A second act is rare in world politics. History can point to a handful of leaders who managed to reacquire political power after losing it (Napoleon, Churchill, Deng Xiaoping, Alan Garcia). Traditionally, however, when a politician loses his job, he faces the purgatory of being a statesman. At best, he makes money and becomes the titular head of an international organization. At worst, he gets shot.
Al Gore's Nobel Peace Prize, however, highlights a newer and more intriguing possibility for this generation's crop of statesmen: the ex-politician as policy entrepreneur—a hipster statesman. As a politician, Gore was a noble failure; his most signal accomplishment was to help negotiate a global warming treaty that had zero chance of ratification in his home country. As a statesman, Gore has become a rock star. In the past year, in addition to his Nobel, he has won an Emmy and his movie won an Oscar, thereby guaranteeing himself the World's Most Awesome Mantle. His documentary "An Inconvenient Truth" has shifted the debate on global warming in the United States. He was the chief promoter of this past summer's Live Earth concerts. As an environmentalist, Gore is much more relevant now than when he was vice president.
Gore is the most prominent hipster statesman, but he is hardly the only one. Last week former president of Mozambique Joaquim Chissano won the inaugural Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership. The prize specifically rewards politicians for becoming statesmen—i.e., gracefully leaving office when their constitutional term of office expires. Tony Blair has moved from 10 Downing Street to the slightly more dangerous address of the Middle East, as the envoy for the Quartet (the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia).
Being a statesman is so cool now that they are forming their own clubs. The Club of Madrid is devoted to democracy promotion and effective global governance; its membership roster consists of 68 former heads of state and government of democratic nations. Naturally, the Gorbachev Foundation of North America helped get the Club of Madrid off the ground.
Even rock stars are yearning to mingle with statesmen. Over the summer, singer Peter Gabriel cosponsored the formation of a group called "The Elders." According to their Web site, The Elders will, "use their unique collective skills to catalyze peaceful resolutions to long-standing conflicts … and share wisdom by helping to connect voices all over the world." Desmond Tutu, who holds the title "Chair of the Elders," recently led an all-star team of statesmen to visit Darfur. The Elders' roster is like a Hall of Fame for hipster statesmen, including former presidents Jimmy Carter, Mary Robinson, Fernando Cardoso, Nelson Mandela, and Gro Harlem Brundtland.
Money, fame, buzz—it would seem that hipster statesmen have it all. One could almost imagine Jimmy Carter standing in the West Bank, holding a boombox over his head, playing the song "In Your Eyes" over and over again until the Israelis and Palestinians relent. But I'm not holding my breath on it working.
There are two very powerful constraints on ability of the hipster statesmen to get anything done. First, the policy-entrepreneur approach cannot work on all policy problems. To update Truman's aphorism for the 21st century, when you are a statesman, you can choose your issues; when you are a politician, the issues choose you. Real politicians do not always respond to the pleas of statesmen, because they are busy avoiding the fate of becoming a statesman. Wealth, popularity and glamour might be enticing, but as Henry Kissinger once observed, power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.
Second, calling attention to a problem is not the same thing as solving it. The assumption underlying the hipster statesmen is that once people become aware of a problem, there will be a groundswell of support for direct action—what Gore labeled "an opportunity to lift global consciousness to a higher level" after winning the Nobel. This is not how politics usually works, particularly in the international realm. Any solution to a problem like global warming, for example, involves significant costs—and the distribution of those costs is a contentious issue. Even if more people become aware of a policy problem, it is far from guaranteed that a consensus or compromise will emerge about the best way to solve it.