Society

So Joe Biden Is Old: The Lines Between Power, Age And Authority

Despite being mocked on the campaign trail as 'Sleepy Joe,' Biden has had an energetic and productive first few months in office.

U.S President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the Covid-19 response and the vaccination program, in Washington, DC, May 2021.
U.S President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the Covid-19 response and the vaccination program, in Washington, DC, May 2021.
Isabelle Barth*

-OpEd-

Joe Biden has now passed the 100-day mark in office, and is surprising many pundits with his energy and his capacity to make pioneering decisions for his country. And present in many of these conversations is the issue of his age. He's 78, making him the oldest person ever sworn in as president of the United States. Never mind that his opponent, former President Donald Trump — who mocked Biden relentlessly during the campaign as "Sleepy Joe" — isn't that much younger.

All of this raises an interesting question: Is leadership compatible with aging? Think, for example, about former French President Charles de Gaulle, whom the French removed from power in 1969 for no longer being in tune with the suddenly shifting society. Under what conditions can one be a leader at an advanced age?

Raising these issues might seem discriminatory, but the answers could also help identify the very essence of leadership.

French martyr Jeanne d'Arc, 19, Martin Luther King, 39, former U.S. President John F. Kennedy, 46, Napoleon Bonaparte, 51, Steve Jobs, 56… All these major figures died young or fairly young, and together, they contribute to our collective associations of leadership with the ardor and energy of youth (or relative youth).

And yet, we also have the figure of the wise old man. In visual arts, Spanish painter Pablo Picasso remained creative until his death at 91. Likewise, in business, Warren Buffet, 90, is still a master in finance, despite his age. Antoine Pinay gave political advice at nearly 100, as did Nelson Mandela, the revered father of his nation, up to his death at 95.

But what can be said about those who cling to power despite physical and cognitive demise? They remain powerful, but are they still leaders? The declining capacities of former French leaders Georges Pompidou or François Mitterrand have often been highlighted. And there's another danger to that decline: Cases where aged leaders are manipulated by their entourage, and further discredited as a result.

Bouteflika_Algeria

Former Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika during a political meeting in Algeria, in February 2016. — Photo: Shcherbak Alexander/TASS/ZUMA

An extreme and emblematic example is that of former Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who stayed in power for nearly 20 years despite his poor medical condition at the end of his tenure. Another is Mahathir Mohamad, 95, the world's oldest head of state or government when he resigned last year as prime minister of Malaysia, admitting that he was finally feeling the burden of his years in office.

One wonders what Paul Biya, the 88-year-old president of Cameroon and the target of wild rumors about his repeated absences, thinks about all this. Power, after all, is not the same as authority. The former must be earned and maintained. The latter is something that is recognized and accepted.

These people may have some power still, but they have lost the authority that makes them leaders

The reluctance to relinquish power can be seen too among company heads, former government ministers, university professors and others. These are people who, despite being well past retirement age, are convinced that the world cannot run without them. They dole out honors and positions only to loyalists, appointing them presidents of associations or foundations, or as members of directorial boards. And in holding on to power, they paralyze the organizations in which they operate and stifle any desire for change or openness.

Again, these people may have some power still, but they have lost the authority that makes them leaders. When title replaces inspiration, when status becomes more important than vision, then power is only a pale substitute for leadership.

When a former leader is no longer appreciated, when he or she is not elected (as Joe Biden was), no longer being listened to or respected, then it's imperative that the person knows when to leave. Doing so requires humility, reflects a sense of humanity, and is an acknowledgement of frailty. But that too is part of leadership.

Doing the opposite — clinging to one's throne or position — risks stirring up annoyance, anger, criticism and leads, ultimately, to a loss of respect. No, leadership is definitively not about age. It's about the capacity to stay connected to the world and to be visionary. Understanding this would prevent some powerful people, no matter how old, from losing credit for wanting to "remain at all costs."



*Isabelle Barth is an associate professor of management sciences at the University of Strasbourg.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
Geopolitics

Erdogan And Boris Johnson: A New Global Power Duo?

As Turkey fears the EU closing ranks over defense, Turkish President Erdogan is looking to Boris Johnson as a post-Brexit ally, especially as Angela Merkel steps aside. This could undermine the deal where Ankara limits refugee entry into Europe, and other dossiers too.

Johnson and Erdogan in NYC on Sept. 20

Carolina Drüten and Gregor Schwung

-Analysis-

BERLIN — According to the Elysée Palace, the French presidency "can't understand" why Turkey would overreact, since the defense pact that France recently signed in Paris with Greece is not aimed at Ankara. The agreement covers billions of euros' worth of military equipment, and the two countries have committed to come to each other's aid if they are attacked.

Although Paris denies this, it is difficult to see the agreement as anything other than a message, perhaps even a provocation, targeted at Turkey.

