National Security

Don't Trust Anyone Over 70

Why old leaders are dangerous.

When Pope Benedict XVI announced that he would abdicate the papacy, he explained that "in today's world, subject to so many rapid changes...both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me." By becoming the first pope to resign since the 15th century, Benedict demonstrated a self-knowledge that is incredibly rare among leaders. Contrast his behavior, for example, with that of New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg, who before being forced to stand aside described Newark Mayor Cory Booker as a "disrespectful" child for challenging his reelection bid, even though Lautenberg would have been almost 92 when he was sworn in.

It may be a fraught subject, but aging often has enormous effects on people's personalities and cognitive function. Some leaders can maintain their vitality and abilities into extreme old age, but after enough time in office, a leader's performance probably will decline, perhaps precipitously. And, although many scholars argue that leaders have little impact on foreign policy because political systems tend to produce dispensable candidates, there are specific circumstances in which individuals become enormously important -- one of the most notable being when they change radically once in office, surprising the system. This is precisely what happens to anyone who spends a long time in senior government positions, because of both the effects of power itself on those who wield it, and the effects of age on every human being.

Power itself has profound, and usually toxic, effects on those who have it. CEOs are so pampered that comparing them to babies is surprisingly illuminating (and very funny). What is true for a CEO is, in this case, even more true for the men and women who lead nations and can literally have power over life and death. Over time this authority is likely to have profound effects on most people's personalities. It would be remarkable indeed for any person treated with deference and pampering for years, even decades, to not be affected by it. Even worse, power tends to make those who have it more sociopathic. They become more impulsive, more Machiavellian, and more willing to dehumanize those who lack it. What's more, leaders are almost invariably surrounded by family and staff who depend on them for continued access to the perquisites of power, and so often hide evidence of erratic behavior or decline. Woodrow Wilson's wife Edith hid his crippling stroke, Nixon's senior staff conspired to conceal his alcoholism, and Anthony Eden's doctor helped cover up his illness and addiction to amphetamines during the Suez Crisis.

The effect of age is equally worrying. Aging can have a powerful and largely negative impact on leaders in three ways. It can greatly increase their vulnerability to illness, shift their personality, and decrease their cognitive abilities.

It is a sad fact of life that the passage of time depletes the energy of every person and renders all of us more vulnerable to illness. Physical ailments can have surprisingly powerful effects on decision-making. As Roy Baumeister and Jon Tierney describe in their book, willpower is depleted by conditions as seemingly minor as the common cold, making it considerably more difficult to delay gratification or make difficult decisions, because the cold depletes the blood glucose critical for brain function. Driving when you have a severe cold, for example, is statistically more dangerous than driving while mildly intoxicated. More broadly, in Presidential Leadership, Illness, and Decision Making, Rose McDermott described how illness can make leaders unpredictable, limit their attention spans, shorten their time horizons, and diminish their cognitive capacities. Wilson's stroke, for example, intensified his natural rigidity and eliminated any last hopes of American entry into the League of Nations. In The Impact of Illness on World Leaders, Bert Park, a neurosurgeon, makes a powerful case that age-related dementia in Paul von Hindenburg was a key factor enabling Hitler's rise to power. Hindenburg was 82 when he defeated Hitler to win re-election to the presidency of the Weimar Republic in 1932. He twice rejected any role for Hitler in the government, until, at the age of 84, his increasing weakness led to his tragic agreement in January 1933 to make Hitler chancellor of a government otherwise staffed by non-Nazis.

Even beyond the immediate effects of illness, aging can have pronounced effects on personality. Put simply, in general people really don't mellow with age. Instead, Jerrold Post and Bert Park have shown that they tend to become exaggerated versions -- almost caricatures -- of themselves, with their normal tendencies and patterns becoming intensified. This tendency is particularly likely to affect foreign policy. The aggressive can become belligerent, the passive, apathetic. Tendencies that would otherwise have fallen within an acceptable range can suddenly become problematic -- a shift that, when it happens to a head of government, is particularly likely to upset foreign policy.

