Sunday, March 24, 2013

Trust is Everybody’s Business

Note: This article was published in the March 17-23 Issue of New Europe. You can find it here on page 11

Trust is everybody’s business – or at least it should be.

Trust is the foundation for an effective society. At a basic level, we trust that we will wake up in the morning. We trust that the sidewalk we walk on will not give way! We trust that the post will be delivered, that we’ll get what we order in restaurants, that the airline pilot will land the plane safely. We trust that others will do their jobs so that we can continue leading productive, happy lives.

In a similar act of faith, we trust that governments will repay their debts, and hence, we are willing to lend them more money. We believe that our paper currency is worth something. Businesses run on the conviction that they will be able to procure the raw materials they require, and through careful planning and data analysis, they expect that consumers will want their products. Trust enables individuals to do business with each other. Business creates wealth. To reiterate - the economy runs on trust.

Authoritative research by Douglass North, Paul Keefer, Stephen Knack, and Paul Zak, among others, demonstrates that the presence or lack of trust has profound consequences for the development of public institutions. Where trust is present, it has a stabilizing effect on expectations, and people are more likely to adhere to their commitments.  Norms are accordingly respected at the societal level, to the extent that when these norms are breached, sanctions are enforced. Francis Fukayama has noted that trust reduces the cost of transactions, as individuals need to spend time and effort to investigate the genuineness of other parties’ stated intentions. As a result, societies that have higher trust levels are more prosperous.[1]

Trust can not only help a nation become prosperous, it can also strengthen individual success and promote happiness. Suppose we trusted no one, would it be possible for us to continue to live complete, fulfilled lives?

So how do we inculcate trust in ourselves, in those around us, and in our societies?

A good place to begin is within oneself. The ancient Hindu scriptures state, “Yatha Drishti, Tatha Srishti”; “as one’s vision, so is the creation.” To create an atmosphere of trust, one needs to be aware of what is happening in the world within. As the spiritual Guru, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar says, “When we are able to perceive, and observe our environment with greater clarity, then we are able to see how interconnected life on this planet is. We are able to make connections that we might not have seen earlier. So a first step to creating a beautiful society on this planet is achieving clarity of mind.” Meditation, Yoga, and breathing techniques can help calm the mind and bring clarity of thought. Awareness of our thoughts and emotions can temper our behavior and interaction with people around us. Self-awareness can also help us grow in terms of our own abilities and our confidence to be successful in our efforts.

The next step is to earn the trust of others – to encourage them to have faith in us. By committing ourselves to be trustworthy, we must be able to “walk the talk” and put ourselves in others’ shoes. Consistency in action, and empathy are important. When people see that we understand their point of view, and are willing to work with them towards a solution, they are more likely to trust us, and then to collaborate with us to achieve common goals. Being in a calm and clear state of mind can strengthen our ability to appreciate and understand others’ points of view.

In some societies, a lack of trust – among individuals, or between people and their government – has triggered change, in some cases fundamental transformations of the relationship between government and society, toward the achievement of more public trust.  All too often, however, change is stymied by turmoil and bloodshed. Fragile and post-conflict states are plagued by the lack of trust – in institutions, and between people. Douglass North writes, The inability of societies to develop effective, low-cost enforcement of contracts is the most important source of both historical stagnation and contemporary underdevelopment in the Third World.”[2] The World Bank and the United Nations have highlighted the need for “confidence-building-measures” in rebuilding conflict-afflicted societies in recent reports.[3]

The need of the hour is for society to refocus on building trust and revive the human values of compassion, friendliness, and love. A practical way of complementing institutional approaches is through meditation and self-reflection.

After all, trust is everybody’s business.

