The brutal warlord understood how to govern shrewdly and even humanely.
Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Winston Churchill, even Barack Obama: there are many historical figures who Americans have turned to for inspiration in this political distemper. That’s especially true with the midterm elections only a week in the books. But I’ve recently found an even more surprising leader who offers a number of political lessons worth contemplating: Genghis Khan.
I’m quite serious.
As a former history teacher, I picked up Jack Weatherford’s Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World because I realized I knew relatively little about one of the most influential men in human history. Researchers have estimated that 0.5 percent of men have Genghis Khan’s DNA in them, which is perhaps one of the most tangible means of determining historical impact. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The Mongolian warlord conquered a massive chunk of the 13th-century civilized world—including more than one third of its population. He created one of the first international postal systems. He decreed universal freedom of religion in all his conquered territories—indeed, some of his senior generals were Christians.
Of course, Genghis Khan was also a brutal military leader who showed no mercy to enemies who got in his way, leveling entire cities and using captured civilians as the equivalent of cannon fodder. Yet even the cruelest military geniuses (e.g. Napoleon) are still geniuses, and we would be wise to consider what made them successful, especially against great odds. In the case of Genghis Khan, we have a leader who went from total obscurity in one of the most remote areas of Asia to the greatest, most feared military figure of the medieval period, and perhaps the world. This didn’t happen by luck—the Mongolian, originally named Temujin, was not only a skilled military strategist, but a shrewd political leader.
As Genghis Khan consolidated control over the disparate tribes of the steppes of northern Asia, he turned the traditional power structure on its head. When one tribe failed to fulfill its promise to join him in war and raided his camp in his absence, he took an unprecedented step. He summoned a public gathering, or khuriltai, of his followers, and conducted a public trial of the other tribe’s aristocratic leaders. When they were found guilty, Khan had them executed as a warning to other aristocrats that they would no longer be entitled to special treatment. He then occupied the clan’s lands and distributed the remaining tribal members among his own people. This was not for the purposes of slavery, but a means of incorporating conquered peoples into his own nation. The Mongol leader symbolized this act by adopting an orphan boy from the enemy tribe and raising him as his own son.
Weatherford explains: “Whether these adoptions began for sentimental reasons or for political ones, Temujin displayed a keen appreciation of the symbolic significance and practical benefit of such acts in uniting his followers through his usage of fictive kinship.” Genghis Khan employed this equalizing strategy with his military as well—eschewing distinctions of superiority among the tribes. For example, all members had to perform a certain amount of public service. Weatherford adds: “Instead of using a single ethnic or tribal name, Temujin increasingly referred to his followers as the People of the Felt Walls, in reference to the material from which they made their gers [tents].”
America, alternatively, seems divided along not only partisan lines, but those of race and language as well. There is also an ever-widening difference between elite technocrats and blue-collar folk, or “deplorables.” Both parties have pursued policies that have aggravated these differences, and often have schemed to employ them for political gain. Whatever shape they take—identity politics, gerrymandering—the controversies they cause have done irreparable harm to whatever remains of the idea of a common America. The best political leaders are those who, however imperfectly, find a way to transcend a nation’s many differences and appeal to a common cause, calling on all people, no matter how privileged, to participate in core activities that define citizenship.
The Great Khan also saw individuals not as autonomous, atomistic individuals untethered to their families and local communities, but rather as inextricably linked to them. For example, “the solitary individual had no legal existence outside the context of the family and the larger units to which it belonged; therefore the family carried responsibility of ensuring the correct behavior of its members…to be a just Mongol, one had to live in a just community.” This meant, in effect, that the default social arrangement required individuals to be responsible for those in their families and immediate communities. If a member of a family committed some crime, the entire unit would come under scrutiny. Though such a paradigm obviously isn’t ideal, it reflects Genghis Khan’s recognition that the stronger our bonds to our families, the stronger the cohesion of the greater society. Politicians should likewise pursue policies that support and strengthen the family, the “first society,” rather than undermining or redefining it.
There are other gems of wisdom to be had from Genghis Khan. He accepted a high degree of provincialism within his empire, reflecting an ancient form of subsidiarity. Weatherford notes: “He allowed groups to follow traditional law in their area, so long as it did not conflict with the Great Law, which functioned as a supreme law or a common law over everyone.” This reflects another important task for national leaders, who must seek to honor, and even encourage, local governments and economies, rather than applying one-size-fits-all solutions.
He was an environmentalist, codifying “existing ideals by forbidding the hunting of animals between March and October during the breeding time.” This ensured the preservation and sustainability of the Mongol’s native lands and way of life. He recognized the importance of religion in the public square, offering tax exemptions to religious leaders and their property and excusing them from all types of public service. He eventually extended this to other essential professions like public servants, undertakers, doctors, lawyers, teachers, and scholars. Of course, in our current moment, some of these professions are already well compensated for their work, but others, like teachers, could benefit from such a tax exemption.
There’s no doubt that Genghis Khan was a brutal man with a bloody legacy. Yet joined to that violence was a shrewd political understanding that enabled him to create one of the greatest empires the world has ever known. He eschewed the traditional tribal respect for the elites in favor of the common man, he pursued policies that brought disparate peoples under a common banner, and he often avoided a scorched earth policy in favor of mercy to his enemies. Indeed, as long as enemy cities immediately surrendered to the Mongols, the inhabitants saw little change in their way of life. And as Weatherford notes, he sought to extend these lessons to his sons shortly before his death:
He tried to teach them that the first key to leadership was self-control, particularly mastery of pride, which was something more difficult, he explained, to subdue than a wild lion, and anger, which was more difficult to defeat than the greatest wrestler. He warned them that “if you can’t swallow your pride, you can’t lead.” He admonished them never to think of themselves as the strongest or smartest. Even the highest mountain had animals that step on it, he warned. When the animals climb to the top of the mountain, they are even higher than it is.
Perhaps if American politicians were to embrace this side of the Great Khan, focusing on serving a greater ideal rather than relentless point-scoring, we might achieve the same level of national success, without the horrific bloodshed.