Finally, and perhaps most troubling, are aging's effects on cognition. Some of these are well known. The advance of age tends to weaken recall, particularly of recent events, for example. Less commonly acknowledged, but perhaps more important, are aging's effects on intelligence. Cognitive abilities can be split into two categories: crystallized and fluid. Crystallized intelligence is what we use to accomplish routine tasks. It increases over the course of a person's life, peaking in the 60s. Fluid intelligence, on the other hand, is the ability to solve new problems. It seems to begin declining at 20. This asymmetric deterioration is perhaps the most worrying feature of aging. The increase in crystallized intelligence can serve to camouflage any real decline that might be occurring. Most situations, after all, are routine, and so a leader may seem entirely unaffected by age. Furthermore, governments are likely to have considerable institutional ability to handle such situations, which will tend to compensate for a leader's compromised skills.

The most critical and dangerous situations, on the other hand, are novel ones -- situations that the normal functioning of governmental institutions is least able to handle and that therefore require peak performance from a leader. This is precisely when an age-related decline in fluid intelligence is likely to have its most severe effects. So age-related decline may be most consequential at the worst possible moment.

Given the potential dangers, the burden of proof should be on aging leaders to justify their continued hold on power, not on those who challenge them. It is certainly possible -- even likely -- that this presumption will sometimes force out leaders who could still make a valuable contribution. Remember, however, that most leaders have relatively little impact on events. Most leaders are far more dispensable than is generally believed -- and certainly far more dispensable than they are likely to believe! Just as important, most leaders who do have an impact do so through poor performance, not brilliance. There are just many, many more ways to be a fool than there are to be a genius. The potentially foregone gains from removing an effective leader too early are far, far smaller than the harms that will be avoided by removing ineffective ones.

In the United States, this suggests the need for term limits for all senior officials who cannot easily be removed from office. Term limits have already been imposed on the presidency, of course, but they should be extended to include the Supreme Court, governors, and likely also the speaker of the House. When the Constitution was written, the life expectancy in the United States was under 30, so there was no need for any such requirement. The advance of medical technology, however, has made term limits overwhelmingly necessary. Of people aged 71 to 79 -- an age to which very few people survived two centuries ago -- 21 percent are likely to suffer from either cognitive impairment or dementia severe enough that it's medically diagnosable. The odds that they will simply not be able to perform as well as they could have a decade or two earlier are likely far higher. Given the stakes of the decisions made by, for example, presidents and members of the Supreme Court, a 1 in 5 chance that the person making it is suffering from age-related cognitive decline is simply far too large to accept.

GE, the company perhaps more associated with good leaders and managers than any other, recognizes this danger and has a mandatory retirement age of 65 that applies even to the CEO. When the legendary Jack Welch hit the age cap, he was able to negotiate an extra year, but that was it. GE wisely realized that even he was replaceable and had Jeff Immelt waiting in the wings. The United States government would do well to learn, at least in this case, from the example of one of America's most iconic companies. Pope Benedict had the humility and self-awareness to realize that he had reached the limit of his physical capabilities. We can, perhaps, expect that sort of wisdom from a religious leader, but it seems like far too much to expect political leaders to willingly follow his example. Right now, though, relying on their willingness to follow his example and recognize their own limitations is all we have. It is not nearly enough.

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While America Slept

How the United States botched China's rise.

Since the dawn of geopolitics, there has always been tension between the world's greatest power and the world's greatest emerging power. No great power likes to cede its No. 1 spot. One of the few times the top power ceded its position to the No. 2 power peacefully was when Great Britain allowed the United States to surge ahead in the late 19th century. Many books have been written on why this transition happened peacefully. But the basic reason seems cultural: One Anglo-Saxon power was giving way to another.

Today, the situation is different. The No. 1 power is the United States, the standard-bearer of the West. The No. 2 power rapidly catching up is China, an Asian power. If China passes America in the next decade or two, it will be the first time in two centuries that a non-Western power has emerged as No. 1. (According to economic historian Angus Maddison's calculations, China was the world's No. 1 economy until 1890.)

The logic of history tells us that such power transitions do not happen peacefully. Indeed, we should expect to see a rising level of tension as America worries more and more about losing its primacy. Yet it has done little to act on these fears thus far. It would have been quite natural for America to carry out various moves to thwart China's rise. That's what great powers have done throughout history. That's how America faced the Soviet Union. So why isn't this happening? Why are we seeing an unnatural degree of geopolitical calm between the world's greatest power and the world's greatest emerging power?

