Of War and Peace


Part four:    The last remaining obstacle - Charismatic leaders


Charisma is undeniably attractive. We have all known individuals whom we respect instinctively.  We may admire them not because of their smart ideas or even their joie de vivre, but simply because they happen to have that mysterious quality. Charismatic individuals possess an air of authority – such people exude a certainty that is a comfort in this uncertain world. They are life-enhancers: in small doses and locally-applied, charisma is a wonderful quality that lends colour to our more monotone lives, but on the larger scale of the world stage it has become dangerous, as the most cursory glance at history confirms. 


We are here dealing with a universal weakness that can be exploited and manipulated.  When you consider the sometimes really rather repulsive characters that have been somehow magnified into adorable father-figures, such as Stalin and Hitler, it is clear that charisma is not necessarily related to virtue, and can even be a superficial character, useful in winning friends and influencing people, that may mask more basic and very unpleasant traits. Charisma is in fact a quality often possessed in abundance by the most hardened psychopaths.  The problem posed by charisma in a world controlled by leaders with enormous power is one that has not received the attention it deserves.


The pull towards democracy is in one direction, and the pull exerted by autocratic leaders is in quite the opposite.  A choice must be made:  it is not possible for a society to have both.  Our penchant for hero-worship may be built-in from the vulnerable days when we roamed the open savannah: in a time when single individuals were easy prey and groups needed the strongest leader they could get, a strong leadership once had great survival value.   Many gregarious animals, including in particular our nearest relatives, the primates, have developed a strictly hierarchical social structure.  But times have changed.  A social structure that is suitable for a troupe of baboons is bound to be inadequate for us humans, who have formed packs of immense size.  In human society today leaders have become grotesquely powerful, sometimes heading a pack that may run into hundreds of millions of individuals. A succession of sages has warned that modern war, with modern weapons, is a form of suicide, and that our very survival depends on finding the strength to break off our love affair with militant ‘bold spirits’.


To read of our turbulent, bloody history is to be convinced that war is a self-inflicted misery that ought to be easily preventable.  It is easy to imagine a global society that would be stable, prosperous and peaceful, a world where commerce between nations had become so firmly established, where the economic and social links had become so strong and so much a part of ordinary life, that recourse to war had long since become unthinkable.  Take as an example the friendly ties that today bind France and Germany, two nations which have in the fairly recent past torn each other apart in savage wars, but which now cooperate for mutual benefit, and operate under common laws.  So what has prevented homo sapiens as a whole from settling down to a peaceful, prosperous co-existence, where the only problems are those imposed by the nature of our lives on a vulnerable, finite planet? 


The failure to eradicate international violence is certainly not due to lack of sufficient intelligence.  Our curiosity and cleverness have enabled us to discover many of nature’s laws.  We know a lot about the universe in which our planet spins, and from amazingly clever deductions from sharp observation of natural processes we have worked out much of the immensely long history of planet Earth, and how we came to be the dominant species on it. We have harnessed physics to help us begin to explore the vast immensity of space, and even to obtain the energy from inside an atom.  So our failure to find a way to peace, especially when failure is of such consequence that today it threatens our very existence, is hard to understand.  Especially when the inventions that can be used to inaugurate a lasting peace lie readily to hand.


Harry Davis