It’s Leadership We Need

The interview with Lord Ralf Dahrendorf was conducted by Caspar von Schoeler in June 2006

The EU Constitutional Treaty is alive—at least in public debates over whether it is dead. In an interview with SP3, Lord Ralf Dahrendorf speaks about why he believes the treaty to be superfluous, what the German EU Presidency should focus on instead, and why he only has time for a cosmopolitan Europe.

Schlossplatz3: Which role must the state play in the 21st century?

That is a big question and it is answered by somebody who has a predilection for a small state which does not play a major role. But having said that: as a great believer in opportunities for all and in an optimum of freedom — including the freedom to create unequal circumstances — I nevertheless feel very strongly that there has to be a common floor below which nobody falls in society. This common floor is not created by the market; it can only be created by deliberate action. And so I think perhaps the key role of the state — domestically — is to see to it that every citizen has a status which guarantees survival and opportunities. That is a big job — it is a dif?cult job — but it is the state’s job. I have not started with the obvious things like the monopoly of violence etc. because I think it is the creation and maintenance of a common floor for all citizens which is most important.

Speaking of the monopoly of force: Is the development of the “security state”, especially after “9/11” something negative?

Of course it is one of the functions of states to see to it that law and order is maintained. This includes security against organised or non-organised external aggression. But that is the first and most ancient function of states and I think it is to some extent abused since “9/11” and is used as a pretext for infringements on civil liberties which I regard as unacceptable. I definitely do not agree with Mr. Blair when he says the security of citizens is the first freedom. It may be one of the conditions of freedom but it is not the first freedom. In the name of the security of citizens’ freedoms, first second and third have suffered. So I appreciate the need, but I am quite critical of the extent, to which some governments have gone — the US government with the Patriot Act and the British government with a series of anti-terrorism acts.

Are we on the way to the kind of “world society” once pronounced by the “English School”?

It is not a predetermined course at all, and I am also slightly sceptical about the word “world society”. I do believe in cosmopolitanism, that is to say in certain rules which govern all of us on this globe and I believe above all in acting in such a way that we do not preclude the possibility of cosmopolitan arrangements. There is a justly famous essay by Immanuel Kant called “Idea for a universal history with cosmopolitan intent”. Now he was not silly, he did not believe that there would be a world state—but he thought that we should act in such a way that what we do promotes the possibility of cosmopolitan arrangements. I say arrangements and rules—not society. I think society is going too far: societies will differ—and should differ enormously. But the cosmopolitan intent of our political action seems to me a critical task.

How does that go along with the increasing salience of domestic issues on political agendas throughout Europe?

Well, I think Europe is justified only to the extent to which it is a step in the direction of cosmopolitanism. I have no time for a Europe which is a separate, identifiable, bloc or pole in a multi-bloc or multi-polar world. And even less do I have time for a Europe which is protectionist and which closes borders to the outside world. Europe and cosmopolitanism should be not only compatible but should belong together — it is not always the case.

Would this cosmopolitanism not require a new style of governance? What are the implications of this call for cosmopolitanism for governance?

You know, we have to be careful not to make one mistake—and that is to think of a world government which is capable of doing things which national governments are themselves not capable of doing in their much more limited space. I am not actually thinking of a world government. I am thinking of rules which apply generally; a small limited number, and of methods to make these rules stick—and that can be done in a whole variety of ways. I have no dif?culty with a major role for NGOs in that connection for example.

The reinvigorated United Nations on a different footing?

Well, yes. The United Nations is a good try but it is a very limited try, as we have seen in recent years. It is not a question of enlarging the Security Council — it is a question of finding any method to create a world organisation in which “one country, one voice” is not the main principle. It is not that easy to create cosmopolitan institutions.

Do you think that a new style of leadership on a national or international level is actually necessary to approach and tackle these challenges?

It’s so easy to say a new style is needed, but what is certainly needed is leadership. And of that we have not seen an awful lot in recent times. I think there may be quite a few leaders who appreciate that something has changed but they have not found a way of translating that into action yet. So; leadership, yes. Whether the style is new or not does not seem to me to be the most important issue.

Going to the German context in particular — how would you asses Chancellor Merkel’s leadership style?

It is very, very, early days and do not forget that I live in London. I am a member of the House of Lords — I see this from a distance. From a distance she is much liked, rather admired actually, in many countries — more than she is in Germany at least at this time, if I am not mistaken. Her authentic style has gone down well internationally. I am not in a position to judge her national leadership achievements. It is early days.

Can, and should, you compare Chancellor Angela Merkel with former Prime Minister Thatcher?

The two are fundamentally different! Mrs. Thatcher tried — and succeeded — in turning a trade union ridden, rigid country into one which is economically entrepreneurial and successful. That is not the German problem and therefore it’s not what is needed. Lady Thatcher also dealt quite crudely with old traditional institutions. This is probably not the German problem — certainly not the German problem as Mrs. Merkel perceives it. And Mrs. Thatcher was a pretty rough leader. My impression is that Mrs. Merkel may be tough in substance but she is rather friendly and direct and open in her style. So there are fundamental differences, both in personality and the circumstances in which they operate.

