Transition from Queen Elizabeth shows weaknesses in U.S. presidency

By Harlan Ullman, Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist
King Charles’ future as a popular ruler may be brighter than that of future residents of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Photo by Roger Harris/UK House of Lords
1 of 2 | King Charles’ future as a popular ruler may be brighter than that of future residents of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Photo by Roger Harris/UK House of Lords | License Photo

Some weeks are more important than others. Last week was one of them. But, regarding three particular stories, much of their significance has been missed.

The death of Queen Elizabeth II led to a well-established transition of the crown, compared with the refusal of too many Americans to recognize Joe Biden's election as president. And, when compared with the crown's only official role as head of state, certain flaws, contradictions and weaknesses in the roles of the U.S. presidency are brutally exposed.


The threatened U.S. national railway strike, had it occurred, would have been a catastrophe for America by cutting off vast amounts of critical products and resources vital to the economy.

And the electoral victory of a right-wing Swedish government in a country that had been left of center and socialist is indicative of voter dissatisfaction and not a coming wave of autocracy.


The only official role of the queen, and now the king, is to serve as the United Kingdom head of state. The crown exercises no executive authority, except that afforded by legitimacy, tradition, precedence and public consensus. The president, however, is head of state, government, political party and the nation's leader. The House of Windsor peacefully co-exists with Britain's political parties, unless or until an anti-monarchist party is voted into office -- a highly unlikely prospect.

The president has no such luxury. Indeed, the president's four roles are inherently contradictory because of the institutions that were specifically not written into the Constitution and what the Founding Fathers denigrated as "factions": aka political parties. And the destructive influence of both political parties today is proving the Founding Fathers right.

The presidential roles as head of party and leader of the nation are in the most direct conflict in a nation divided equally between Democrats and Republicans. Worse, both parties view the other as evil, a virus that has not crossed the Atlantic yet. Under these septic conditions, Charles' future as a popular ruler may be brighter than that of future residents of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

To say the nation missed a bullet by averting a rail strike is an extreme understatement. According to the Association of American Railways, last year, trains moved about 40% of total U.S. GDP and 33% of all exports. This transport is not cheap. The average annual wage of railway workers last year was over $130,000.


Suppose the threatened national train strike were called. Consider just a few of the disastrous consequences. Agriculture's dependence on fertilizer and nitrates would mean that a majority of farms would not be able to prepare the ground for next year's crops. Chemicals for water purification would be unavailable. Grocery shelves would be empty. And to make up the transportation gap, about 100 million new trucks would be needed.

Last year, the nation had a small sampling of what damage this disruption will cause. Food distribution of the largest U.S. meat producer, JRS, was interrupted by a cyber attack. The Colonial pipeline providing gasoline to the Northeast, likewise, was cut off. The ability of these massive attacks of disruption, the new MAD, to paralyze the nation is obvious as Puerto Rico just experienced when a super storm cut off all electricity.

Finally, many European countries are leaning politically right in part because prior governments, largely of the left, failed in governing. Sweden and Italy are among the most prominent examples. However, this is not what Biden calls the battle of our time between democracy and autocracy.

China, Russia, Iran and North Korea are among these autocracies. But each has enormous domestic problems: declining demographics, standards of living, economic growth and food availability; and COVID-19 and swelling debt. None is doing well. Indeed many governments, irrespective of the system, are simply not meeting public expectations.


One conclusion should be drawn from these three stories. In America, as both political parties are driving this nation further apart, concurrently, destructive disruptions, caused by man and nature, from the war in Ukraine to unprecedented heat waves, storms, floods and droughts threaten the nation. How will these dual disruptive forces be contained? Answers are welcome.

Governments and the public are fixated on immediate problems and crises. In the United States, inflation, gas prices, the Dobbs decision overturning federal protections for abortion and the growing legal problems of the former president will coalesce around the November elections. Still, the broader consequences arising from last week cannot be dismissed. Will each be addressed? Hope springs eternal. But eternity is a long time away.

Harlan Ullman is senior adviser at Washington's Atlantic Council, the prime author of "shock and awe" and author of "The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large." Follow him @harlankullman.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

Scenes from state funeral of Queen Elizabeth II

Britain's King Charles III, Princess Anne and Prince Andrew follow the coffin of their mother, Queen Elizabeth II, draped in the Royal Standard, on the state gun carriage of the Royal Navy during the funeral procession from Westminster Abbey in London on September 19, 2022. Photo courtesy of UK Ministry of Defense | License Photo

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