[1] See Francis Fukuyama, Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity, Touchstone Books, 1996.
[2] See Douglass North, Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance, Cambridge University Press, 1990, P.54.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Re-examining Assistance to Fragile and Post Conflict States

Approximately two billion people live in countries affected by fragility and conflict.[1] Poverty rates in fragile states average 54 percent compared with 22 percent for low-income countries as a whole.[2] These “fragile states” represent a major challenge for global poverty reduction, achievement of the Millennium Development Goals, for peace and stability and for global issues such as the war on terror.[3]  The African continent contains the majority of fragile states with most Africans living on less than two dollars a day. The average lifespan in these countries is under 50. Drought and famine persist.[4]
Fragile states are characterized by violence, a legacy of conflict, weak governance and limited administrative capacity.  Underlying fragility is a history of divided identity, political fragmentation, and weak institutions.  Transitioning out of fragility is a complex and arduous task. The effort requires a multipronged approach to secure peace, rebuild institutions, and accelerate growth and poverty reduction.[5] 
The focus of the international community has been on providing financial and technical assistance and on external intervention, especially since problems of fragility can, in some instances, be transnational.  Nonetheless insufficient emphasis has been placed on understanding the role that domestic leadership processes play in lifting countries out of fragility or causing or keeping countries in fragility.

[1] Ashraf Ghani & Clare Lockhart, Fixing Failing States: A Framework for Rebuilding a Fractured World, (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2008), 6-9.
[2] The World Bank, Global Monitoring Report 2007: Confronting the Challenges of Gender Equality, (Washington DC: The World Bank Group, 2007), 10-12.
[3] The Millennium Development Goals are eight international development goals that all 192 United Nations member states and at least 23 international organizations have agreed to achieve by the year 2015. They include eradicating extreme poverty, reducing child mortality rates, fighting disease epidemics, such as AIDS, and developing a global partnership for development.
[4] See “Africa Rising” in The Economist, (December 3, 2011).
The World Bank, World Development Report 2011: Conflict, Security, and Development, (Washington, DC: The World Bank Group, 2011), 145. 

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Role of Leadership in Fragile States

Approximately sixty countries have been designated ‘Fragile States’ by international development agencies. Home to two billion of the world’s poorest people, these fragile states are characterized by violence, weak institutions and shattered economies. Not only do they pose a challenge to regional security, they often become the breeding grounds for terrorism.
Donor agencies pour billions of dollars annually into these countries – through policy advice and conditional loans – to alleviate fragility and promote development. Development, however it is defined, involves economic, social and political transformation.  Such a transformation is shaped by ideas, engages multiple interests, and proceeds within rules and norms set by political institutions. Since the structure of political institutions is influenced by human agency, leadership becomes important to study. Leadership is crucial particularly in fragile states, where institutions are weak or have been destroyed by conflict; however, a systematic effort to examine the role of leaders and coalitions in fragile states is lacking.
My doctoral dissertation sought to create a methodology to improve understanding of the role of different leadership strategies in bringing about transitions in and out of fragility. To make the scope manageable, the study focused on: (i) leadership at the national level; and (ii) fragile states in Africa. It did so by examining: (i) evidence from country level panel data on leadership (regime) change and fragility; and (ii) in-depth analytical case studies of transitions in and out of fragility in four countries: Zimbabwe, Uganda, Rwanda, and South Africa. 
The analysis looked at the relationship between the change agent’s leadership strategy (the independent variable: political participation and inclusion, economic growth and inclusion, and security and justice) and fragility outcomes (dependent variable: conflict and security indicators, economic indicators, and the approach to political inclusion). 
The results of the regression analysis exhibit a robust association between leadership change and fragility. Furthermore, the country cases show how different types of leadership strategies lead to varying trajectories of fragile states’ post-transition. The case studies reveal different approaches to sequencing of political inclusion and the role of leadership exit in transitions from fragility.
Spurred by the positive results, I am planning further work on this empirical study and will seek to more carefully evaluate the impact of leadership strategies on fragility outcomes over time, and the way these evolve as well. More to come!

