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Profiles in Leadership: Statesmen Who Made Breakthroughs for Peace and Security

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As the 2015-2016 Henry A. Kissinger Chair in Foreign Policy and International Relations at the Library of Congress, political scientist Bruce Jentleson is writing and researching a new book on transformational leaders of the 20th century who made major breakthroughs for peace and security — and what lessons may exist for the 21st century. He sat down with Jason Steinhauer to discuss the motivation for writing this book now and the question of whether history makes men (or women) or women (or men) make history.

Bruce Jentleson
Scholar Bruce Jentleson is the 2015-2016 Kissinger Chair in Foreign Policy and International Relations at the Kluge Center.

Hi, Bruce. What is the broader purpose of your project and book?

In the early 1980s towards the end of the U.S. Foreign Policy course I taught at the University of California-Davis, I’d ask the students their thoughts on the future. “Well, Professor Jentleson,” one student said, “I think the Cold War will end, and end peacefully.” From another bright-eyed one, “Apartheid will end and South Africa will transition to a black majority democracy.” My responses were along the lines of it’s nice to be young and naïve, but let’s be realistic.

I was a young professor then, still conscious of how in graduate school we were steered away from focusing on individual leaders. International affairs, the canon held, were driven largely by systemic forces and such timeless dynamics as national interest and balance of power. But while many factors came into play, the extraordinary leadership provided by Mikhail Gorbachev and Nelson Mandela were the crucial ones in ending the Cold War and Apartheid.

So I got thinking: Whom else in the 20th century was a “profile in Statesmanship”, shaping major breakthroughs for peace?  Who were transformational in ways that, as Isaiah Berlin put it, “at crucial moments, at turning points . . . individuals and their decisions and acts . . . can determine the course of history.” I was looking for leaders who also fit the distinction made by James MacGregor Burns between transformational and transactional leadership, which for my study focuses on major breakthroughs in global peace and security as distinct from diplomacy geared to managing and resolving issues.

A second question followed from the first: What can we learn from 20th century transformational Statesmanship for the 21st century? This isn’t a matter of pointing to this or that individual, rather drawing lessons from past Statesmanship to help shape and motivate the breakthroughs for peace our era so needs. The 20th century profiles show that it’s difficult. They also show that it’s possible.

What are the five dimensions of peace and security you have chosen, and why?

To get a handle on the rather broad category of global peace and security, I break it down into its five component dimensions: managing major power geopolitics for cooperation more than conflict; building international institutions for conflict prevention and collective action; fostering reconciliation of peoples locked in conflicts rooted in historical hatreds; advancing freedom and protecting human rights; and promoting sustainability including poverty and inequality reduction, environmental protection and global public health. In each of these chapters I focus on a few representative 20th century Statesmanship cases, and draw out lessons within those policy areas for 21st century challenges.

You’ll also see that I don’t just have in mind leaders of countries but also include leaders of key international institutions and pioneering non-governmental organizations (NGOs) who did for peace and justice what governments were unable or unwilling to do.

It is often debated whether men make history or history makes men. It seems as though you are seeking a middle ground?

Yes, my perspective based on experience in the foreign policy world as well as an international relations professor puts me in the History/Great Leaders middle ground. The academic literature digs deeper than just the latest who’s up and who’s down, but too often stays at a level of abstraction that glosses over the impact that leaders do have. The talk inside the D.C. Beltway and among journalists can get too caught up in personalities, but often does focus in on critical decision-making and strategizing. The analytic balance is in recognizing that history and broad social forces create constraints as well as conducive conditions shaping the range of available choices, but that they don’t determine which choices get made. No individual is so extraordinary that (s)he would have transformational impact irrespective of the context in which (s)he ends up operating. But it also is not a given that just anyone could have pulled off the Statesmanship that the particular leader did. It’s man (woman) and moment, fit and timing.

I’m struck by your allusion to sabermetrics and statistics such as Wins Above Replacement. How are you integrating that brand of thinking into your research?

