Political stunts can be very costly. There are many examples of this in recent history. It’s is hard to know the exact price of the stunt that Greece’s leftist leader Alexis Tsipras tried to pull after his first election victory, but it’s certainly in the billions of euros.
Meanwhile in Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is paying the price for his own stunts. He chose to gamble with Russia and Israel, and he lost. The country’s empty beaches and sunken business deals indicate the immense cost. To be sure, it would never be easy for a leader like Erdogan to issue an apology and perform an about-face on the global stage. It must have been extremely difficult for his aides to convince him to change his stance; and it must have been painful for him personally to do so. Economic data are inexorable, and even the most determined or arrogant leaders can’t deny them.
Political leaders get intoxicated on popular love for their stunts. The following day usually comes with a painful hangover.
The British pulled a stunt of their own in voting to leave the European Union. They turned a deaf ear to warnings about potential damage to their economy and international leverage. Angry voters enticed by the sirens of populism were talked into the purported benefits of Brexit, although they were never shown a realistic Plan B.
It now seems that German Chancellor Angela Merkel is now using the same method on Britain that she employed with Tsipras. She is playing for time, staying clear of polarization and abrupt reactions. She perhaps hopes that the British (politicians and voters alike) will realize the magnitude and cost of their decision. Perhaps the German leader is also driven by the belief that in politics everything is possible. After all she has seen the Greek prime minister turn from a radical, anti-systemic leader into a supposedly credible politician that “never lies.” In any case, it’s still hard to predict the outcome of the British stunt.
That said, it is such stunts that make history move forward. Groundbreaking changes have in many cases been the product of absurd decisions. Pointing out the price tag that usually comes with a certain type of stunt does not necessarily designate a propensity for inaction or love for the status quo. When a stunt is not supported by a serious plan or courage, or even better, both, disaster is usually just waiting around the corner. There is no such thing as a cost-free stunt.