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Environment and Economics: No Compromise? Part 2

The historical importance of unintended consequences
    Historians encounter the workings of unintended consequences whether they deal with political institutions, ideas or demography. But there is probably no other branch of the discipline in which unintended consequences play such an important part as they do in environmental history. Consider the Aswan Dam. Begun in 1960 and completed in 1971, this archetypal Cold War prestige project was designed to 'build pyramids for the living' (in Nasser's words). It would control the Nile flood, allow its water to be used more systematically for irrigation, and generate electricity. These things the dam achieved. It also had serious unwanted consequences. To replace the silt that no longer came down the Nile, electricity from the dam had to go into manufacturing chemical fertilizer. Salinization, the scourge of irrigation regimes, increased without the flushing provided by the annual flood, while Egypt's irrigation canals became a breeding ground for the snails that carry schistosomiasis, a disease of the liver, intestines and urinary tract that now affects the entire population in many rural areas. Deprived of silt, the Nile Delta shrank, displacing people and depriving the Mediterranean of nutrients, which destroyed the sardine and shrimp fisheries. This was not quite the 'everlasting prosperity' Nasser had promised.
    The unintended consequences of the Aswan Dam, like those of other great hydrological schemes from the Punjab to the Central Asian catastrophe of the Aral Sea, were regional in their effects. Other kinds of human impact on the environment have had global consequences. McNeill says that this is true of the unwitting world-historical role played by the American chemical engineer Thomas Midgely. In 1921, Midgely calculated that adding lead to petrol would make it burn better and prevent engine knock - it was a 'gift from God', said the first company to sell the fuel. Not until half a century later, by which time cars had burned 25 trillion liters, did public health concerns overcome industry resistance and usher in the unleaded era. Nor was leaded petrol Midgely's only legacy. In 1930, he invented Freon, the first of the chlorofluorocarbons used as refrigerants, solvents and sprays. In the thirty years following World War Two, intensive use of CFCs created holes in the ozone layer that protects life on earth from ultraviolet radiation. 
   Beginning in the 1970s, scientific research and unusually prompt international action led to sharply reduced use of CFCs, over the protests of chemical manufacturers. On the other hand, some of the CFCs released into the atmosphere before the Montreal Protocol of 1987 will still be destroying ozone in 2087. Enhanced radiation will increase the risk of cataracts, damaged immune systems and skin cancers in humans; it will also continue to kill phytoplankton, the basis of ocean food chains.
    The Aswan Dam and Thomas Midgely both have a place in John McNeill's excellent environmental history of the 20th century. McNeill has done a vast amount of research and his range is truly global. He discusses the effects of oil extraction from Tampico to the Niger delta, the problems caused by air pollution from the 'sulphuric triangle' between Dresden, Prague and Cracow to the Hanshin district of Japan; and on the subject of deforestation in the tropics ('one of the central events of our time') he draws on evidence from Indonesia as well as Brazil.
The growing resource crunch: Blood for Oil?
Since September 11th and the commencement of the "war on terror," the world's attention has been focused on the relationship between U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and the seas of crude oil that lie beneath the region's soil. Michael Klare traces oil's impact on international affairs since World War II, revealing its influence on the Truman, Eisenhower, Nixon, and Carter doctrines. He shows how America's own wells are drying up as our demand increases; by 2010, the United States will need to import 60 percent of its oil. And since most of this supply will have to come from chronically unstable, often violently anti-American zones-the Persian Gulf, the Caspian Sea, Latin America, and Africa-our dependency is bound to lead to recurrent military involvement.
     Oil in the US is a major source of energy and a key driver of economic growth. The military machine also requires a large supply of oil. Local production is incapable of supporting this large demand and hence the US is now a net importer of oil. Klare traces the beginning of the alliance with the autocratic regime in Saudi Arabia during the WW II years, as the US oil production starting falling behind the demand. Under the agreement forged by President Roosevelt, the US would be obliged to protect the sovereignty of Saudi Arabia and would receive a guarantee of US firms’ dominance in the oil fields of Saudi Arabia. The Truman, Eisenhower, Nixon and Carter administrations continued this policy of protecting and providing the Saudi regime with billions of dollars of advanced arms, in return for the drilling rights. At the same time, there was growing dissidence in the intellectual elite in the Arab world, who were perturbed by what they saw as US meddling in Arab affairs. Saddam Hussein’s attempt to take over the fertile oil fields of Kuwait only worsened the discontent. Though the Kuwaitis were grateful for US protection, radical Islamists’ fury only grew. This culminated in the 9/11 attacks on the US mainland.
