There are only three kinds of mistakes in politics. The first is a simple mistake that can be corrected or undone with relative ease. Such mistakes cause no serious harm to the nation. They only serve to confirm how foolish or inadvertent politicians can be.
The second kind is a serious mistake that can’t be corrected or undone easily. Serious mistakes often do harm to the nation and, therefore, should be carefully dealt with. Fortunately, however, in most cases wise politicians will strive to not repeat such mistakes and life goes on.
The third and the worst kind is a fatal mistake that is not only irreversible but also extremely detrimental to the nation. Unfortunately, fatal mistakes are often made out of intuition, coincidence or misjudgment, and politicians do not always recognize when they make them.
The following are some of the latest examples of fatal mistakes made by politicians around the world.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam has made a series of fatal political mistakes over the past several months. In February, the Hong Kong government she leads proposed an extremely unpopular amended fugitive extradition bill that led to months of weekend protests.
The Sept. 4 decision by Lam (or Beijing) to completely withdraw the extradition bill was a “too little and too late” misjudgment. Some demonstrators became so radical in the following weeks that the Hong Kong police this month deployed live ammunition and a teenage protestor was shot and severely wounded. The use of live ammunition against the youth was a political disaster, although it was more defensive and coincidental than intentional.
Finally, Lam used a colonial-era emergency law to ban people from wearing masks in demonstrations — a decision that would unnecessarily stir up more trouble.
This clumsy judgment by the chief executive was political suicide. After her announcement to withdraw the extradition bill in September, there was a sign of a change in the political tide where ordinary citizens got more concerned about potential damage to the Hong Kong economy. The anti-mask bill totally reversed this trend.
No political decisions may have been more detrimental to the United Kingdom than Prime Minister David Cameron’s choice to hold the European Union membership referendum in 2016. In retrospect, the move seems to have been more intuitional and coincidental than a careful calculation based on mature reflection.
After the U.K. voted to leave the EU in the referendum, Cameron’s successor, Prime Minister Theresa May, desperately tried in vain many times to make a deal with Brussels. Her successor, Boris Johnson, in his latest and probably final plan, is now trying to sell a new deal to the EU. Sadly it seems that the U.K. government’s misjudgments will continue.
The White House
Even more chaotic is U.S. President Donald Trump’s White House. His determination to take advantage of other countries for his 2020 presidential election campaign is consistent. Recently Trump declared that Ukraine and China, notorious for their culture of corruption, must investigate his 2020 political rival Joe Biden and his son.
The Republican Party — also known as the Grand Old Party — has been taken over by Trump and his followers, and now seems to be a different political entity. The party isn’t grand anymore. Few Republicans would dare to challenge the president, who often makes decisions based on intuition, coincidence and misjudgment.
The Democrats seem to be in sync with their Republican counterparts. Having long been wise enough not to pursue the impeachment of Trump, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, after Trump’s telephone conversation with the Ukrainian president was revealed, finally decided to formally launch an impeachment inquiry.
Her decision does not seem to be well-considered, either. The impeachment of an incumbent president is not only difficult to achieve but also could backfire. This is especially the case if the majority of Republican Senators, unlike in the case of U.S. President Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal, are unwilling to discard the popular president.
Although the so-called Iran nuclear deal of 2016 was bad, Trump’s decision to abruptly withdraw from the already signed multilateral nuclear agreement was worse. Trump’s impulsive and unsophisticated departure from the agreement has destroyed the vulnerable minimum basis for stability in the Persian Gulf.
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is also responsible for the region’s current instability. Some of their hard-line officers or units appear to be behind the vicious circle of primitive attacks against oil tankers, the downing of a U.S. drone and sophisticated attacks with drones and cruise missiles against Saudi Arabian oil facilities.
Last but not least is U.S. policy vis-a-vis North Korea. Trump’s agreement on March 8, 2018, to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was the typical result of inspirational Trumpian shortsighted decision-making. It’s no wonder that no progress has been made on the definition and implementation of North Korea’s denuclearization.
The impact of these fatal mistakes will likely continue in the years to come. It is ironic that among the world’s political leaders, it is the dictators such as Kim who have acted consistently to protecting their core interests, such as the survival of their dynasties and their nations. When it comes to rational, sophisticated and consistent policymaking, dictators like China’s Xi Jinping, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan have the advantage. Western democracies may have to face this uncomfortable and unpleasant political reality in the future and strive to reverse it.
Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies.