The acute personalisation of politics that has developed – unevenly – over the past few decades across the democratic world (it’s a given of the undemocratic world) has meant that diplomatic and military incidents have, themselves, taken on a highly personalised form. Matters such as the bombing of suspected chemical weapons facilities in Syria, for example, are therefore politically new in their nature.
One of the earliest forms of personalised brinkmanship was the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, a stand-off so tense that blinking (or not) was meant literally. Today, however, unlike Cuba, which was a major international crisis, the “personalised domestic” let’s call it, is the organising driver of incidents such as the attacks on Syria.
When the leaders of the US, France and the UK decided to intervene in Syria, they were certainly making it a personal matter. All three leaders have something to prove and each faces their own domestic challenges. Each has also chosen to embrace “personality politics”, for better or worse. And an essential part of this kind of politics is that each action tells or performs a different personal story. But how those personal stories played out in the case of Syria reflects the different institutional and cultural differences of each country.
Something to prove
Donald Trump has changed the nature of personalised politics in the US. From FDR, the developing nature of “the rhetorical presidency” saw American leaders performing images of themselves while developing an overall narrative about their nation. The election of Trump has seen the acute, neurotic development of the rhetorical presidency. “America First” might appear to be his national narrative but it’s really only a backdrop to the persona of the man: unpredictable, full of braggadocio, attention-seeking, spiteful, with a tendency to tantrum, and so on. In a word, he is “unwise” – the antithesis of the mythological king in the White House to whom Americans turn in their hours of uncertainty. Such capriciousness means that policy and action themselves emanate from the personality of the man.
This mission was always about him proving himself and taking on Assad rather than having a long-term plan to help in Syria. Trump’s action is essentially the demonstration that he would act when Assad crossed the “red line” drawn by his predecessor Barack Obama by using chemical weapons. Trump retaliated even though – in fact, specifically because – Obama would not.
In the case of France, as in the US, a presidential system encourages virile action. The president does not have to consult parliament before taking military action – in fact, he is expected not to. Interestingly enough, in France (as in the US and UK), the Syria strikes are deeply unpopular. Unlike the UK, however, Emmanuel Macron’s actions are not a talking point at all. By taking this action, Macron is showing not so much Assad as the French public that he knows how to “faire président”.
There is another context to the French action, also domestic and personalised. His predecessor François Hollande had tried but failed in 2013 to launch an attack upon Assad for the same reasons as Macron (the use of chemical weapons). Hollande had not been properly backed by Obama and had been outsmarted (then ignored) by Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and publicly mocked by Assad. Hollande was not at fault, but he seemed to lack or have lost the decisive man-of-action image. The incident only added to his overall reputation of being “unpresidential”. Macron’s action is the demonstration that he must avoid that fate.
Nor is it just the presidential system that encourages aggressive acts in France, particularly in foreign affairs. It’s the political culture itself. The belief in the “providential man” is deep-seated in the French imagination, which makes the French polity chivalric as regards leadership. It encourages bold and brave individual acts.
Theresa’s parliamentary problem
Theresa May has taken the same action as Macron, with the same majority disapproval for that action among the public. But, unlike Macron, she has failed to spin the story into a positive one about her own leadership.
This is in part because, whatever the constitutional position, the British prime minister is expected to seek parliament’s approval for such action, as David Cameron had done in 2013. And the opposition leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has had a great deal of rhetorical space in criticising her lack of respect for parliament because of that expectation.
There are two other issues that undermine May’s position. The first is precisely that she is not a president – and the institutional and politico-cultural frameworks within which UK politics operates militate against individual initiatives. The second is that May’s reputation, since calling an unnecessary general election in 2017 that she had said repeatedly she would not call, has been undermined in one particular respect: her motivations for action are seen as different from her declared aims. This, as we have seen, is the same for Macron and Trump, but in her case, it is now part of the received view of her character.
Moreover, May needed to make this a personal success story more than Trump and Macron but, because of her weak position in public opinion, she has failed. Both culturally and institutionally she is disadvantaged – and the performative character “Theresa May” is no longer held in the esteem she enjoyed before she called the general election in 2017. She will continue to face questions about what she is doing about the crisis in Syria. Trump and Macron can just bomb and walk away.