The ancient Greek poet Archilochus opined, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Let me submit that we’re living through the final months of the decidedly hedgehog presidency of George W. Bush, whose strategic failures can logically be remedied by the election of a fox in 2008.
Americans generally prefer leaders to be steadfast and armed with a readily identifiable worldview. To have a mind subject to periodic change is considered weak and irresolute. We often label these individuals “flip-floppers,” “liars” and — worst of all — “politicians,” when “life-long learners” and “deal-makers” are equally applicable.
Our democracy regularly requires painful compromises to balance the extremes against the large, mushy middle that encompasses most American voters. After all, this republic is ruled by the majority, which sometimes craves the hedgehog’s unwavering consistency and at other times welcomes the fox’s intellectual agility.
During the 1930s Great Depression, Americans trusted the preeminent presidential fox, Franklin Roosevelt, to navigate those shoals and the subsequent world war. From his strategic imagination sprang much of the political structure that defined both America and the world across the rest of the 20th century.
When FDR passed, history offered us a true hedgehog in Harry Truman, to whom George W. Bush deserves comparison. Faced with a dangerously fluid global security environment, Harry “gave ’em hell” in the form of a military-industrial complex and the containment strategy, defining our Cold War vision for decades to come.
A war-weary America turned next to hedgehog Dwight Eisenhower, hoping his steadying hand would calm our increasingly volatile confrontations with the Soviets. The result was both comforting and suffocating: our “happy days” stability came at the price of McCarthyism, separate-but-equal race segregation and father-knows-best gender conformity.
A trio of fox presidents defined the tumultuous ’60s. It started with John Kennedy’s cacophony of bold visions (e.g., space race, foreign aid, irregular warfare), grew with Lyndon Johnson’s legislative genius (civil rights, Medicare, voting rights) and culminated in Richard Nixon’s stunningly ambitious diplomatic schemes (European detente, strategic arms treaties, opening to China). Linking all three in failure, however, was the unsolvable Vietnam conflict and the social unrest it eventually triggered back home.
Following Nixon’s frightening self-destruction through the Watergate scandal, Americans selected three consecutive hedgehog presidents to achieve — across a lengthy historical arc — a resurrection of America’s self-confidence and character. Gerald Ford afforded us “a time to heal,” while Jimmy Carter restored morality to our national politics and foreign policy.
But it was Ronald Reagan, a quintessential hedgehog, who most shaped the global superpower that emerged — seemingly unscathed — from the Cold War. His turbo-charged defense build-up begat the awesome conventional war-fighting capacity we possess today — the Leviathan ensuring peace among great powers. Most importantly, Reagan restored America’s belief in its inherent goodness and its duty to combat evil in this world.
The Cold War’s end demanded a new strategic nimbleness from presidents free of that era’s ideological rigidity. We got that agility in global security affairs from George H.W. Bush’s pragmatic administration and in global economic affairs from Bill Clinton’s free trade-hawking presidency.
After the dizzying ride of the go-go ’90s, George W. Bush pulled off the electoral miracle that was the 2000 election, promising more humility in our foreign policy. To that end, the inexperienced former governor was provided several steadying hands from previous Republican administrations (e.g., Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell, Rice).
At least, that was the theory going in.
Because when 9/11 intervened, Americans discovered George Bush — so long incurious about global affairs — to be the most myopically hedgehog president in modern times, a man whose entire legacy will be defined by his decision to invade Iraq.
Now, as the 2008 presidential campaign gears up, let me offer you this advice: seek out foxes and avoid hedgehogs. Don’t listen to candidates who tell you this whole election boils down to one thing and one thing alone. While that approach made sense for some time following 9/11, America’s clearly moved past that historical inflection point.
We need a president with more than one answer to every question, one whose toolkit is as diverse as his — or her — ideology is flexible. We need a dealmaker, a compromiser, a closer. We need someone able to finish what others cannot, and start that which others dare not.
We need a leader who knows many things, because we’ve had enough of those who know only one big thing.
(Thomas P.M. Barnett is a strategist at the Oak Ridge Center for Advanced Studies and the senior managing director of Enterra Solutions LLC. Contact him at tom(at)thomaspmbarnett.com.)