The revolutions of the Arab Spring have been called “leaderless revolutions” because they were populist uprisings without clear leadership. There is no equivalent to a Bourguiba, Ataturk, Sukarno, Nkrumah, Nyerere, Ho Chi Minh, Gandhi, Houphouet-Boigny or Mandela in the ranks of the protesters in Tahrir Square, or in other Arab capitals, who can rally his or her people at a key moment of national crisis and transformation.
The Twitter revolutions of the Arab world are symptomatic of our rudderless world — a world that stands in stark contrast to earlier eras of profound political upheaval and transformation in which new leadership emerged to guide and shape the forces of change.
Western capitals are generally no better off. Our world today is bereft of the kind of leadership Europe had in a Metternich, Talleyrand, or Castlereagh in the aftermath of Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, or in a Roosevelt, Churchill or George Marshall as the Second World War ended with Hitler’s defeat.
Admittedly, under the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George Herbert Walker Bush, there were strong hands at the tiller. Mikhail Gorbachev, Margaret Thatcher and Brian Mulroney also deserve credit for their own contributions to ensuring that the Cold War ended not with a nuclear bang, as many feared it would, but with a whimper.
In a peaceful, stable and prosperous world, a global leadership deficit would not matter. When times are good, the world can run on the energy and talents of ordinary citizens. Our world, however, is threatened by many new challenges: among them, religious extremism, unbridled sectarianism and irredentism [the reclamation of territory under foreign rule based on ethnic composition or historic boundaries]. Continuing threats come from terrorism groups such as al-Qaeda, which have extended their toehold into sub-Saharan Africa, into countries such as Nigeria and Niger; the unbridled nuclear ambitions of renegade states such as Iran and North Korea, which threaten their neighbours; the prospect of war in the Middle East; and a global economy that sputters and stalls as it lurches from one major crisis to another.
It is a world that is also being undermined by social media, which is contributing to the leadership deficit. The social media is a haven for extreme, emotional views that contribute to a sharp polarization of attitudes generally, overwhelming much middle-of-the-road thinking. Consider the Republican campaign for a U.S. presidential candidate, for example. Politicians in democracies — from Greece to Italy to Ontario — are also ducking their responsibilities and handing more decision-making over to technocrats. This technocratic trend, together with the ravages of prolonged recession and the brutal policy remedies now required, are sapping support for both market capitalism and basic democracy. Beware the consequences.
The global leadership deficit extends to both traditional and emergent international powers, even as the global balance of power shifts from the United States, which, until now, has been the engine of world growth and prosperity.
India is an unruly and unmanageable democracy, more inward-looking than worldly in its words and deeds. The majority of its voters still live in abject poverty and yet it is they who are the most politically engaged, thus giving rise to populist politics and policies that threaten the extraordinary gains the country has made under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s able leadership. India’s rapidly growing middle class is only just beginning to shed its apathy as it recognizes the mounting costs of political non-engagement to its own interests, but this is a new development.
China, the world’s economic juggernaut, is mercurial, defensive and secretive. Its habits are the result of a deeply ingrained Confucian-Taoist culture reinforced by years of one-party Communist rule. As China asserts itself militarily in the South China Seas, and economically in resource-rich regions such as Africa, its growing global presence is seen in many quarters as menacing and unpredictable. China’s expected new leadership also confronts ongoing domestic upheaval that, in the age of the internet, is increasingly difficult to suppress and control.
Alas, Russia had more inspiring leadership during the final days of Communist rule than it does now. The old KGB apparatchiks, still a dominant force in Russian political and economic life, are wearing thin on an electorate that has grown weary of the Putin-Medvedev political condominium. Although Putin was re-elected in the March 4 presidential elections, his position has been weakened and he may try to be more assertive in Russia’s dealings with the United States and Europe to bolster his standing at home.
The Old World has serious problems too. Europe is struggling to find its footing as it contends with mountains of public debt in its Mediterranean-rim members. The performance of the Merkel-Sarkozy duo has been less than stellar in their joint efforts to save the Euro. The German chancellor is hobbled by her own domestic coalition partners who, like the German people, refuse to recognize that Germany’s prosperity was built on the profligate spending habits of Italy, Greece, Spain and Portugal. The French president is battling for his own re-election against the Socialist Party, which wants to turn the clock back, not forward, by reintroducing many of the economic policies that got France into the mess it is in now, including the 35-hour work week. The irony is that Sarkozy, despite his many failings, is France’s best hope for delivering the tough fiscal medicine that the country needs if it is not to suffer the same fate as its Mediterranean neighbours.
The world’s greatest military power and economy is clearly “down” but not “out.” The U.S. economy appears to be on the mend. President Obama has brought U.S. troops home from Iraq. Those in Afghanistan will soon follow. Under President Obama, the United States has announced it will shift its military posture towards Asia and clearly has China in its sights as it now tries to play the role of military offshore balancer by reinvigorating its traditional — and until now largely neglected — alliances with Japan, Korea and Southeast Asia.
Nevertheless, Obama’s greatest failing is his inexperience and his inability to exercise power. In his first two years, when he had a majority in both Houses, he squandered much of his political capital much like Bill Clinton — and with some of the same advisers. America seems to have lost confidence in itself and in any kind of global role. It may be on the mend, but the fabric is weak. It can take some pride in having successfully “led from behind” in the NATO-led, campaign to oust Libya’s Muammar Gadhafi. However, Libya is far from over and by no means better yet. America’s inability to cauterize the oldest and deepest wound in the Middle East, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is a further sign of its inability to lead. So, too, is the apparent lack of any effective and coherent plan to deal with Iran as the Persian Gulf moves ever closer to armed conflict.
Many believe Israel will attack Iran to neutralize its nuclear weapons program sooner rather than later. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his defence minister, Ehud Barak, are doing little to dispel doubts that they will launch an assault. The clock is running out as Iran approaches the point of no return in acquiring a nuclear capability. But this is not the region’s only flash point. Instability and violence are running rampant in Syria as Bashir al-Assad’s brutal regime escalates attacks on al-Assad’s own people. There is a risk of a double implosion if al-Assad attacks Israel to avert his own downfall by attempting to rally the Arab world to his defence.
The disconcert of nations extends to the Asian subcontinent where India and Pakistan prey on each other’s existential fears and, in the process, further destabilize their own neighbourhood, especially in Afghanistan. Although Prime Minister Singh has made some modest overtures to soothe relations between the two countries in recent years, he, too, is a hostage to India’s domestic politics and old antagonisms and rivalries.
One searches the diplomatic landscape in vain for today’s equivalent to a Metternich, a Roosevelt, a Churchill, or even a Henry Kissinger or a James Baker (George H.W. Bush’s extremely able secretary of state). Such leadership is needed before we fall into the abyss in the Middle East/Persian Gulf or South Asia where events are spinning out of control.
We also need sound diplomacy and deft political leadership to channel the ambitions of rising powers, such as China, India, and Russia, into constructive global pursuits even when their apparent interests run at cross-purposes with our own.
Fen Hampson is Chancellor’s Professor and Director of The Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University.