When COVID-19 began its surge in March, politicians worldwide rushed to cast themselves in a familiar role. Donald Trump described himself as a “wartime president.” Emmanuel Macron of France solemnly proclaimed that “we are at war.” Boris Johnson of the United Kingdom tried to channel an inner Churchill: “[I]n this fight we can be in no doubt that each and every one of us is directly enlisted.” Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines even threatened to treat citizens who defied lockdown orders as enemy soldiers and shoot them.
The move to military imagery was understandable. In response to an unprecedented threat, emergency mobilization on a wartime scale seemed necessary. The politicians also knew that nations tend to rally around military heroes and war leaders, and the charisma and masculinity that they seem to embody. More than half the men elected to the American presidency have either had distinguished military records or led the country successfully in a war.
Yet, today, months after the brash declarations of a war on COVID, the pandemic has shown once again that military-style leadership is poorly suited to the crises that contemporary states most often face. Instead, the most successful responses to COVID-19 have come from women leaders—Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand, Angela Merkel of Germany, or Mette Frederiksen of Denmark—who combine public empathy with political skills and technocratic know-how. Is the age of the hyper-masculine, charismatic war leader at its end?
The human tendency to associate charismatic leadership with masculine, military-style heroism is ancient, of course. Long before the modern age, monarchs based their reputations on their military prowess. Those perceived as the greatest and most charismatic—from Alexander the Great to Charlemagne and beyond—were most often leaders who protected their people from conquest and made glorious conquests of their own.
Democracy changed little about this perception. The great revolutions out of which modern democracies emerged were all accompanied by significant bloodshed and were led by generals who became founding fathers: George Washington in the United States, Toussaint Louverture in Haiti, José de San Martín in Argentina, and Simón Bolívar across South America.
In the 20th century, the American presidents seen as most charismatic have had great charm, but also a macho strength associated with international conflict: the war hero and cold warrior John Kennedy, and his cold war successor Ronald Reagan. But the spell they cast has worn off. Importantly, the strategy of treating any intractable challenge as if it were a foreign enemy to be defeated has worked less and less well. Nixon’s “war on crime” and “war on cancer,” Reagan’s “war on drugs,” and George W. Bush’s “war on terror” produced few victories, and often had disastrous side effects.
The reason for the failure of these rhetorical “wars” is clear enough. Military leadership puts a premium on courage, strength, decisiveness, and speed. (An old British joke holds that the mark of a good officer is to make decisions swiftly and forcefully—and if they happen to be correct, so much the better.) Real warfare generally involves an obvious, visible enemy, conspicuous targets, and a clear sense of what “victory” entails. But what did it mean to win a “war” on crime, drugs, cancer or terror? None of these things were going to disappear altogether, and it might take long years before measurable progress was made against any of them. What were the most important targets to attack? In the case of crime or drugs, did it make more sense to focus on policing, on sentencing, on education, on community organization, or on something else entirely?
Without clear answers to such questions, how could the government keep the public mobilized on a “war footing”? The answer, of course, is that it couldn’t.
Despite these conspicuous failures, climate change too is now being described with the rhetoric of warfare. Last year, former U.S. Senator John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, and former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a California Republican, came together to announce an initiative they called “World War Zero” to fight for a target of zero carbon emissions. But the news sank with barely a ripple. How do we declare war on CO2?
The COVID-19 pandemic is, similarly, another crisis poorly suited to be treated as a war. “Victory” will happen when an effective vaccine has been developed, produced, and distributed. Beyond providing money to the vaccine developers and preparing manufacturing and distribution facilities, there is little that governments can do on this front except wait for the science.
China, Europe, and New York City have all shown what it means to win an initial “battle” against COVID-19: shutting down society and reducing human interaction to the point that the virus stops spreading and comes close to dying out. During the initial shutdowns, health care professionals, significantly described as standing on the “front lines,” were treated as military heroes of a sort.
But these shutdowns have come at massive economic and social costs. And the shutdowns were followed not with victory parades but by agonizingly difficult choices. How quickly can cities and states open up? How can citizens be persuaded to alter fundamental sorts of behavior over an indefinite period of time? What risks are tolerable in return for rescuing an economy?
In the newest phase of the crisis, it is less evident who the heroes are. Not surprisingly, the politicians most eager to claim the mantle of war leaders have performed poorly and lost public support. Donald Trump has frenetically oscillated between declaring premature victory and insisting that the entire crisis is a hoax perpetrated by his political enemies. Trump, along with Macron and Johnson, has seen his approval levels drop precipitously in polls.
A different sort of charismatic leadership has proven far more effective, with women leaders shining. Ardern, Merkel, Frederiksen, and Tsai Ing-Wen of Taiwan have emphasized compassion and patience, rather than war and victory. They have not posed as commanders dispatching brave conscripts off to the front, but rather as mothers and daughters sharing the fears and privations of their fellow citizens.
Ardern has hosted Facebook Lives from her living room, dressed in a sweatshirt, after just putting a child to sleep, driving home the point that everyone has an equal role to play in containing the virus. Frederiksen, the Danish leader, posted a clip of herself singing Danish pop songs while doing the dishes, injecting much-needed humor into the grim diet of daily news. Each of these women has calmly refused to sugarcoat the threat, or to predict easy victory in the manner of Trump. Merkel shocked her citizens near the start of the crisis when she predicted that 70 percent of Germans would ultimately come down with COVID-19. Most importantly, each of these women has also emphasized the absolute priority of kindness, and of saving lives.
These approaches have had a demonstrable effect, particularly in winning cooperation from the citizenry for wearing face masks and other behavioral changes. As a result, the countries with women leaders have had far lower levels of COVID-19 mortality than countries led by would-be strongmen like Trump, Vladimir Putin, and Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil. New Zealand, most spectacularly, has effectively eradicated the virus within its territory, allowing normal life to resume. Ardern herself now has the highest approval ratings of any New Zealand Prime Minister in the last century—since the First World War, in fact.
Political charisma is an elusive phenomenon. It is usually spoken of as a personal quality, something people either have or don’t, or as the product of searing experience, as in war. But in fact, charisma is more of a relationship. It depends not just on the leader, but on the public recognizing a special quality in him or her, and feeling an intense attraction as a result. Historically, throughout much of the world, people have regarded masculine military qualities as charismatic. Perhaps, by the time the crisis ends, worldwide understandings of political leadership and political charisma will have changed. The figure of the compassionate mother and nurse may yet come to have greater political appeal than that of the aggressive wartime commander.