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You don’t have to be aged to benefit from the wisdom of the ages

Getty images

Getty images

October 24, 2017   7 mins

What does the rise of Jacinda Ardern, 37, in New Zealand, and Sebastian Kurz, 31, in Austria say about public attitudes to youth in a leader, someone whose decisions have a material effect on national security and prosperity?

Perhaps only that voters in those countries believe their national security and prosperity no longer depends on their own leaders. In other words that it doesn’t much matter who is titular premier. Austria’s defence and security strategy seems anyway to be one of hopeful ambiguity. Since regaining sovereignty in 1955, the country has been constitutionally “permanently neutral.” Yet while Austria is not in Nato therefore, as a member of the EU she is associated with the Common Foreign and Security Policy and the aspirations for an EU army. As a member of the Eurozone, her prosperity is effectively managed by the ECB in Frankfurt, while the wealth itself is created smoothly by the Austrians’ own modified Germanic work ethic (It is no coincidence that their kaffe und kuchen is better than that of their larger neighbour, or that the Vienna Philharmonic’s playing is more pleasing than that of Berlin’s).

Chancellor of Austria? Anyone could do it.

How hard can Sebastian Kurz’s new Job be? Credit: Wiktor Dabkowski/DPA/PA Images

New Zealand may be a far away country of which we directly know comparatively little, but is the challenge of leadership that great? There’s little more that anyone could do to weaken New Zealand’s national security anyway, since Helen Clark, the then prime minister, effectively scrapped the air force in 2001. (The first “courtesy visit” by the new Chinese aircraft carriers will no doubt generate anxious telephone calls to Canberra and Washington). As for the economy, the OECD’s recent forecast suggests that “a strong recovery in business investment, ongoing strength in tourism and the recent increase in dairy prices should support growth.”

Prime Minister of New Zealand? No big deal.

But leader of big neighbour Australia, or in Austria’s case, Germany? That’s a different matter. And what suggests it’s a different matter is the age of their present leaders: Malcolm Turnbull, 63 yesterday [his birthday is Tue 24 Oct], and Angela Merkel, also 63.

Hearing truth spoken unto power

Perhaps that’s why, at 39, President Macron is so troubling, even though his wife is older than both Turnbull and Merkel. Within months of becoming president he managed to lose his chief of defence, Général d’armée Pierre de Villiers (61). Aristocracy and generalship have not always been a good combination – in France as well as Britain; but aristocracy has often proved more prepared to speak truth unto power. The former French chief’s full name is Pierre Le Jolis de Villiers de Saintignon. A French general with a particule speaking his mind to a president young enough to be his son: it must have been an interesting occasion.

Prime Minister of New Zealand? No big deal. Chancellor of Austria? Anyone could do it.

Tony Blair’s former speech writer, Philip Collins, wrote a thoughtful piece in The Times on Saturday under the headline “Youth is no substitute for wisdom of age”. Although focusing on political leadership, Collins included some non-political reminders of youthful prodigy – men and women who did great things in their early thirties, including Claude Monet, Alan Turing and Marie Curie (though not, interestingly, Jesus Christ, crucified c. 33). Nor did he include any military leaders, such as Napoleon Bonaparte, who commanded the Army of Italy at 26 and became First Consul at 30, though in fairness, in recent times there have been few successful military leaders who were not in their late 40s or 50s.

Of Général de Villiers’ antagonist Collins writes:

“The really notable thing about Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche! is not the age of its leader. It is the novelty of the movement. Macron has managed the perfect combination of experience and freshness. His movement can therefore do both politics and anti-politics at the same time.”

The lessons of history

Can you really fool enough of the people for long enough this way? We’ll just have to see if the Janus approach is ultimately any more successful in France than it was in Britain under Blair. But Collins’ central proposition is that “it takes more than an energetic prodigy to run a country.” He does of course point out that “Mr Corbyn is not a man of experience or wisdom, in spite of his age” (68). However, he is wrong when he says that “the youthful John F Kennedy had, in part through his impetuosity, led the world to the brink of nuclear catastrophe [while at] the height of the Cold War, three politicians — Ronald Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev and Margaret Thatcher, all of whom had had long careers — found a way through their problems.”

He’s right about the second bit – or rather, that Reagan and Thatcher led (forcefully) Gorbachev through his problems – but not that JFK (45), contrary to older, wiser counsels, impelled the world towards war during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. In fact, if anything, the opposite is true.

Kim Jong Un at 33 is one of the worlds youngest leaders – Xinhua/SIPA USA/PA Images

A nuclear catastrophe certainly looked in the making: when on October 27 an American reconnaissance plane was shot down over Cuba, and as a result an invasion force was stood-to in Florida. The US Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, just a year older than JFK, said:

“I thought it was the last Saturday I would ever see.”

However, it was the military advice that was hawkish, and Kennedy had some difficulty controlling it. The chief of the air staff, Curtis LeMay (56), the great WW2 advocate and practitioner of strategic air power, had wanted to destroy the missile sites, with their Russian personnel, as soon as the aerial reconnaissance had located them.

One of the reasons for Kennedy’s determination not to rush to arms was that he had just read Barbara Tuchman’s recently published The Guns of August, an indictment of the mechanistic march to war in 1914 after the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand.1

“Youth is no substitute for wisdom of age” Collins writes, but the “wisdom of the ages” is a different thing, and that wisdom is not reserved solely for the aged. Kennedy was not just applying personal experience, but wisdom garnered by others – from history.

