Former BBC anchor discusses international leadership, crisis management

About 50 people gathered to listen to Nik Gowing’s lecture “Thinking the Unthinkable” on Tuesday evening. The lecture, which took place in the ASEAN Auditorium and was hosted by the Institute for Global Leadership, lasted from 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. and focused on the inability of global leaders to respond to sizeable challenges in the last few years.

Gowing, a former news anchor for the BBC, is currently studying institutional failure. At the lecture, he presented the results of a report he coauthored on the subject. According to Gowing, the report was based on interviews with political and corporate leaders from around the world.

“I was at the Kennedy School 22 years ago, and what you’re going to see over the next 40 minutes or so is the latest iteration of what I started then, on the vulnerability of power politics and systems,” Gowing said at the start of the presentation.

Gowing argued that global leaders’ inability to deal with crises like the Islamic State (ISIS) and the Russian annexation of Crimea stemmed from a series of interrelated factors including denial, institutional conformity and unwillingness of public figures to risk their careers. He described this as an inability to consider unpalatable ideas.

“Just after Putin invaded Crimea, it became very clear to me that something big was happening, but we couldn’t put our finger on it,” Gowing said.

He went on to point out the extended low growth, wage stagnation and refugee crisis experienced by the European Union as examples of leadership failure on a grand scale. Gowing contended that the current crises were heralded in late 2013 and 2014 by a series of events, including the collapse of oil prices, the Ebola epidemic and ISIS’ seizure of Mosul, that demonstrated the inability of current governments to effectively manage major problems.

Gowing posited that fear of public backlash was one of the forces that crippled the capacity of political leadership in the United States and Europe. He explained that this stemmed from the increased accessibility of information and the ability of people everywhere to share videos and photographs.

“Assume everything you do is being witnessed by someone with a mobile phone. That leads to an extraordinary duty or responsibility to act lawfully,” Gowing said, discussing the way citizens were able to film police operations during the Brussels terror attacks.

Gowing said that this pressure to avoid controversial behaviors has led corporate and government figures to become overly risk-averse and has helped contribute to the unwillingness of leaders to anticipate the challenges of the last few years.

Gowing and an audience member discussed this point at length during a question-and-answer session that ran for 40 minutes. The audience member asked Gowing whether or not this increased accountability could be a good thing. Gowing noted that it acted as a positive force when countering authoritarian governments but stressed that it could pose a threat to the stability of developing nations.

“You cannot assume that people in the military can just shoot somebody, even if they’re protected by what we would call Queen’s regulations, or warrants, in the United States. Everything will become accountable, and that’s what the Russians are going to play on if there were to be a limited conflict in Europe,” Gowing said.

Ultimately, he concluded, new leaders will need courage and humility to face the next round of unthinkable challenges.