Turning to the topic of the upcoming German EU Council Presidency. Generally speaking: what makes a successful EU Presidency?

I am rather amused by this notion of a successful EU presidency, especially when it is applied to people who are in favour of the European constitutional treaty, which — among other things — abolishes the six month presidency. There is a sort of paradox there. I think the presidency can only do so much — which is not very much. I think the presidency should avoid inventing big goals — enormous objectives which are supposed to be realised within six months. What makes a successful presidency? Well, intelligent reactions to new circumstances plus steps forward, small steps forward in areas in which it has been decided what should be done.

So, to get to a more concrete picture: what should the focus of the upcoming German Presidency be?

Not the constitutional treaty! And if Mrs. Merkel insists on that, she is in for a disappointment because she will not get anywhere with that. I think the focus should quite clearly be on strengthening the international posture of the European Community wherever necessary, which does not necessarily mean a common foreign policy—but it means a continuing and important role for Mr. Solana and—at times—for groups like the Troika. Within the Union there is always a lot to do to complete the internal market, which is not yet realised. And then there are the obvious issues of immigration and asylum seekers etc. I just do not believe that Europe always needs a big project to move forward. So I want a quiet presidency, which moves a few steps forward. After all most steps we take are small and it’s rather important that they lead in the right direction.

Maybe you could elaborate a bit more on why you feel that further integration on the European scale does not necessarily rely on a constitutional treaty which clarifies issues in policy fields such as defence, energy etc.?

Well, these are important issues but you do not need a constitutional treaty to define them. And so far as the practicalities of procedures are concerned: I do not believe that the constitutional treaty as it stands helps us very much — in fact I actually believe it harms. I am in favour of the six month rotating presidency because it gives countries a chance, even if only over long periods, to mobilise their diplomatic resources in the European interest. The constitutional treaty removes things further from the citizen rather than bringing them closer. And there are other aspects of it which I think are not very helpful. No, I think enlargement and integration of those that are already in can all be brought about within the framework of the existing treaties and institutions.

So there is no need for a further treaty at all?

I don’t see it. There is a need for having more transparency and therefore public Council meetings, for instance. I think it is totally unacceptable that legislation is made by a body which is not public — totally unacceptable. But we do not need a constitutional treaty for that — all we need is a decision by the Council of Ministers, which it will not take. So, yes, there are certain requirements but — again — they do not need a big name. They need a few sensible, immediate steps.

Would bilateral, or multilateral, agreements below the level of a new treaty actually make the EU more workable, more stable?

Well, they will happen. I mean, if Malta and Spain have an argument about immigrants or asylum seekers it will not help to have to persuade Latvia and Ireland before one takes a decision. There are many, many issues for which it is almost obvious that smaller groups of countries will have to reach agreement. It is rather like Europe and cosmopolitanism — it has to be in keeping with the intention of the European Union — but it does not have to be a decision of the entire Union.

Do you feel that we should take a more global outlook, a more global approach, in order to tackle problems ranging from asylum seekers to negotiations in the G8?

Yes. I would be satisfied if the approach we took was taken with a view to global rules and would facilitate global rules, but in that sense we should certainly take a more global approach, yes.

Do you think that we need more “leader-type” people bringing forward their vision, or do we need rather more the “manager-type”, people seeking to find consensus and compromises to advance on the complex issues, such as the Doha round?

I am quite a traditionalist and therefore believe that we need leadership, although the managerial side is not to be neglected. We are fortunate in the case of the WTO in having Pascal Lamy. I mean, that is what we have Secretary Generals of these organisations for. But it is not the Secretary General who defines the objective, it is the Secretary General who helps get there once they are defined. So I would answer quite unambiguously: it is leadership we need.

Where would you locate Chancellor Merkel on the scale from leadership to management?

These are questions which I am often asked informally in Britain and it is just impossible to answer them after a few months, or a year of Merkel’s Chancellorship under conditions which are dif?cult because a grand coalition is not exactly what brings out the leadership capacities most clearly. Leadership, in a sense, requires a political environment in which the leader can actually do some of the things which she, or he, wants to do. She is authentic and that is good enough so far as I am concerned.

Lord Ralf Dahrendorf is a member of the British House of Lords. He holds PhDs from Hamburg University and from the London School of Economics. Since 1957 he has taught at multiple Universities in Europe and the United States including the directorship of the London School of Economics. In 1969 he became a member of the German Parliament and State Secretary in the Foreign Office until he took a post with the European Commission in 1970, which he served until 1974. In 1993, Ralf Dahrendorf became Baron of Clare Market in the City of Westminster and a member of the House of Lords. In 2003 he was elected to become a member of the order “Pour le Mérite” for his academic achievements.

This interview originally appeared in the “New dimensions of governance in politics, the private sector and civil society” Edition of Schlossplatz3 in Fall 2006. From 2006 to 2014 Schlossplatz3 was the official student magazine of the Hertie School of Governance.

Illustration by Roland Brückner | bitteschö