One of the reasons for Kennedy’s determination not to rush to arms was that he had just read Barbara Tuchman’s recently published The Guns of August, an indictment of the mechanistic march to war in 1914 after the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

There was a telling intervention during the Royal United Services Institute’s annual conference in June this year, held jointly with the British and American armies. The theme of change, innovation and futurism was becoming so dominant at one point that the chief of the US Army, General Mark Milley, ex-Special Forces and Ivy League graduate, warned of “the arrogance, the conceit, of the present”, cautioning against making too much of immediate personal experience and too little of the longer view and its hard-won understanding. That way, he said, in trying to anticipate the changing character of war you were less likely to lose sight of its enduring nature.

A rather remarkable book to be published next month shows why. The Bramall Papers: Reflections on War and Peace – a collection of essays, lectures and speeches going back fifty years and ranging over several centuries – is a coda to a long lifetime’s thinking and practising the strategic art by Field Marshal the Lord Bramall of Rushfield (93). Having the Military Cross pinned on one’s chest by Field Marshal Montgomery in 1945 is not in itself a warrant of integrity and judgement (the late Robert Maxwell of infamous memory was similarly decorated), but a career ending with the appointment of Chief of the Defence Staff when Margaret Thatcher was prime minister certainly is, especially when followed by continuous engagement with defence matters in the House of Lords (including opposition to the Iraq invasion on strategic grounds) and a number of heavyweight publications. The Bramall Papers were therefore never going to be of merely historical interest; the value of their distilled wisdom is in their enduring relevance. Here is the field marshal (writing in 1970 as a brigadier at the Imperial Defence College) on “The Application of Force in the Future”, in particular on “Threatened Violence” (added emphasis):

“A deterrent may take the form of a credible or at least plausible defensive capability… or it may be more appropriate and cheaper to base it on a nuclear counter threat. Precisely what constitutes a credible deterrent, and how much a potential aggressor is deterred by it, as opposed to being held back by other constraints, must remain a matter of speculation. A deterrent is clearly all the more credible if the vital interests of the deterring state and its capacity and will to defend them are seen to be clearly linked; but its effectiveness will also depend on the potential aggressor’ intentions and resolve as well as his capabilities. The self confidence which a deterrent gives one’s own side that it can exact an unacceptable toll from any potential aggressor is, in reality, just as important as the effect it has over an opponent.”

In his Times article, Philip Collins lists ten world leaders under 40, including Kim Jong-un (33), Supreme Leader of North Korea. 2As I suggested in a piece for UnHerd in August, Kim Jong-un’s drive for nuclear weapons is probably as much if not more to do with securing the regime internally as it is from deterring an almost entirely illusory threat of American invasion. Kim needs to deliver greater living standards, not least to North Korea’s nascent middle class, to avoid the fate of many former Communist regimes, and to do this he has to find money from defence. Nuclear weapons are the cheaper option.


War – or the avoidance of war – has often been made with bribes. It’s not nice, it’s not ethical, and it’s not always effective (as payment of the Danegeld showed). But war, said one of its smartest practitioners, General James Wolfe (who on his death, at the victory over the French at Quebec, was just 33), is “an option of difficulties.”

Who knows what counsels the strange but perfectly rational Kim Jong-un takes. President Trump (71) is, however, advised by a Defense Secretary and National Security Adviser who not only have the wisdom of age (67 and 55 respectively) but of the ages, since both are famously well read. They will certainly know the subtleties of President Kennedy’s strategy in the Cuban missile crisis – a credible non-nuclear threat of invasion, a frightening arsenal of nuclear weapons, a willingness to withdraw local military advantage in Turkey, and “back channels of communication.” There really is no need for President Trump to get this wrong.

But I wonder: would Jacinda Ardern or Sebastian Kurz have anything useful to say if either Donald Trump or Kim Jong-un asked their advice?

  1.  Barbara Tuchman (1912–89) was an American journalist and historian, a lecturer at Harvard and the US Navy War College. Kennedy had a high regard for The Guns of August, published in Britain with the title August 1914, which he sent to senior officers and Washington staff.
  2.  TEN UNDER 40: THE WORLD’S YOUNGEST LEADERS Jacinda Ardern 37, Prime minister of New Zealand (from Oct 2017) Sebastian Kurz 31, Chancellor of Austria (Oct 2017) Leo Varadkar 38, Prime minister of Ireland (June 2017) Emmanuel Macron 39, President of France (May 2017) Volodymyr Groysman 39, Prime minister of Ukraine (2016) Jüri Ratas 39, Prime minister of Estonia (2016) Saleh Ali al-Sammad 38, Houthi, leader, president of the supreme political council of Yemen (2016) Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck 37, King of Bhutan (2006) Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani 37, Emir of Qatar (2013) Kim Jong-un 33, Supreme Leader of North Korea (2011)

Allan Mallinson is a historian and former career soldier, one-time Anglican seminarian, Catholic convert. Author of the Matthew Hervey novels and four works of history on the British Army, and the First World War (Penguin RandomHouse). Times and Spectator contributor.


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