How much does Donald Trump really matter to the world?
Harvard professor and former US assistant secretary of defense Joseph Nye recently asked the question and came up with an interesting answer.
Leadership does matter, he says, but no one knows how much exactly. “Scholars who have tried to measure the effects of leadership in corporations or laboratory experiments have sometimes come up with numbers in the range of 10 per cent or 15 per cent, depending on the context. But these are highly structured situations where change is often linear. In unstructured situations, such as post-apartheid South Africa, the transformational leadership of Nelson Mandela made a huge difference.”
So did the fact that George W Bush rather than Al Gore was elected president. Under a President Gore, points out Professor Nye, “the US probably would have gone to war in Afghanistan, but not in Iraq.”
Foreign-policy events, he adds, are what social scientists call ‘path-dependent’, which is to say that “relatively small choices by leaders, even in the range of 10-15 per cent early on a path, can lead to major divergences in outcomes over time.”
Professor Nye dwells on the ‘what-if’ school of history. Had there been a Henry Wallace presidency (which would have happened had FDR not switched him for Harry Truman as vice president in 1944) the US may not have responded to the threat posed by Hitler and the attack on Pearl Harbour by going into World War II.
“A Robert Taft or Douglas MacArthur presidency might have disrupted the relatively smooth consolidation of the containment system over which Dwight Eisenhower presided,” he says.
Had Truman had not been president, he adds, and Stalin made major gains in Europe and the Middle East, the Soviet empire would have been stronger, and bipolarity might have persisted longer.
So what about Donald Trump’s leadership of America then? How much does he matter?
Professor Nye hedges his bets as well he might. “If Trump avoids a major war, and if he is not re-elected, future scholars may look back at his presidency as a curious blip on the curve of American history. But those are big ‘ifs’.”
So we still don’t know for a fact if he matters. For the moment, it feels like he does. Big league.