Most of us have a fantasy list of some well-known person that we'd fancy going for a pint with, just to see what they're like. I've sometimes thought about Barack Obama in that way: he always struck me as a bit more thoughtful than your average politician. Even though he never said it explicitly, he didn't seem to buy into the idea of American exceptionalism; or at least the idea that to be a patriotic American, you are required to believe that the US is better than all the other countries.
This could be pure inference on my part, of course. Either way, at some point in the night, I’d want to ask him about another part of his job: killing people. During his presidency, he ordered more than 500 air strikes, mostly by drones, that ended the lives of thousands of people.
Estimates vary on how many civilians died, or even what the definition of a “civilian” is. I’d want to know how he feels about that; does the thought of all that death and destroyed families trouble him.
This is where my fantasy night out breaks down. Based on my range of experience, I find it difficult to imagine another human being who wouldn’t be haunted to a damaging degree by such actions, or who wouldn’t exhibit the intense internal strain of having to justify what they had done.
But this is Barack – we’re pals now – and he’ll stare at me coolly and trot out a platitude about saving American lives. I’d want to go home then.
I wouldn't want to go for a pint with Vladimir Putin at all, mostly because I find him terrifying: the dead eyes, the Bond villain pose that he seems to relish. I'd be too nervous to sip my pint, for fear of what he might have put in it.
Yet if I stopped being a wuss and asked him about killing, I would no doubt get the same answer, and delivered with the same unambiguous conviction. I could press them both on this point. Barack might say that it’s easy to criticise when you’re sitting in the pub; that in the real world you have to make the hard call, that if you agonise about it, things might get even worse. Vladimir would probably say something similar, before stabbing me with a poisoned cufflink.
Perhaps they, and other world leaders, can act the way they do because they are operating on a higher philosophical plain. Or perhaps, a much lower one.
Most grown-ups know from experience that there are relatively few situations in life – momentous or humdrum – that don’t involve a choice between the lesser of two evils. Couples break up even though they don’t want to cause each other pain. The child cries when you leave her with a babysitter, but the parents really need a night by themselves. In such situations, most of us feel a little ambivalent. That’s being human.
The same applies for domestic politics. At budget time every year, the government of the day, mindful that there’s only so much cash to go around, has to decide who it will help and in what proportions. Nobody ever gets everything they need. But at least domestic politicians cannot completely insulate themselves from the effects of their decisions. They have to walk the streets and see the homeless people. They have to eyeball constituents at their clinics.
It’s probably easier for the likes of Barack and Vladimir. They don’t have to see the bodies or smell the burning flesh. Yet it must still require considerable willpower to avoid the news reports. Or to watch those reports and convince themselves that they are still doing the right thing.
Because to do the right thing, they must become something less than human: scrub away doubt, or the threat of empathy; embrace a wilful ignorance of their victims so they can mould history to their liking.