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The Despotic Monarch

A review of modern monarchies reveals that they can be successful

By Nanaho Sawano

For an American, the word "monarch" can conjure up nightmares of King George III, symbolizing British control over American colonies in the 18th century. Or perhaps we start thinking of the sad genetic malfunctions which run through royal families that are too inbred, a result, ironically, of their hopes to keep their family bloodlines pure. The fact that Queen Victoria passed along her mutated gene for hemophilia to several different European royal families comes up in one biology textbook after another.

For so many reasons, then, especially in this age when democracy is considered the international ideal, we don't get a very good impression of these supposedly pampered royals. We even think that they, arriving at their position purely through birth, live a life of decadent leisure. This is especially the case with monarchs-in-exile or with aristocrats with dubious origins and even more dubious professions.

However, many of these objections have less to do with the politically symbolic institution of the monarchy itself. Instead, these objections are based on the character flaws of a particular individual who happened to be born into a royal family. Perhaps because of this--the scandals affecting the poor British Royal Family aside--for many countries, monarchies or constitutional monarchies are actually quite popular. It is interesting to observe that each monarchy or constitutional monarchy is successful in its own way. At the same time, we can see that these successful monarchs all play a delicate balancing act between representing the hopes and aspirations of their countries, and manifesting their own unique personalities.

There are some examples of successful near-absolute monarchies. For instance, in Monaco, Prince Rainier reigns supreme and uncontested, his principality in the spotlight since he married the late Hollywood actress and Hitchcock muse, Grace Kelly. In this tiny Mediterranean country the size of New York City's Central Park, to be Monegasque is to lead a tax-and-crime-free life. Monegasques appreciate the fact that it is only the Monegasque princely family that keeps Monaco intact since once the family dies out, Monaco reverts to France.

King Hussein of Jordan, also a near-absolute monarch, ascended to the throne at the age of 17 in 1953. He has since proven to be a formidable and astute monarch. While Jordan has not been a source of natural oil reserves, and has the unfortunate geographical position of being wedged between Israel and Iraq, King Hussein has managed to both modernize his country and maintain a balancing act between the Israelis and the Arab world, perhaps the most successful Arab leader to do so to date.

On the other hand, some constitutional monarchs have been noted for their brave support of democracy against dictatorship, and, in the Cold War, for serving as a bastion against communism. For instance, King Juan Carlos of Spain has been greatly admired since 1981, when he intervended to prevent a military coup from taking over the Spanish parliament. For Cambodia, the exiled but widely respected King Norodom Sihanouk has been a ray of hope representing democracy, as this summer militant leader Hun Sen crashed the fragile Cambodian peace that had been set up by the United Nations in 1993.

Other constitutional monarchs who have not braved crises quite as dramatic as those of the monarchs of Spain and Cambodia, can be successful in their own right by the strength of their personalities. For instance, Queen Margrethe II of Denmark, who, aside from being extremely popular for her approachable style, is also admired for her artistic talents and for translating Simone de Beauvoir into Danish under a pseudonym.

The head of a former imperial family can also instill respect and liking even if he is not officially the head of state. Since the end of WWII, the U.S., fearful of Japanese militarism, stripped the titles of Japanese-extended imperial family, as well as the rest of Japanese aristocracy and removed the emperor from his purportedly divine status. However, Emperor Akihito is still head of state in all but name, and the Japanese continue to base their calendar by the number of years Emperor Akihito has reigned. Japan, for all its increasingly egalitarian society, is still respectful of their imperial family.

Of course, this is not to say that horrible kings have not existed this century. For instance, no one would have wanted Bao Dai as emperor of Vietnam in the 1950s. Instead of helping to patch the volatile Vietnamese political system, he was content to lead the life of a playboy and womanizer. He indirectly aided Vietnam's conversion to communism, since those wishing to have a democratic, independent Vietnam had no one to turn to as a leader.

Also, admittedly the children of good monarchs are not necessarily good themselves. We rather wish that Prince Rainier's daughter, Princess Stephanie, hadn't gone from one convicted boyfriend to another, finally having two children out of wedlock with her bodyguard, who had another girlfriend pregnant at the same time. We also wish that Queen Margrethe of Denmark's son, Prince Frederik, didn't date lingerie models.

It seems as if the greatest problem of the modern monarchy is less the fear of despotism, (we have enough former military officers gone amuck in the world to fill that role) but rather a question of whether the character of any particular monarch merits his or her position. We grouse that no one should just be born to a position of such status. On the other hand, watching a person develop to fit his or her position is part of the pleasure of having a monarchy. In a way, it gives a human aspect to the institution of head of state which is not possible in an elected system where one head of state follows another like so many brands of cars. The dilemma then is how one monarch can be a symbol and a personality at the same time. It is, admittedly, a very hard role to fit. Yet when the monarch is qualified, he or she can be one of the most effective unifiers of a nation. The world seems to have many such monarchs.

Nanaho Sawano is a senior living in Dunster House. This is the second in a series of three articles about royalty as a political institution.

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