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Colin Powell and the meaning of charisma

Oct 23,2021 - Last updated at Oct 23,2021

LONDON — I have read the obituaries of General Colin Powell, who died this week, with considerable sadness. I got to know this great American soldier-statesman when he was the US secretary of state and I was the European commissioner for external affairs. He was a remarkable man, decent, moderate and wise, whose career was eventually ended and his legacy diminished by his excessive loyalty to President George W. Bush.

Powell was charismatic in the true sense of the term. Nowadays, this description is too often used to indicate an ability to attract supporters or generate celebrity interest. Internet lists of those who are regarded as charismatic include characters as varied as Adolf Hitler, Bono, Donald Trump, George Clooney and Rihanna. But the ancient Greeks and Saint Paul used “charisma” to describe values-based leadership infused with a charm capable of inspiring devotion. The Greeks believed that this quality was a gift of grace, while Christian theology regarded it as a power given by the Holy Spirit.

Thinking about the people I have met who best exemplified this quality, I am struck by a fact that owes nothing to political correctness and everything to my immediate and sustained reaction. The three most charismatic public figures I have known, Nelson Mandela, Kofi Annan and Powell, were black. This may well have been, in part, a consequence of their experience in coping with political and diplomatic worlds that were dominated by white establishments.

I met Mandela, the hero of South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle, on several occasions but principally in my role as chancellor of the University of Oxford, which had formerly been endowed by the nineteenth-century British imperial businessman Cecil Rhodes with a scholarship programme for young people from around the world. Mandela had been imprisoned for 27 years by the apartheid regime. But on his release, he paved the way for a peaceful transition to black majority rule in South Africa through his magnanimity and brave efforts to reconcile the mutually hostile elements in the country’s past and present.

One such example was his initiative in establishing the Mandela Rhodes Foundation, a partnership to fund the education of more African students and help to tackle the inequalities resulting from the legacies of colonialism and apartheid. In 2003, I spoke beside Mandela in Westminster Great Hall to hundreds of current and former Rhodes scholars. He noted that Rhodes was “a part of shaping what present-day South Africa turned out to be”, and, despite his controversial legacy, should be “remembered by posterity” for his philanthropy. Mandela radiated that mixture of grace and authority that is at the heart of charisma.

So did Annan, the first black African to become a UN secretary general. His tenure spanned the Iraq War, the AIDS pandemic and years of struggle to assert the moral foundations of international action to deal with global political and economic problems. He placed particular emphasis on the UN development goals, and on the understanding that individual citizens had rights that could not be trumped or trampled on by the states that governed and sometimes abused them.

My best friend from university, the late Edward Mortimer, who was Annan’s speech writer and head of communications, put the secretary general’s soft-spoken words into memorable language, strong but never bitter. Annan’s presence in a room exuded calm, but you never forgot his determination to try to mitigate some of the world’s inhumanity.

Powell was US secretary of state while I was representing Europe internationally alongside Javier Solana, then the European Union’s high representative for common foreign and security policy. Powell was, of course, one of the greatest examples of social mobility in US history. The son of Jamaican immigrants, he rose to the top of the army and of diplomacy. It is almost impossible to imagine one of the so-called Windrush generation of West Indian immigrants to Britain making the same journey. In fact, one of Powell’s Jamaican cousins settled in London and became a bus conductor. No shame in that, but it is not quite the same as becoming chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff.

In person, Powell was eloquent, astute, well-informed, and funny. You had the strong feeling that if you had been a soldier under his command, you would have been prepared to crawl over barbed wire for him.

When Powell was having to defend the Bush administration policies of which he almost certainly disapproved, a task he performed with conspicuous loyalty, his heart was clearly not in it. Often, not least in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq War, I prayed in vain that Powell would break ranks. I always resented the way that the ground was cut from under his feet in the Bush administration by Vice President Dick Cheney, Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and the other neoconservative hawks, and by then-UK prime minister Tony Blair’s virtually unqualified support for whatever the US wanted to do in Iraq. Blair let Powell and other US moderates down.

I remember one occasion when Solana and I visited Powell in Washington just after the launch of a European initiative to inject some vitality into the moribund Middle East peace process. While we were there, a fierce article appeared in The Washington Post saying that this was another example of European anti-Semitism. On the flight back to Brussels, I wrote a furious rebuttal that the Post, to its credit, published straightaway.

Two days later, while I was driving through Madrid for a meeting with then-Spanish prime minister José Maria Aznar, my phone rang. It was the US State Department switchboard. “Could Secretary Powell have a quick word with you?” I was asked. Powell came on the line just to say, “Great piece in the paper this morning, Chris. Don’t stop saying it.”

At that moment and others, I would gladly have signed up to his colors and marched wherever he wanted me to go. Powell, who radiated grace and authority, was a genuinely good man and a fine leader. If only there were more like him today.

 

Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong and a former EU commissioner for external affairs, is chancellor of the University of Oxford. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2021. 

www.project-syndicate.org

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