The Half-Life of Politicians

They never seem to go away any more, do they?

It used to be so simple. Before the rise of democracy, kings and emperors ruled until they died or were overthrown by invasion or rebellion. If they abdicated, it was usually under intense pressure, which removed them from any further public role even if they were allowed to go on living. But democracy has allowed a new species to flourish—the former head of state or head of government who wishes to continue politically activity after completing his or her elected term of office.

Of course, not all former presidents and prime ministers want to stay in the political limelight. Some, like Brian Mulroney and Nicolas Sarkozy, prefer what has been called the “dash for cash,” making some “real money” after years of surviving on salaries for public service that are small compared to what top business leaders earn. They serve as board members, business advisors, rainmakers, door openers. Others, such as the already wealthy George W. Bush, are happy to retire to quiet public life. They may write memoirs and make an occasional public statement on an issue they care about, but mostly they stay out of the way of those who follow them in office. Some are even helpful behind the scenes to their successors, as Bush has been to Obama and Mulroney has been at times to Stephen Harper (although that relationship has been troubled by revelations about Mulroney’s premature dash for Karlheinz Schreiber’s cash).

Former political leaders who move on to business careers or simply retire come more from the conservative side, perhaps because conservatives think the most important things in life lie elsewhere than in government and politics. It is harder for liberal leaders to leave the scene because people on the left tend to think of politics as an all-important cause for making a better world. “Government is a force for good,” they like to say. Whatever the precise reason, there is a striking set of left-liberal leaders who have remained prominent in international politics even after leaving office.

Andrew F. Cooper’s new book Diplomatic After­lives focuses on what he calls the “top tier” of such cases, consisting of “hyper-empowered individuals” Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Mikhail Gorbachev and Nelson Mandela. All have followed the model of continuing activism pioneered by Carter. It is easier for former U.S. presidents to pull it off, because they get large sums from Congress to fund their presidential libraries; but Blair, Gorbachev and Mandela have shown that leaders from other countries can also do it. Establish one or more foundations funded by major corporations and wealthy philanthropists. Hobnob with celebrities, such as Bono, George Clooney and Angelina Jolie. Write books for which international publishers will offer seven-figure advances, and give speeches for six-figure honoraria. Maintain a large staff to help with the writing, organize travel and manage public relations. It is like running a permanent campaign without any opponents, or running a government without having to make any decisions.

Most importantly, the hyper-empowered members of the top tier continue to engage in international diplomacy. This can mean acting in the service of the state, as when Bill Clinton spearheaded relief efforts in Haiti at the request of Barack Obama. But it can also mean freelance (loose cannon?) diplomacy, as when Carter tried to mediate the conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia, or Clinton flew to North Korea to negotiate the release of two American journalists who had been taken hostage, or Mandela tried to encourage Robert Mugabe to retire before the 2008 election in Zimbabwe. Most of the time, it means attempting to influence the nebulous reality of international public opinion—giving speeches about world order, chairing conferences and commissions, and acting as an international scold by “naming and shaming” leaders and regimes.

In their diplomatic peregrinations, the hyper-empowered mingle with a crowded cast of undead former presidents, prime ministers and foreign secretaries who still hope to do some good on the world scene—people such as Ireland’s Mary Robinson, Norway’s Gro Harlem Brundtland and Canada’s Joe Clark. But Carter, Clinton, Blair, Gorbachev and Mandela stand out because of their “hybridity” (the author’s rather odd term). As former leaders of major powers, they have a high degree of access to politicians still in power and to the machinery of their governments. But they are also celebrities in their own right who draw large audiences when they appear, pull other celebrities to appear with them and command the media attention that is so crucial to shaping public opinion.

Four of the five were obviously seeking a form of political redemption when they decided to continue their political careers. When Carter left office, he was decried as weak and ineffectual because of his inability to resolve the Iran hostage crisis. Clinton’s many successes as president were stained (pun intended) by his untrammelled libido. Blair’s last years were marred by his support of George W. Bush’s Iraq adventure. Gorbachev was reviled by many at home when his policy of perestroika led to the complete collapse of the Soviet Union and loss of the Soviet empire. Only Mandela had nothing left to prove; I can’t find anything snarky to say about his progress from communist terrorist to statesman of racial reconciliation.

Other private motives have also been at play. Clinton and Blair have conspicuously enriched themselves after leaving office. Bill Clinton has also been trying, with mixed success, to promote Hillary Clinton’s chances for a run at the White House. But whatever the mix of idealism and venality, the five figures portrayed in Cooper’s book represent a new development on the international scene. International affairs used to be the preserve of states, represented by their politicians and professional diplomats. Governments are still crucial, but they now have to share the stage with non-governmental organizations, foundations, moral entrepreneurs, celebrities and miscellaneous commissions accountable to no one in particular. Diplomacy has become much more complicated in our age of easy international travel, instantaneous communications and retired politicians who do not want to leave the stage.

