What kind of damage will the combination of young men and absolute power do this time around?
By David B. Kanin*
It is common for states and civic movements to tout an emerging younger generation as the fount of reform and agent of better times. Jungendstil at the turn of the twentieth century, the “flower power” generation of the 1960s, the young Europeans who took hammers to the Berlin wall in 1989, and the students and others who inspired the breathless predictions of Democracy and “Arab Spring” in 2011 all sparked hope. They also turned into clichés via the pens of journalists and public intellectuals even as their ideals and social promise began to sour.
A more traditional but less rosy relationship between youth and public power is getting attention now. Historically, the emergence of young monarchs or autocrats armed with varying amounts of legal authority, armed force, popular support, and personal charisma has been a common phenomenon. Alexander III of Macedon became “the Great” because of his unparalleled skill as an organized killer. Napoleon was much the same, although he also had administrative talents Alexander did not – both modern France and Germany are unthinkable without his organizational input.
Sometimes, just being young is enough to inspire hope of change – knowing what happened at the end of his reign makes it easy to forget how popular Louis XVI was when he first came to the French throne. Barack Obama was no autocrat, but what besides his youth and speaking ability led so many people to believe that as President he would accomplish so much more than he did?
The Alexanders and Napoleons of the world have something in common that distinguishes them from other rulers young and old. They are willing – even eager – to tie their stars to activities that risk serious bloodletting. This does not mean such people always are anxious to take personal command of their troops. Nevertheless, whether for their personal glory or just to thumb their noses at their forebears, these people undertake adventures everyone else has to pay for.
This is not just an historical exercise; two of these people are in power now. Kim Jong-un has made North Korea a nuclear power, and notions that any combination of American diplomacy (is there still such a thing?), sanctions and Chinese pressure will convince Kim to give this capability up are pure fantasy. At the same time, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MbS) has launched a pointless (and losing) war in Yemen, engaged in bullying brinksmanship against Qatar, and appears intent on taking on Iran and its very capable Hezbollah associates in Lebanon. Good luck with that.
Alexander, Napoleon, and other analogues can serve only to sketch the outlines of what the current boys-with-toys might do, but at the risk of stretching this theme even more, there is another predecessor whose ruling patterns are worth some consideration. Wilhelm II, the German Kaiser who presided over his country’s disastrous march to World War I, came to power at the same age as MbS and Kim. Like them, the timing and circumstances of his coming to power were unanticipated. When Wilhelm I, his grandfather, died in 1888 expectations were that his parents, Kaiser Friedrich III and Kaiserin Victoria – daughter of the British queen of the same name — would rule and would lead their country in a liberal direction. Instead, it soon became clear (to all but the Kaiserin and the Scottish doctor she trusted to take care of her husband) that the Kaiser had throat cancer. His reign lasted a few months.
This brought to the throne a 29 year old monarch born with a crushed left arm, weaned by indifferent parents, and trained by ambitious (and strongly anti-Semitic) advisors. Wilhelm was intelligent but – as chronicled in many biographies – emotionally unstable and prone to verbal and sartorial posturing. The Kaiser fired Otto von Bismarck, his inherited Chancellor, but at least he did not execute him as Kim did his uncle and putative regent, Jang Song-thaek, or arrest him as MbS did so many rival princes. (Perhaps Wilhelm should have been tougher in this regard, as Bismarck spent the rest of his life attempting to undermine his sovereign and ministerial successors.)
As an analogue, the Kaiser raises the problem of determining how seriously to take the public persona of persons of this sort. Wilhelm bragged and second-guessed – but he also used the print and, later, the emerging audio and film technologies of his time to establish a personal connection to his subjects. His congratulatory letter to the political leader of the Boer uprising against the British in South Africa infuriated London, and his project of creating a blue water navy helped turn a possible British alliance into a fatal adversarial relationship (never mind his poor relationship with his uncle, King Edward VII). The Kaiser had a penchant for appending editorial marginalia to diplomatic cables – this running commentary was something like President Donald Trump’s tweets. With his spiked helmet and turned up mustache, Wilhelm II became the iconic image of his state – for better or worse.
Nevertheless, when it came time to actually fight a war Wilhelm faded away. It turned out his bluster was just that – although Slobodan Milosevic maintained much more hands-on control as he mismanaged the collapse of Yugoslavia, he and Wilhelm shared a tendency to use less force than their behavior advertised (even given imperial Germany’s genocide in Namibia and Serbian actions in Kosovo before the NATO bombing campaign of 1999). It may be difficult to determine how far Kim and MbS are willing to go to enforce their writ; miscalculation therefore will be as likely on the part of their adversaries as themselves. Perhaps the US and Iran could begin to establish constructive communications by exchanging views on the strategies they are using to figure out the priorities, motivations, and practical intentions of young rulers relatively less restrained than most governing executives by legal, structural, or other constraints.
It also is not too early to consider the longer view – even assuming no personal mishaps, not even the young last forever. In what state are these people likely to leave their countries? Alexander, Napoleon, and similar rulers were not good at arranging their personal succession or leaving in place functioning governing institutions. Unless a new autocrat quickly emerges (as happened in Turkmenistan after the death of “Turkmenbashi”), after they pass from the scene Kim’s and MbS’s rival internal constituencies and external adversaries likely will have to deal with uncertainty, power struggles, and political and social disorientation.
*David B. Kanin is an adjunct professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University and a former senior intelligence analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of TransConflict.