He was supposed to have been reluctantly pushed into briefly stepping in as prime minister in Italy to push austerity measures through the state legislature. According to Deutche Welle, “The 69-year-old former European Commissioner was appointed to lead Italy’s government . . . to restore Italy’s finances following Berlusconi’s departure.” The technocrat was not supposed to so interested in power that he would want to stay on. At the end of December 2012, Mario Monti announced that he would lead a centrist group of politicians against the Democratic Party and Berlusconi’s People of Freedom party in the upcoming election. Had the former bureaucrat “found religion” in some political cause, or had he developed a taste for power? If the latter, we might ascribe the motive to the human propensity to resist giving up power willingly.
Mario Monti at the European Commission. A launching point for Italian politics? source: nytimes
After meeting with centrist politicians, Monti went on to claim, “The traditional left-right split has historic and symbolic value” for the state, but “it does not highlight the real alliance that Italy needs—one that focuses on Europe and reforms. “ He added that his group could win a “significant result” in the upcoming election, paving the way for his possible return to the office. Was it the taste of victory or a mission for reform that was behind his new-found interest in staying on in office? Or was he being pushed by E.U. leaders and those of other states? He would retain his senator-for-life office in the state senate regardless.
This case could be illustrative of the difficulty that people have with walking away from power. Even a technocrat, sensing a political opportunity, may find it difficult to say no. The example of George Washington, who refused to run for a third term as president of the U.S., may be particularly noteworthy. In the constitutional convention, Hamilton had urged a president for life. Moreover, Europe was still populated by ruling (rather than merely reigning) kings and queens. Washington could easily have argued that the new union needed the stability of leadership that only he could provide. He could have died in office and still been regarded as a hero.
In European terms, Washington would correspond to a European with tremendous stature willing to put his or her reputation on the line for the E.U. That union, being still in development in 2012, was at the time hardly “out of the woods” in terms of viability, and thus could use such leadership. A problem with relying so much on state leaders at the federal level is that the interests of one or a few dominant states can dictate the union’s policy. In turning to Italy after having pushed through the critical austerity legislation, Monti was unwittingly contributing to this risk. Just as in the early U.S., the state offices were the most sought. Put another way, as Monti was preparing to run for the office of prime minister in Italy, Europe needed him more, even if the power was still in the governor’s office at the state level. Unlike in even the early U.S., in the E.U. he could affect both federal and state policy as prime minister of Italy, given the salience of the European Council (whose members are the state governments) at the federal level.
Statesmanship can be defined as turning down an opportunity for greater power in order to contribute to the greater good. Such a duty is civic and moral in nature. In contrast, the desire for a continuance of power represents a more convenient path. It is not as though self-interest is absent in the loftier route, for falling on one’s sword (and being able to tell the tale afterward) gives rise to valuable reputational capital, which can be leveraged for power and money. To be credible, leadership cannot simply be a reflection of the simple path to power. Put another way, credible leadership must be oriented to governing rather than campaigning. In the European context, governing oriented to reforming the system itself has been a valuable, if not rare, commodity.
Reuters, “Italy’s Outgoing Prime Minister Confirms Election Bid,” Deutsche Welle, December 28, 2012.