer and more vicious style of war. Issues that often had been decided by short-term engagements were transformed by hatred into an almost three-decade crippling undertaking. Such brought the end of Athens as it was known and the principles that had built it as one of the first great democracies.

I have often wondered how Pericles would have viewed the times that followed his death, but I feel certain he would have appreciated the importance of the later comments of Lord Acton and Lord Palmerston. Because eventually it was an alliance of the Spartans with the Persians combined with the arrogance and, in cases, ignorance of Athenian leaders that set the stage for loss. But the people had changed themselves following the sequence depicted by the Scottish historian, Sir Alex Fraser Tyler:

From Bondage to Spiritual Faith
From Spiritual Faith to Great Courage
From Courage to Liberty
From Liberty to Abundance
From Abundance to Selfishness
From Selfishness to Complacency
From Complacency to Apathy
From Apathy to Dependence
From Dependence back to Bondage.

He noted that the average age of the world’s greatest civilization had been 200 years and followed a sequence. To me the categories are measurements of the society’s cultural minds.

In the modern day, Athens serves as a reminder of the importance of critical leadership not just militarily through the power of politics. But it also is a reminder of the critical understanding of the economic impact of actions and the necessity of keeping the culture of support that creates the confidence from the people.

Lord Acton’s understanding that absolute power corrupts absolutely has to be judged in view of the fact that both individuals and the culture of nations constantly battle between the forces of conscience and convenience. Strong leadership requires sacrifice to position the future more positively to avoid the crisis that often comes from the convenience of planning all for today without concern for the future. The conscience over convenience culture places a solid character for the nation that gives it its strength. As convenience dominates over conscience in setting the standards for the society, with the corruption and special interests that prevail, then the society weakens. Solid leadership emerges when you have a culture of conscience that appreciates leadership for the most positive of reasons. Conscience works well on an individual level because of the Golden Rule and the necessity of people understanding how they must work with each other. However, convenience always begins to dominate as you move to higher levels of power because of the factors of ambition, significance of action to self and to others, changes to ego and a variety of other factors.

Just as a football player moves from high school, to college, to the professional arena, there is an ever-faster stronger game that requires a concentration on the game and less concentration on other factors. Because of the reality of those considerations, the best thing to do is not just to try to affect the individual who has to work in that environment. But instead, structure the characteristics of that environment so that the leaders react to it. That is why the culture of the people sets the stage for the level of leadership. The only way to thus get conscience into power is to make it convenient for leaders to have conscience. And you do that by affecting the culture as to how it judges their actions. It matters little if we raise our children to have good character if the environment which they face is one that does not hold those same values. Inevitably they will have disadvantages against those of convenience or they will be corrupted by the system. So on an individual basis Sun Tzu’s concept of the necessity of adaptation to the times to win a battle means that we increasingly must look toward the concept of changing the culture to maintain and regain strength within it based on character. If not, we continue a transition where politics alone and the convenience of what can be promised at the moment will weaken the nation such that all future leaders increasingly move toward those considerations to stay in power.

Lord Palmerston’s observation of nations not having permanent allies, but permanent interests also has to be evaluated in the terms of the times. Nationally, the last centuries of history have had nations aligned with each other on the basis of geography, history, economic interests, and a series of changing parallels. But just as the Greeks may have disagreed among themselves they had united against the Persians. For Athens, the enhancement of the division shifted the tone of the time at the end of the Peloponnesian War.

Respect is often met with respect and brutality with brutality. The globalization of the world, its interconnection, and the threat of terrorism require a different appraisal of how those interests have to be judged. No longer can they be just on the individual basis of the immediate needs of the times. Perhaps more important for the future is how you will have nations that can cooperate with each other on very common themes that develop an international culture of concern for life and the future. In every nation there are men of conscience and there are men of convenience. The sooner we recognize the point that there is a basic need to address the nature of man as being not inherently evil, but redeemable, and look toward trying to develop that end even though it may take generations, the better the world will eventually be. It is not naïve to believe that concepts like the Golden Rule and the common good can have success. It requires an appreciation of them as it has throughout history. This is a level of commonality at the morality of how man treats each other in respecting life. It often cannot be taken to the concept of religions where each man has a different idea of how he wishes to meet his maker. However, working to constantly encourage how bridges can be built culturally and to do those things possible within the realms of safety and economics to move toward that end provides some of the best potential solutions to long-term problems of mistrust.

There will always be terrorism. There will always be despots. Just as every man and every nation will on occasion choose convenience over conscience even though they are well intended, it is the nature of choice that has been given us. Our goal is to establish society such that it holds together our own nation and provides the best foot forward for its relationship with others. That does not take a context of avoiding force if necessary, but better defines in what cases force should be used. And it draws attention to the critical issue of positive long-term cultural bridges which are often ignored in the short-term alliances of economics and politics.

Consistency of purpose creates principle and principle is what others appreciate over time. Others align with those of conscience not because they are necessarily for you or against you, but they are for themselves and appreciate the benefits it gives to them.

Sun Tzu gave strategy two key points: planning and adapting. It is critical today that we realize that the ideologies of politics and economics that have driven the world for the last centuries may need to adapt to the powers of value-based culture. And it is also critical that we realize that where common interests can be found in all civilizations that we emphasize the importance of life, the necessity of considering the common good, and the ultimate validity of the Golden Rule. Concern for others through a culture or character is not naïve in weakness, but the source of ultimate strength.

Gandhi looked at strength of character and defined it by listing Society’s Severn Deadly Sins:

Politics without principle
Wealth without work
Commerce without morality
Pleasure without conscience
Science without humanity
Work without sacrifice
Education without character

Benjamin Franklin spoke to this when he said:

Those who can give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.

However, the best description of the interplay within society came from Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan who observed not from historical perspective but from experience. . . .

The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.


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