    The energy strategy adopted by the Bush administration does not break from tradition, and carries on increasing the dependence on petroleum. There is, and Klare documents this beautifully in relation to petroleum, a very pathological cycle that could be easily stopped. The US insists on cheap oil, this leads to bloodshed and high oil prices; this comes back to lower quality of life for the workers, and so on. As he points out, the pipelines cannot be protected. American policy makers are deceiving the public when they suggest they can stabilize the Middle East and protect cheap oil. Not only can the pipelines not be protected, but also on America's current consumption path, according to the author, the Gulf States would have to double production to keep up with American demand. He is also intellectually powerful in painting a future picture when China, Russia, and Europe are in armed competition with the USA for energy from Central Asia, Latin America, under the Spratley Islands, and other regions with proven oil reserves.
    Cheap oil has become a mantra, and military power has become the unquestioned means of achieving that. However, the US doesn't have enough guns or blood to stabilize a world that it antagonizes every time it deploys into an "occupation" mode, and cheap oil is going to be extremely expensive in terms of American blood on the floor. Cheap oil for the US is a major contributor to unemployment and destabilization within Arabia. Klare insists that buying oil from Saudi Arabia subsidizes terrorism. Buying cheap oil from Saudi Arabia increases the number of unemployed who might be inspired to become terrorism. Klare is also very effective in objectively criticizing the manner in which the US Administrations have integrated anti-terrorism initiatives with energy-protection initiatives. Bin Laden is still at large, but we have an occupation army sitting on top of the Iraqi oil fields.
    The book ends as intelligently as it begins, with emphasis on getting to a post-petroleum economy. We could start with neighborhood level solar power, efficient wind power, energy conservation (which must also apply to water), a gradual elimination of chlorine-based and petroleum-based industries, a move toward self-sustenance across the board, and what Klare cites as his big three steps:
1) Divorce energy purchases from security commitments---stop tolerating dictators and arming terrorist nations for the sake of cheap oil.
2) Reduce our reliance on imported oil, drastically.
3) Prepare the way for a transition to a post-petroleum economy that includes conservation, hybrid vehicles, enhanced public transportation, and usage of renewable sources of energy like solar energy, wind power and so on.
    In Something New Under the Sun, McNeill infuses a substrate of ecology with a lively historical sensibility to the significance of politics, international relations, technological change, and great events. He charts and explores the breathtaking ways in which we have changed the natural world with a keen eye for character and a refreshing respect for the unforeseen in history. He introduces us to little-known figures like Thomas Midgely, the chemical engineer, who, McNeill claims, had more impact on the atmosphere than any other organism in earth history. From Midgely's work with General Motors came the inventions of leaded gasoline and of Freon, the first of the chlorofluorocarbons that drift into the stratosphere and rupture ozone molecules. McNeill recounts episodes of environmental disaster -- the mercury poisoning of Japan's Mina Mata Bay, the death of the Aral Sea in Soviet Central Asia -- but shows too the successes of environmental policy in reversing pollution of the air and water. He fashions his story without pronouncements of doom or sermons on the ethical lapses of humankind.
    McNeill assesses the ecological course we have taken in the twentieth century as an interesting evolutionary gamble. We have become exquisitely adapted to particular circumstances -- a stable climate, cheap energy, rapid economic growth. But our fossil fuel-based civilization is so ecologically disruptive that it undermines the stability of these conditions. McNeill does not speculate on the consequences, but his insights illuminate the new path we have made in this global century.
    In his path breaking Resource Wars, world security expert Michael T. Klare alerted us to the role of resources in conflicts in the post-Cold War world. Now, in Blood and Oil, he concentrates on a single precious commodity, petroleum, while issuing a warning to the United States-its most powerful, and most dependent, global consumer. With clarity and urgency, Blood and Oil delineates the United States' predicament and cautions that it is time to change the country's energy policies, before it spends the next decades paying for oil with blood.
    Klare insists that the US needs to work on three key areas in order to achieve energy autonomy and integrity.
i.    A “paradigm shift” with regards the way the US thinks about its energy needs.
ii.  No more oil for protection policy for undemocratic and terrorist breeding nations.
iii.Reduction in US dependence on imported oil by decreasing consumption by:
a. Improved fuel efficiency of light vehicles.
b. Development of new types of vehicles – especially hybrids, and hydrogen fueled vehicles.
c. Enhance the appeal of mass transit.
Klare makes it clear that if the US does not heal itself from the inside out, that no amount of guns, blood, or destruction will save it from the inevitable implosion of the unstable places where oil is to be found.

