In the last few years, it has become popular to say that history is determined largely by sweeping inanimate forces of technology, the environment, gender, class or race. We play down the role of individuals — as if the notion that one person can shape history is old-fashioned. But that’s hardly the case.
Take Nicolas Sarkozy, the new president of France. For 60 years, the power of the state in France had steadily increased. Government workers were handed lavish entitlements and retirement packages while French competitiveness diminished in a new globalized world.
Abroad, traditional French foreign policy cynically tried to have it both ways: staying within the protection of the Western democratic alliance but at the same time opportunistically backbiting the United States to gain special commercial and diplomatic favor with authoritarian governments in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.
But this spring, a reformer arrived on the scene with visions of France as a world diplomatic player that would be known for its principled behavior and defense of Western values.
Sarkozy almost single-handedly has restored France’s friendship with the United States, begun to reform the economy at home and sought to bring back French entrepreneurship and creativity critical for a free, expansive economy.
The more the unions, the French intellectual elite and entrenched socialists slur Sarkozy as a reactionary and American puppet, the more he has vowed that he won’t relent until a reformed France can recapture its former commercial and geopolitical prominence.
Sarkozy isn’t the only one defying the odds and questioning conventional wisdom.
By early 2007, critics swore that the American effort in Iraq was doomed and the war lost. But Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander there, outlined a different, risky path of sending more Americans into Iraqi communities while radically changing tactics to ensure better security.
In response, prominent members of Congress suggested that his testimony about the surge’s good progress was neither candid nor credible (“creative statistics,” a “Petraeus village,” “facade,” “fiction,” and “a suspension of disbelief.”)
No matter. He kept with the surge strategy when casualties spiked as Americans took the offensive against al-Qaida and reclaimed urban centers. The verdict is still out on whether the new calm and optimism in Iraq will prove permanent. But the highest compliment now given to Gen. Petraeus is the growing consensus that if he cannot secure Iraq, then there is no other military commander around who can.
Shaping history in a different, more subtle way is Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born Dutch feminist and politician.