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.
She grew up a Muslim, but ultimately rebelled at the fundamentalist practice of arranged marriage and gender apartheid — and the threats directed toward anyone who questioned such seventh-century intolerance.
When Westerners, especially conservatives, criticize radical Islam on these grounds, they are often libeled as Islamophobes or written off as illiberal. But Hirsi Ali has shown the world that a liberal woman can teach us first-hand about Islamic extremists — their intolerance of religious diversity, subjugation of women, and bullying of moderate Muslims in their midst.
Hirsi Ali has been attacked from every direction, and yet still won’t keep quiet. Traditional Middle East fundamentalists, of course, have tried to bully and threaten her. But many secular, liberal Dutch haven’t been much better. At first, they thought that this third-world celebrity fit their ideal of the black emancipated feminist. Now, even as she’s damned by radical Islamists for being Westernized, she’s equally damned by liberals in her country and elsewhere for acting as if she were some conservative cheerleader of Western values.
Hirsi Ali demands from Muslims the same scrutiny of their religious brethren as other religions do of their own. Theo van Gogh, director of “Submission,” a documentary film about women in Islam that Hirsi Ali wrote, was murdered by an Islamic terrorist. Yet Ali has not let threats on her own life impede her mission.
What do all these mavericks who have changed the status quo have in common? First, they not only followed their beliefs with action, but also were willing to endure the inevitable criticism to follow. Second, although they have strong beliefs, none are overtly partisan; all instead seek a common good.
The conservative Sarkozy appointed a socialist as his foreign minister. To this day, partisans can’t figure out whether Gen. Petraeus is a Republican or Democrat. Hirsi Ali wants equality for women and greater tolerance of diverse opinion in the Muslim world — and thereby a better understanding between the West and Islam.
Fearless iconoclasts like these three really can make an enormous difference. They remind us that history is not faceless, but can still be changed by just a few brave people after all.