Officially, the Turkish government is unruffled, saying the pact doesn't represent a military threat. But the symbolism is clear: with the U.S., UK and Australia recently announcing the Aukus security pact, Ankara fears the EU may be closing ranks when it comes to all military issues.

What will Aukus mean for NATO?

Turkey has long felt left out in the cold, at odds with the European Union over a number of issues. Yet now President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is setting his sights on another country, which also wants to become more independent from Europe: the UK.

Europe's approach to security and defense is changing dramatically. Over the past few months, while the U.S. was negotiating the Aukus pact with Britain and Australia behind the EU's back, a submarine deal between Australia and France, which would have been worth billions, was scrapped.

The EU is happy to keep Erdogan waiting

Officially, Turkey is keeping its cards close to its chest. Addressing foreign journalists in Istanbul, Erdogan's chief advisor Ibrahim Kalin said the country was not involved in Aukus, but they hope it doesn't have a negative impact on NATO. However, the agreement will have a significant effect on Turkey.

"Before Aukus, the Turks thought that the U.S. would prevent the EU from adopting a defense policy that was independent of NATO," says Sinan Ülgen, an expert on Turkey at the Brussels think tank Carnegie Europe. "Now they are afraid that Washington may make concessions for France, which could change things."

Macron sees post-Merkel power vacuum

Turkey's concerns may well prove to be justified. Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel always argued for closer collaboration with Turkey, partly because it is an important trading partner and partly because it has a direct influence on the influx of migrants from Asia and the Middle East to Europe.

Merkel consistently thwarted France's plans for a stricter approach from Brussels towards Turkey, and she never supported Emmanuel Macron's ideas about greater strategic autonomy for countries within the EU.

But now she that she's leaving office, Macron is keen to make the most of the power vacuum Merkel will leave behind. The prospect of France's growing influence is "not especially good news for Turkey," says Ian Lesser, vice president of the think tank German Marshall Fund.

Ankara fears the defense pact between France and Greece could be a sign of what is to come. According to a statement from the Turkish Foreign Ministry, the agreement is aimed "at NATO member Turkey" and is damaging to the alliance. Observers also assume the agreement means that France is supporting Greece's claims to certain territories in the Mediterranean which remain disputed under international law, with Turkey's own sovereignty claims.

Paris is a close ally of Athens. In the summer of 2020, Greece and Turkey were poised on the threshold of a military conflict in the eastern Mediterranean. Since then, Athens has ordered 24 Rafale fighter jets from France, and the new pact includes a deal for France to supply them with three frigates.

Photo of French President Emmanuel Macron and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on September 27 in Paris

French President Emmanuel Macron and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on September 27 in Paris

Sadak Souici/Le Pictorium Agency/ZUMA

Erdogan’s EU wish list

It's not the first time that Ankara has felt snubbed by the EU. Since Donald Trump left the White House, Turkey has been making a considerable effort to improve relations with Brussels. "The situation in the eastern Mediterranean is peaceful and the migrant problem is under control," says Kalin. Now it is "high time" that Europe does something for Turkey.

Erdogan's wish list is extensive: making it easier for Turks to get EU visas, renegotiating the refugee deal, making more funds available to Turkey as it continues the process of joining the EU, and moderniszing the customs union. But there is no movement on any of these issues in Brussels. They're happy to keep Erdogan waiting.

Britain consistently supported Turkey's ambition to join the EU

Now he is starting to look elsewhere. At the UN summit in September, Erdogan had a meeting with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the recently opened Turkish House in New York. Kalin says it was a "very good meeting" and that the two countries are "closely allied strategic partners." He says they plan to work together more closely on trade, but with a particular focus on defense.

 Turkey's second largest export market

The groundwork for collaboration was already in place. Britain consistently supported Turkey's ambition to join the EU, and gave an ultimate proof of friendship after the failed coup in 2016. Unlike other European capitals, London reacted quickly, calling the coup an "attack on Turkish democracy," and its government has generally held back in its criticism of Turkey.

At the end of last year, Johnson and Erdogan signed a new free trade agreement, which will govern commerce between the two countries post-Brexit. Erdogan has called it "the most important treaty for Turkey since the customs agreement with the EU in 1995."

After Germany, Britain is Turkey's second largest export market. "Turkey now has the opportunity to build a new partnership with the United Kingdom and it must make the most of it," says economist Ali Kücükcolak from the Istanbul Commerce University.

Erdogan is well aware of this, as Turkey is in desperate need of an economic boost. Inflation currently stands at 19%, and the currency's value is consistently falling. Turks are feeling the impact on their daily lives: food and rent are becoming increasingly expensive, while salaries remain unchanged.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
THE LATEST
FOCUS
TRENDING TOPICS
MOST READ