It would be virtually impossible to get Beijing and Washington to agree on the answers to these natural questions, as there are two distinct and sometimes competing narratives in the two capitals.

The view in Beijing is that the calm in Sino-American relations is a result of the extraordinary patience and forbearance shown by China. Chinese leaders believe they have followed the wise advice of Deng Xiaoping, the late reformist leader, and decided not to challenge American leadership in any way or in any area. And when China has felt that it was directly provoked, it has also followed Deng's advice and swallowed its humiliation. Few Americans remember any such instances of provocation. Chinese leaders remember many. In May 1999, during the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, a U.S. plane bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. America apologized, but no Chinese leader believed it was a mistake. Similarly, a Chinese fighter jet was downed when it crashed into a U.S. spy plane near Hainan Island, China, in April 2001. Here, too, China felt humiliated. Few Americans will recall the humiliation Premier Zhu Rongji suffered in April 1999 when he went to Washington to negotiate China's entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO); Chinese elites haven't forgotten. In their minds, China has been responsible for the low levels of tension in U.S.-China relations because China has swallowed such bitter pills time and again.

The view in Washington is almost exactly the opposite. Few Americans believe that China has been able to rise peacefully because of China's geopolitical acumen or America's geopolitical mistakes. Instead, the prevailing view is that America has been remarkably generous to China and allowed it to emerge peacefully because the United States is an inherently virtuous and generous country. There can be no denying that the United States has been generous to China in many real ways: allowing China's accession to the WTO (under stiff conditions, it must be emphasized, but stiff conditions that ironically benefited China); allowing China to enjoy massive trade surpluses; allowing China to join multilateral bodies like the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum; and perhaps most importantly of all, allowing hundreds of thousands of Chinese students to study in American universities. These are generous acts.

But it is also true that the United States allowed China to rise because it was so supremely self-confident that it would always remain on top. China's benign rise was a result of American neglect, not a result of any long-term strategy. China acted strategically; America did not. After the 9/11 attacks, for instance, the United States focused on the Middle East instead of the rise of China, leading Hong Kong journalist Frank Ching to write, "The fact is, it's not going too far to say that China owes a huge debt of gratitude to Osama bin Laden."

America has been sensitive to criticisms about its lack of a long-term strategy. I can speak about this from personal experience. In February 2009, Hillary Clinton visited China on her first overseas visit as U.S. secretary of state. I wrote at the time:

[T]here's little evidence Clinton has engaged in any serious strategic thinking about U.S.-China relations. If she had, she would have asked some big questions. Traditionally, relations between dominant powers and emerging powers have been tense. This should have been the norm with China and the United States. Yet China has emerged without alarming Americans. That's close to a geopolitical miracle. Who deserves credit for it? Beijing or Washington? China seems to have a clear, comprehensive strategy. The United States has none.

Officials in Washington reacted angrily to this column. A senior official at the National Security Council called up the Singaporean Embassy in Washington to complain about a Singaporean criticizing U.S. foreign policy -- even though, in theory, America welcomes debate and a free marketplace of ideas.

I also tell this story to illustrate how sensitive the establishment in Washington has become to any discussion on the nature of Sino-American relations. The real truth about this relationship is that, while there is a lot of calm on the surface, tension is brewing below. I am convinced that there is great simmering anger in Beijing about being pushed around callously by Washington. The Chinese resent, for instance, allegations of Chinese cyberspying that make no mention of America's own activities in this area. The Chinese do not believe that they are the only ones playing this game.

Given the many simmering tensions, it would be unwise to assume smooth sailing ahead for the United States and China. The need to cooperate is rising each day, as is the potential for a major U.S.-China misunderstanding. In November 2011, then-Secretary Clinton announced loudly and boldly a "pivot" to Asia, signifying a turning point in U.S. foreign policy that would reduce the focus on the Middle East. Barack Obama's administration took pains to avoid saying that this was America's response to a rising China, but nobody, including China, was fooled. Other countries saw it as a clear signal that Sino-American geopolitical competition was heating up. The logical consequence is therefore not difficult to figure out: We should be prepared for global turbulence if the U.S.-China relationship follows the millennial old patterns and no longer remains on an even keel.

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