I have been pondering over a comment to my last Sunday Rumble by 'RogerH' in which he suggested that the key requirement for a successful national leader, or a Foreign Secretary, was 'character'. I was in a hurry this morning and could only leave a somewhat cryptic response in which I edged towards that tiresome phrase "it all depends on what you mean by ..." which is usually a precursor to tedious semantic nit-picking.
However, in an effort to avoid that particular quagmire I have been thinking about three great statesmen and what, if any, characteristics they shared. Talleyrand, a great hero of mine, was famous for his womanising, his corruption, his treachery - and his finely-honed shrewdness. He might have betrayed various governments of France, including especially that of Bonaparte, but did so always in what he saw as the higher interests of the nation rather than the current Jack-in-office. I seem to remember from the biography by Duff Cooper (no relation, alas) which I read decades ago that Talleyrande always possessed a very clear view of his objectives and resisted any attempts to confuse him with too much detail. He instructed his clerks, who were wont to pile paperwork upon him, "pas trop de zèle!" He understood, I think, that it was essential to keep clear objectives in a clear mind even if you had to duck and dive en route to reach them!
I have discussed that dreadful old Prussian bully, Bismarck, many a time and 'oft. His is an epic tragedy. His success in welding a new nation-state out of hundreds of mini-statelets all of which succumbed to Prussian leadership was outstanding. Again, the old brute never lost track of his ultimate aim and thus, despite the multi-dimensional complexity of European politics in the 19th century, he achieved his ambition. The tragedy was that in creating the new Germany under a Prussian system he built into it the massive flaws that eventually brought about its collapse.
Sir Edward Grey was about as different from those two as it is possible to be. A Victorian/Edwardian gentleman of the 'old school', a man of impeccable manners and deportment, happy to avoid at almost any cost (except duty) what were for him the horrors of London society by returning as often as possible back to his beloved Northumberland for the excitement of - bird watching! Throughout his career as Foreign Secretary he never went abroad. Like the others, he never lost sight of his ultimate aims and objectives.
Of course, in all these three examples, one might criticise them for choosing the 'wrong' set of objectives, but alas, that brings us back to semantics and what you mean by 'wrong'? Unsuccesful? Immoral? Impossible? Because one might be tempted to suggest that up until 1941 Hitler's policy objectives had been reached with absolute mastery but do we admire him? Somewhat cynically, one is forced into a position of suggesting that the first three were brilliant and steadfast - and what made them truly great was that they lived to die in their own beds!