I once asked a candidate for President of the United States: “What day of your time in office will be the most important one, the first or the last?”
I got no answer, but if I had, it would have distinguished a self-centered politician from a true statesman.
We need to give this distinction prominence in choosing our political leaders. The decline of the Western world is increasingly tied to the absence of statesmanship at the helm of our governments. We see more examples of self-indulgence and entitlement, and fewer examples of self-sacrifice and service to the country.
Among the many symptoms of our deficit of statesmen is the strikingly low age of many of our current political leaders. Youth and inexperience are currently a greater problem in Europe than in America, but the problem is certainly beginning to affect politics in the New World.
The realization that youth and statesmanship are incompatible is not new. It was manifested already in the Constitution of the United States where Article II prohibits any citizen who is not yet 35 years old from running for president (Section II, Clause 5). This age requirement was agreed upon by the Founding Fathers, many of whom were not even 30 years old at the time.
Among the younger signatories to America’s founding document were future presidents James Madison, who was 25 when he signed the Constitution, and James Monroe who was only 18. To the extent that these men even had presidential ambitions at the time, they were willing to put them off into the distant future.
Today, a minimum age of 35 seems modest. However, when a man in the late 18th century reached the age of 35, he had assumed more responsibilities for himself, his family, his community, and in some cases for his country, than many men and women today do at the age of 50.
In other words, the point with the minimum age is not the number, but the notion that statesmanship is a slowly acquired asset. It takes time to build the experience, the skills, and all the intangible qualities that the leader of a nation must possess. Not everyone acquires them—history is littered with inadequate state leaders of all ages—but time separates the wheat from the chaff. With the right constitutional provisions in place, and with the people exercising responsible citizenship, a nation can indeed ensure that its government is in the hands of the most able-minded men and women.
One of the foremost qualities of statesmanship is that the person in question is willing to sacrifice him- or herself for the country. Historically this meant leading its armies into war; in more recent times the sacrifice has become personal, with fundamentally different conditions for family life, even giving up the “civilian” lifestyle in general. The needs of the nation supersede the needs of the person.
Among the sacrifices the statesman makes is always to put country first and himself last. The time served at the helm of a government, or as head of state, should be defined not by personal accomplishments—not even for a place in the history books—but for the preservation and growth of the nation.
Bluntly, a statesman should be willing to serve his country with the same dedication and vigor if his identity was unknown to the public. Likewise, the true statesman is ready to live on a pauper’s stipend while in office, and forgo all paths to wealth, both during and after his tenure in office.
This is, of course, an ideal—and admittedly idealistic—image of the preferable leader of a nation. Nevertheless, the qualities that bring a person close to this ideal do not mature quickly. By thresholding candidates for president by their age, the Founding Fathers of the United States of America acknowledged that such maturity is a necessary condition for statesmanship.
Generally speaking, Western countries have been relatively good at holding their leaders to the standards of merited statesmanship. To take just one of countless examples, the United States and Britain would never have defeated the Axis powers in World War II, had it not been for the selflessness of their leaders at the time.
Many of those leaders were indeed never recognized to any higher degree. One of them, Wendell Willkie, was the Republican candidate against incumbent democrat Franklin Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election. Roosevelt had been in office for two terms already (the constitution did not term-limit presidents at that time) which gave Willkie a fairly good chance of winning.
However, Willkie decided to support a peacetime draft, which was unpopular among voters. At the time, November 1940, World War II had not yet reached America—the Pearl Harbor attack was more than a year away—but Willkie had enough foresight to realize that America probably could not stay neutral and had to get ready.
As another statesman, U.S. Senator Zell Miller, explained in a famous speech from 2004, Willkie would rather do what was right for his country than win the presidency:
Shortly before Willkie died, he told a friend that if he could write his own epitaph and had to choose between ‘here lies a president’ or ‘here lies one who contributed to saving freedom,’ he would prefer the latter.
Miller, a Democrat, made this comment while addressing the Republican party convention in 2004. He had chosen to speak at the event where President George W. Bush was going to be renominated, because he was frustrated with how the leaders of his own party had made the war in Iraq (in full force at the time) a partisan issue in that year’s presidential election.
Referencing Willkie’s selflessness, Miller asked: “Where are such statesmen today?”
This question only becomes more important with time. We are witnessing a troubling trend where statesmen are being replaced with leaders who are more interested in themselves than in the well-being of their country.
It is striking to see how this trend coincides with a shift in age among recently elected political leaders. People can rise to political prominence before they have even turned 30. Let us take a look at two examples of such younglings and their glaring lack of statesmanship.
Austria recently lived through a series of scandals related to former prime minister Sebastian Kurz. He was elected chancellor in December 2017, when he was only 31. As David Boos explains, Kurz came onto the political scene at a time when Austria’s conservative movement was embattled and splintered. His fresh, young appearance vitalized conservatives: as Boos puts it, they “felt invigorated” with the hopes that Kurz would “unite conservatives under a clean new banner.”
It is important to note that Kurz did not emerge in the prominent spotlight from nowhere. When he assumed the chancellorship, he had already been Austria’s foreign minister for four years. However, rather than giving him a chance to mature, this seems to only have cemented the character flaws and self-centered mindset that ultimately became his downfall.
Boos gives a detailed account of three scandals that brought Kurz’s tenure as chancellor to an end: the so-called Ibizagate, the charges against Kurz’s advisor Bernard Bonelli for lying to a parliamentary commission, and the corrupt self-promoting efforts of Thomas Schmid, a high functionary in the finance ministry, regarding a state-owned holding company.
All these scandals had in common that they involved people closely affiliated with Kurz. He was indifferent to how close associates used government positions and contacts to promote themselves, not the nation. This is a quintessential difference, one that any politician in Kurz’s position must know.
He did not. His ascension to and tenure in power included everything from manipulation of opinion polls and false invoices on taxpayers’ tab, to sexually explicit photos and hints of a more-than-professional relationship between the chancellor and Schmid, his advisor.
It is important to note that whether Kurz, an outwardly conservative family father, is actually gay, is in itself of no consequence to his political acumen. However, if he chose to conceal his sexual orientation to further his political career, it reveals a moral preference for deception that may or may not be limited to his personal life.
To embolden the point: if while in office he really has been compromising himself by participating in sex orgies, it raises more questions about his moral fiber. His efforts to live one life on weekdays and another on weekends rightfully become a matter of public scrutiny.
What else is he lying about? What would he be willing to do in case he has put himself in blackmail-inviting situations?
Kurz’s personal life should not, even while it seems to, amplify a pattern of indifference to immoral behavior. Put simply, he comes across as a political leader whose answer to my initial question would be: “The first day in office is the most important one.” That first day gave him the golden key to government powers.
Another young European politician of highly dubious moral fiber is Sanna Marin, the increasingly embattled Finnish prime minister. When she was elected in December 2019, she was only 34 years old.
Recently, she has been caught on videos and pictures partying raucously at night clubs, at private homes and at the prime minister’s official residence, Villa Bjällbo. In a picture from a party at the official residence, two bare-chested women are allegedly kissing. Neither appears to be the prime minister, but she has been caught dancing intimately with both men (none of them her husband) and women.
With an emerging media narrative that she has a penchant for wild partying where by her own admission she gets drunk, Ms. Marin was recently asked by reporters about drugs being used at one of her parties. Her answer was not the firm “no” one would perhaps have expected, but instead “not that I know of.”
Expectably, this led to further media speculation on the matter, pushing the prime minister to a point where she took a drug test. It came back negative, but the very fact that she felt compelled to test herself lends credence to questions about the prime minister’s moral character: she comes across as irresponsible and self-centered.
Her defense has been that she has the right to live a life like anyone else of her age. However, this response itself shows that she lacks the qualifications for statesmanship. Her job is not like the job of anyone else. While not head of state—Finland has a president for that purpose—she is the head of government. She is the leader who puts government focus on the long-term growth and betterment of her country.
That focus should keep Sanna Marin occupied enough to not have time to party. If that is too daunting a task, she could at least consider the dangers that her partying presents to Finland’s tentative NATO membership. Assuming that Ms. Marin remains in office, and even becomes president at some point, what would happen to Finland’s and NATO’s integrity if a foreign, unfriendly government got their hands on seedy details from her wild-drunk partying?
Her inability to see such immediate dangers is yet more evidence that her youth and her character should have disqualified her from the prime minister’s office. Beyond that, her argument that she is somehow no different from her friends, and therefore has the right to party like her friends, suggests that she lacks the ability for self sacrifice that true statesmen must possess.
There are, again, old politicians whose character flaws are as bad as, or worse than, those of Sebastian Kurz and Sanna Marin. However, there are also statesmen among the aged; if we let the combined pressure of time, age, and career break the weak and shape the diamonds, we will have more statesmen to choose from in the future.
Sven R. Larson is a political economist and author. He received a Ph.D. in Economics from Roskilde University, Denmark. Originally from Sweden, he lives in America where for the past 16 years he has worked in politics and public policy. He has written several books, including Democracy or Socialism: The Fateful Question for America in 2024.