Friends know I’m a rabid baseball fan. (I won’t mention my favorite team to avoid alienating some folks!). The main innovation in the “Moneyball” craze in Major League Baseball is the wins-against-replacement-player statistic (WARP) calculating how much one player contributes to team victories over alternative ones at the same position. Scholarly studies of political leadership use more formal language, such as “actor indispensability,” that the leader in question responds significantly differently than another leader in the same situation would have. While there is no neat diplo-ball “statesman-above-replacement-leader” (“SARL”) saber-metric, evidence can be marshaled to make the same point: who the player/Statesman is makes a big difference.

Your book seems to have much in common with other work on leadership.

Leadership is, to again quote James MacGregor Burns, “one of the most observed and least understood phenomena on earth.” Noted author and public intellectual Walter Isaacson calls it an “elusive quality.” That’s not for lack of trying. Books abound. So do university-based leadership programs. In the corporate world an estimated $14 billion has been spent over the past two decades on leadership development, twice as much as before. Indeed people talk about leadership all the time, in many contexts, with the same “we need leadership” and “how do you get it” mantras. Yet for all this attention, one gets a sense of both fascination and frustration. Fascination in how time and again explanations of success and failure in such a range of professions and pursuits hone in on leadership as a key factor. Frustration in how difficult it is to define the elements of leadership with any degree of consistency, let alone teach and cultivate them. I hope to connect to this fascination and contribute to diminishing the frustration.

This is a story not just of great men, but also great women. Talk about Gro Harlem Brundtland and the other women you are profiling?

Gro Harlem Brundtland, three-time Prime Minister of Norway, is included in the “Sustainability” chapter principally for her work in the international arena as chairwoman of the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) in the 1980s and Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO, 1998-2003).

I also include Aung San Suu Kyi for the crucial role she has played in fighting for democracy and human rights in Burma/Myanmar. Enduring decades of house arrest, separation from her family, and repeated threats on her life, she embodied the hopes of those seeking to end the military dictatorship both within Burma and internationally.

And as a different kind of case Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan, founders of the Northern Ireland Women for Peace, as everyday people who in their own ways played crucial catalytic roles in the mid-1970s at the height of the violence known as “The Troubles” that while not ending the conflict in the moment paved the way.

Why this project now?

In the late 1980s-early 1990s it seemed like the world was going in a good direction. The Cold War ended peacefully. Dictatorships were falling to democracy. Globalization was spreading the wealth. History was said to be over, world affairs becoming so harmonic as to be downright boring.

Things have not exactly worked out that way. The end of the Cold War has not meant the end of war. That democratic wave has broken up on some rocky shores. Globalization has had losers as well as winners, downsides as well as upsides. History has come roaring back with ancient hatreds fueled by modern venom. Climate change is speeding up. Global health pandemics are spreading. Cyber-war and other technology-driven emerging areas, in need of rules of the game, aren’t getting them. Indeed it’s a lot easier to name a global problem that’s been growing worse than one on which progress is being made.

There are many aspects to meeting these and other 21st century challenges. Some must be generated bottom-up, as with the “people power” of protest movements. Some must be middle-out from science, technology, economics, education and other fields. But much must come top-down from global leaders able and willing to be transformational, to break out of the tunnel vision of thinking narrowly about one’s interests and the myopia of focusing on today but not tomorrow.

Bruce Jentleson is the current Henry A. Kissinger Chair in Foreign Policy and International Relations at the Library of Congress. He lectures on transformational statesmanship of 20th Century on Thursday, May 19 at 4:00 p.m. The event is co-sponsored by the Embassy of Sweden as part of the European Month of Culture.


  1. Regarding WARP/SARL, the player/leader replacement must be judged according to overall performance of all who held the position and not just the replaced individual, as one would compare all past presidents to the current leader. If not, an inefficient comparison of skills and qualifications would be realized. Does one compare great sluggers to Babe Ruth only or should Bonds, Aaron and Williams also be considered.

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