The two books have different geographic focus and starkly different styles, within some commonality in themes.  In particular, both are environmental histories with a common underlying theme of unintended consequences: McNeill records mankind's unintended impact on the ecology, while Klare documents the unintended consequences of US oil policy. At the same time, the two authors have dramatically different styles: McNeill provides a dispassionate and painstaking analysis, while Klare's style is passionate and at times indignant.  Interestingly, both appear to have an underlying moral commitment: McNeill's commitment to the natural environment which mankind disrupts and affects, and Klare's outrage at destructive and self serving pursuit of US oil interests.  This makes for compelling reading.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Environment and Economics: No Compromise? -- Part 1

           This essay reviews two important treatises on environmental history: Something New Under the Sun and Blood and Oil.  J.R. McNeill's Something New Under the Sun documents the broad sweep of environmental evolution over the last century, and Michael Klare's Blood and Oil documents the troubled history of the US foreign policy conquests in pursuit of oil.
The developments of the last century were unprecedented. Total population quadrupled, while urban population increased thirteen times, world output increased fourteen times, energy use increased sixteen times, and industrial production increased forty times. All this human activity generated a tremendous amount of waste, including agricultural residue, mine tailings, and emissions into the atmosphere, rivers, lakes, and seas. Wetlands have been drained or filled and highways and cities built. For the first time, humankind is influencing ecology on a global scale. McNeill catalogues the impact of all this activity, from America to Zimbabwe, and finds the results are not all bad. For instance, the automobile replaced the horse, which required more land to feed and whose waste products and carcasses were sources of urban stench and disease. 
Public attitudes changed in the 1950s and 1960s because cities such as London, Pittsburgh, and Osaka grew so polluted that they became almost unlivable. Major selective cleanups have proceeded even as global waste has grown in volume and cities and rivers have deteriorated. Something new under the Sun is an informative, dispassionate treatment that recounts the last century's environmental history with admirable impartiality.
The world's growing economy is dependent on oil: the supply is running out. The US, China, India, and other powers are engaged in an escalating game of brinkmanship to secure its continued flow. This is the premise of Michael Klare's Blood and Oil. The US, with less than 5% of the world's total population, consumes about 25% of the world's total supply of oil. With no meaningful conservation being attempted, Klare sees the United States' energy behavior dominated by four key trends: "an increasing need for imported oil; a pronounced shift toward unstable and unfriendly suppliers in dangerous parts of the world; a greater risk of anti-American or civil violence; and increased competition for what will likely be a diminishing supply pool."
Growing pain? Man and the environment
During the twentieth century, the human race, without intending anything of the sort, has undertaken a giant, uncontrolled experiment on the earth. In time, according to J. R. McNeill in his new book, the environmental dimension of twentieth-century history will overshadow the importance of events like the world wars, the rise and fall of communism, and the spread of mass literacy. 
Contrary to the wisdom of Ecclesiastes that "there is nothing new under the sun," McNeill sets out to show that the massive change we have wrought in our physical world has indeed created something new. McNeill contends that we have refashioned the earth's air, water, and soil, and the biosphere to an extent not seen before.
Something New under the Sun begins with chapters on the lithosphere and pedosphere (the rocky crust of the earth and its soil cover), the atmosphere and the hydrosphere, showing how each was modified by human intervention. Human intervention often meant that soil, air and water were degraded, eroded, polluted or exhausted. He then deals with the biosphere: the space occupied by all living things. They serve as the fulcrum of the book and contain some of its strongest arguments. McNeill tells a story of increasing human mastery. He shows how the co-evolution of species gave way to a process of 'unnatural' selection that made the chances for survival of other species heavily dependent on their compatibility with humans. Some prospered, either through domestication (livestock, rice) or because they found niches in a human-dominated biosphere (rats, crabgrass, the tuberculosis bacillus). Others proved incapable of domestication (bison, the blue whale) or unable to adjust (the gorilla, the smallpox virus) and faced extinction. 
Reviewing the quickening pace of extinction rates in the 20th century, McNeill suggests that we may be in the early stages of a mass extinction on a par with the disappearance of dinosaurs 65 million years ago. But this mass extinction, if it is one, will have a known cause: the activities of a rogue mammal species. Those activities are surveyed in the second part of the book. 
McNeill identifies three major 'engines of change': a steep increase in population prompting migration, urbanization and the search for more resources; a new, fossil-fuel based energy regime; and a belief in economic growth that transcends the lines of political conflict - although the commitment to growth was reinforced by the 'security anxiety' of 20th-century regimes. McNeill criticizes both Capitalism and Communism for their role in the exploitation of nature. He quotes Soviet leaders as saying, 'Let the fragile green breast of Siberia be dressed in the cement armor of cities, armed with the stone muzzle of factory chimneys, and girded with iron belts of railways. Let the Taiga be burned and felled, let the steppes be trampled.' 
It was the Soviet determination to 'correct nature's mistakes' that turned most of the Aral Sea into a life-threatening saltpan. The high environmental costs of imperialism are repeatedly noted. McNeill also shows that decolonization has done little to change the process of rapid deforestation. He contends that whoever governed, shortsighted developmentalism ruled.

