Alphen, Netherlands. 12 November. J.K. Galbraith once wrote: “All of the great leaders have one characteristic in common: the willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time”. The markedly different body language of Presidents Obama, Putin and Xi as they strolled together at this week’s Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) meeting in Beijing revealed three vastly different anatomies of power. Given his concept of ‘greatness’ how would Galbraith have assessed five of today’s world leaders: Xi, Obama, Putin, Merkel and Cameron?
President Xi Jingping: “Modesty is a vastly overrated virtue”. Xi exudes the authority of a man who believes that all he must do is wait and China will inherit if not the earth, at least the East Asian part of it. Xi is a man who has struggled and prevailed in the oft lethal internal power machinations of the Chinese Communist Party. XI is tough, believes he has won at home and is winning abroad. Xi’s “new model for great power” relations place him and China at the centre of world power and replaces Communism with nationalism as the essential creed of Chinese power and influence. It is a concept of power revealed in all the majesty of its prejudice in this week’s meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
President Barrack Obama: “It is a far, far better thing to have a firm anchor in nonsense…” President Obama is a leader who desperately wants to see the world he would like, not the world as it is. Consequently, the “Yes We Can!” Super-President has become the “No, We Can’t” lame duck president. Wounded at home by the mid-terms and in retreat abroad President Obama exudes the weakness of a man who believes his time will soon be up and maybe America’s great age of power with him. He has lost in Washington and is losing much of his country in an America that respects power but smells weakness. The smell today is pungent. President Obama is drifting and gives the impression of a leader with no clear idea about either the extent or utility of American power.
President Vladimir Putin: “War remains the decisive human failure”. Putin is the gambler. He leads a Russia that is today a one-shot, wreck of an economy with a too-many-vodka-shots broken society. Faced with the unpalatable reality of strategic decline Putin has retreated into a Peter the Great myth of Russian power and nationalism. By conquering parts of Ukraine, embarking on state-bankrupting military modernisation and by intimidating the people of Russia’s most important trading partners Putin has adopted the strategy of weakness masked in the pretence of strength. Such a strategy may buy Putin time. It will certainly one day earn him a place in Russian history as yet another heroic failure so beloved of Russians.
Chancellor Angela Merkel: “Meetings are indispensable when you don’t want to do anything”. Merkel is billed as the “most powerful leader in Europe”. To mix my metaphors for her such billing is a decidedly poisoned chalice. Ever the systematic scientist Merkel knows just how little power she really has and how limited her room for manoeuvre trapped as she is between what is best for Germany and what is best for ‘Europe’. To compensate she exudes that other great quality of a superior intellect to which Galbraith referred – pessimism. Consequently, she moves from EU meeting to EU meeting with much of Europe looking to her for the decisive leadership she knows she cannot offer. Such leadership would finish her, possibly Germany and quite probably the EU. In reality her choice is a dark one; act now to save that bit of the Eurozone that can be saved or do nothing and hope Europe’s eventual demise will not happen on her watch. She has chosen for the latter and waits hopefully for the miracle of entirely unlikely economic growth to fix her dilemma.
Prime Minister David Cameron: “Politics is the art of the possible. It consists of choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable”. Britain has ‘achieved’ something quite chilling – none of the leaders of Britain’s three major political parties actually believe in Britain. Indeed, David Cameron is just about as far away from a Winston Churchill or a Margaret Thatcher as it is possible for a British leader to get. His only consolation is that Ed Milliband and Nick Clegg are even further distant from greatness. Surrounded by advisers that tell him daily that Britain is finished and that Little Britain has no future beyond the political wreckage of the the EU Cameron mouths the mantras of leadership but believes none of it. Cameron is quite simply incapable of confronting unequivocally the major anxieties of his people in their time. Instead, Cameron fiddles around with power substituting politics for strategy and manoeuvre for principle as holding onto power becomes the essence of his political purpose.
The West of which Galbraith wrote is in crisis. The current crop of Western leaders has failed the challenge of power posed by the twenty-first century. Consequently, the ‘West’ (such as it is) is in rapid retreat across the world leaving power vacuum after vacuum for the likes of Xi and Putin to fill. None of them are up to the challenges Galbraith would have understood and which were both implicit and explicit at the APEC meeting. The real question Galbraith would have posed today is this; is it any longer possible for North Americans or Europeans to produce great leaders? It is a vital question for the answer to it will decide whether this is to be another American and by extension Western century or a Chinese/Asian century. The nature of geopolitics means it is unlikely to be both.
If this is indeed to be another American century new thinking is urgently needed at the very top in both America and indeed Europe. For as Galbraith once said: “The conventional view serves to protect us from the painful job of thinking”.