25 June 2020
Biden – Any Good?
The curse of succession.
By John Watson
On the floor, next to my exercise bench, there is a copy of Anthony Eden’s autobiography Full Circle. It is there because it is exactly the right weight for particular exercises which my personal trainer has recommended but I never dip back into it, because when I read it years ago I found it too depressing. Eden was, of course, Prime Minister after Churchill and was largely responsible – the French had a hand in it too – for the fiasco of Suez. In fact quite a lot went wrong, largely because he behaved as though Britain was a major world power when it had ceased to be so and delusion is not a good basis for foreign policy. And yet, on paper Eden looked so right for the job. His political cv was impeccable: three terms as Foreign Secretary, three and a half years as Deputy Prime Minister, a spell as chairman of the Conservative party and another as Minister for War. On personal grounds too he was distinguished: a double first from Oxford, a Military Cross from the First World War, a deserved reputation as a man of peace, and, most important of all, a long period as Churchill’s number two with every opportunity to learn from the great man. It sounds good, doesn’t it? And yet it all went wrong. Working with Churchill was quite a different thing from being Churchill. The skills of the number 2 are quite different from the skills of the number 1; all turned to ashes and disaster.
You see much the same if you look at the career of Lord Raglan who led the British and French forces in the Crimean War. At the time of his appointment he was already a name to conjure with having, as Fitzroy Somerset, acted as Wellington’s ADC in the Peninsula, as his secretary in Paris, on his staff at Waterloo. He also had exceptional personal courage and nerve, being the first into the breach at Badajoz and asking for his newly severed arm to be returned to him at Quatre Bras so that he could take his wedding ring off it. Best of all, though, his years of acting as Wellington’s sweeper-up must have given him an insight into one of the best military minds of Europe. What a wonderful background for a commander. What could possibly go wrong? Well, the Charge of the Light Brigade for a start. Unfortunately being Wellington’s number two was not a good preparation for the main job. Wellington left no one in any doubt about his orders and the job of his ADC involved smoothing things down. As commander, Raglan was so polite that no one quite knew what the orders were and the Charge of the Light Brigade was a particularly spectacular result of the muddle which ensued. The reason why Raglan worked so well as Wellington’s ADC was they had complimentary and different skills. To choose as overall commander someone who worked well with the great Wellington was as much an error as choosing as PM Eden, who had worked so well with Churchill.
Of course it isn’t always wrong to promote someone who has grown up in the shadow of a great man. The younger Pitt must have grown up in the shadow of his father but in his case the genius was all his own. One of the greatest classicists of his generation, a numbers man par excellence, dominating his party, his success flowed from the talent oozing out of him not some stardust which he had picked up from his illustrious father.
So what about Biden? Vice president to the great Obama, who though not necessarily successful in all he did was clearly a huge political figure. Is Biden there because of his links to the great man or because of his own innate political abilities? It is very hard to say, particularly from over here and if any US readers would like to express a view we would be interested in hearing it. But the uncertainty is certainly a worry. As President Trump’s utterances become more eccentric we have to look at Biden as the potential leader of the free world at the time when incisive new ideas and inspiration are at a premium. Can he really deliver or will there be a leadership vacuum in the foreign policies of the West? Time will tell but one thing is certain. The contingency planning of the European NATO countries needs to include a strategy for how the gap would be filled if it all went pear-shaped.