(Part 2 to follow...)
Books Reviewed:
1.McNeil, John R., Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World, W.W. Norton & Company, New York and London, 2000.
2.Klare, Michael T., Blood and Oil: The dangers and consequences of America’s growing petroleum dependency, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2004.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Learning from Washington

Effective leadership solutions emerge around problems - change comes from a shared sense of urgency. George Washington’s visionary leadership emerged during the time of America’s birth. He was a great uniter and was crucial in bringing together diverse groups of people and establishing a new nation, where none stood before. Washington’s role became synonymous with the cause of America. He drew on his popularity and symbolic importance to bring unity to a disparate collection of interests and political outlooks. Drawing on lessons learned during the war, when Washington forged the Continental Army into what he called “one patriotic band of brothers,” Washington promoted political unity during the war by mediating the disputes among the army, the states, and the Continental Congress. He continued this work of unifying even after the war as President.
Some of the main lessons that I drew from my research on Washington include:
a. The need and importance to take responsibility for one's own life by controlling one's emotions; Washington had a volcanic temper which, with rare exceptions, he kept under control. Washington was able to control so much externally because he first learned to control himself from within.
b. The importance of constant learning by observing, listening, reading and reflecting; Washington spent much time reflecting or pondering.
c. The importance of civility – essentially basic respect for everyone.
d. The role that morality and emotional maturity can play in enhancing one's natural intelligence and understanding of situations.
e. The inextricable relationship in a democracy between public and personal virtue; the absence of one will always cause a diminution in the other and vice versa.
f. The need in a democracy for all citizens to be good citizens and for the government to be administered in such a manner as to merit the trust of the citizens.
Of all the Founding Fathers of the United States, George Washington alone demonstrated fully the characteristics of a visionary leader and the intellectual and moral capacity, over a long period of time and in the course of manifold difficulties, to maintain coherency between long range ideas and goals and short term actions. The future of society, to a large extent, depends upon citizens and leaders both personally and publicly developing the kind of character so fully and brilliantly seen in George Washington's personal and public lives.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Leadership Lessons from Washington: The Indispensable Man