I think this is Cooper’s main message, but it is hard to be sure because the author’s prose is so tortured. Here are the concluding lines of his book:

Although the focus on former leaders as one central cluster of actors, characterized by hybridity of state connections and autonomous society-oriented networking, demonstrates the ambiguous and juxtaposed nature of this advance, it allows a reconfiguration about what—and just as significantly who—should be taken seriously in international politics. Notwithstanding (or rather because of) their neglect in mainstream international relations studies, a sustained turn toward the study, if not the celebration, of individuals generally and this cluster of hyper-­empowered individuals more specifically allows intellectual catch-up to the mobilization of practice. Amid all their shortcomings, this constellation of afterlife activities reveals both a diffused capacity and agentic imprint that cannot be dismissed or overlooked.

Polity Press is a well-known international publisher, but it needs to hire better copy editors. Oscar Wilde was on to something when he wrote, “In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing.” Readers will not find style in this book.

They may find sincerity, but they may also notice a certain lack of substance. The author documents in sometimes overwhelming detail the “diplomatic afterlives” of Jimmy Carter et al., but seldom asks what difference all this activity has made. Things in the Middle East are worse than ever in spite of Carter’s attempts to revitalize the Camp David Accords, North Korea remains a malignant threat despite Bill Clinton’s hostage rescue and nonagenarian Robert Mugabe still rules Zimbabwe even after Nelson Mandela’s efforts to get him to retire. Maybe diplomacy should remain the business of state authorities, not NGOs, Hollywood celebrities and freelancing retirees. At the end of the book I found myself recalling Sir Humphrey Appleby’s unkind remark about politicians in general, that “they need activity. It is their substitute for achievement.” Diplomatic Afterlives chronicles a lot of activity, but not much achievement.

Does any of this apply to Canadian leaders? None has ever made it to the top tier of international retirees, although Joe Clark and others have been busy in the next level, where they exercise “network power,” serving on various commissions and task forces set up by the United Nations, other international organizations, foundations and NGOs. They do not have starring roles like the hyper-empowered members of the top tier, but they are part of the play.

Curiously, Preston Manning in his retirement has imitated parts of the top-tier model. He has secured funding for the Manning Centre for Building Democracy, carved out several areas in which he remains active (political training, building a conservative movement, free-market environmentalism, religion and politics), writes books and articles, gives speeches, and occasionally injects himself into high-profile controversies. Although the scale of Manning’s activities is several levels of magnitude smaller than that of Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton, there are recognizable similarities between what he and they have done. Maybe other retired Canadian leaders will develop the model and further adapt it to the modest circumstances of Canada.

What about Stephen Harper? When he retires, whether that happens after the 2015 election or some years later, he will still be young enough to do more than write memoirs. It is hard to see him fitting into either the top tier or the secondary level described by Cooper, because he lacks the left-­liberal cachet possessed by most members. But there is also another realm of international activity that Cooper barely mentions, a network of organizations concerned with international finance and trade—the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, various regional development banks and commissions dealing with trade issues. Harper’s emphasis on free trade and balanced budgets would be boring in the world described by Cooper but would be well received in international financial circles. What a nightmare for the legions of Harper haters who populate the left bank of Canadian politics, to see him defeated in Canada but reappear in the world of international finance! It would be the confirmation of all their worst suspicions, as it was for conservatives when Paul Martin’s mentor Maurice Strong popped up in Beijing.

Knowing Harper as I used to, I would be surprised to see him make a dash for cash. He just never seemed very interested in the accumulation of wealth. And he has few of the hobbies that amuse many men in their retirement, such as golf, tennis, fishing and pinochle. More than most conservatives, he really loves politics. The international sphere of finance and trade would be his natural habitat if he wants to continue with political activity after his eventual retirement as prime minister of Canada.

In sharp contrast, it is predictable that Barack Obama will soon become the leading figure among top-tier former leaders. He has all the right attributes: left-liberal international cachet (he has already won the Nobel Peace Prize), access to celebrities and big donors from Hollywood and New York, writing ability and oratorical eloquence. For a road map to guide his ascendance, all he has to do is to read Cooper’s book.

Nelson Mandela has died, Jimmy Carter is over 90, Mikhail Gorbachev is in his mid eighties and Tony Blair is largely forgotten. The little club of the hyper-empowered is due to be re-energized; Bill Clinton cannot carry the load all by himself. Soon it will be the Bill and Barack show, even though they have come to loathe each other because of Hillary’s ambitions for the White House. I am almost hoping that Hillary does become the next president to see how it all works out. That would indeed require another book from Cooper.