The following is a review of The Indispensable Man by James T. Flexner.
The Indispensable Man
            James Thomas Flexner originally wrote this biography in four volumes. The book is organized chronologically and proceeds from Washington’s birth in 1732 to his death in 1799. I found the book enriching, and it raised my interest in developing a more sophisticated political understanding  of early American history. Above all I valued this book for its humanization of a legend.The Washington that emerges from these pages is a man of dazzling personal qualities, many failures, passion, strong affections and loyalties, and tremendous character.
 George Washington, in this book, truly comes across as the indispensable man. Without him the revolution would not have been successful, and that if it had been successful, the Nation formed as a result of that American Revolution would have soon come apart and resolved itself into thirteen or more individual competing countries. Washington first holds the Continental Army together against all odds and at the expense of his own health and financial interests. Then after spending eight years in retirement at Mount Vernon, Washington is called back into public life and given the responsibility of first moderating the Constitutional Convention, and then of presiding over a new, fledgling nation with deep sectional and philosophical rifts in opinion, culture and practice. If he could not bring Jefferson and Hamilton and their followers together in the end, he at least managed to keep them from tearing the nation apart while they attacked each other and each other’s ideas and policies. In the portrayal in this book, Washington stands head-and-shoulders above all the other men of his time. Even late in his second term, when the author says several times that Washington is “losing his mental powers” and becoming weak and vacillating, he remains an admirable figure, one who is trying to do his best to serve the nation that has called upon him to give his best years to its service.
            In the book, Flexner takes us through Washington's life from his youth as an obscure younger son from the backwoods of Virginia through his days as a soldier, a general, a planter, and a statesman, to his death in December of 1799. As for character, the Washington of this biography is a self-controlled man, fond of company and friends, but also temperate, quiet, a peacemaker, nevertheless at infrequent times giving way to an enormous temper.
            Disillusionment is good when it is able to get us behind the myths - not in order to tear them down, but — as in the case of learning about Washington — to more fully appreciate the impact of the very human figures made remarkable by history. At every turn America as a young country was in peril; every decision was layered with implications, competing passions, political pettiness, danger. Though this country was established by flawed men, it has not only survived, but risen to meet its ideals – and this was made possible by the pioneering leadership of George Washington. The Washington that emerges from these pages is a man of:
Impressive personal qualities –”The most significant aspect of Washington’s early career was that it took place at all. Every responsibility he assumed required public selection and support. When he was hardly beyond his teens, many of his associates were already convinced that his destiny was importantly linked to the destiny of America.”
Many failures — “Writers have contended that he was so incompetent that he would have been defeated by any other human beings except the dullards the British sent against him… The debate has overlooked the fact that Washington was never really a soldier. He was a civilian in arms.”
Passion and Commitment — In Manhattan in 1776, Washington rides toward the musket fire to find his men in full retreat. “Washington galloped after them, shouted, struck at them with his riding whip, but to no avail. He threw his hat on the ground, crying out, ‘Are these the men with whom I am to defend America?’ And again, ‘Good God! Have I got such troops as these?’ Unwilling to follow the retreat, Washington soon loomed on horseback, alone. Some fifty of the enemy dashed towards him. He watched them without moving. Had not aides galloped up and pulled him away, he would have been killed or captured.”
Strong affections and loyalties — Often betrayed by those close to him, envied, plotted against, and lied about, he was never defeated in his essential optimism and liking for people.
Tremendous character — He does the difficult but right thing without fail. One example: he was the only Virginia founding father to free all of his slaves.
A self-educator — This is evident throughout Washington’s long career as a precedent-setting political figure, but to me the most striking examples are his remaking of his Virginia farm as an entity independent of England, and his ability to learn the value of the ragtag Continental army and develop an ability to use it strategically.