Burma is a big country, boasting a population of some 60 million. It is also sandwiched between India and China, the two rising powers that will define global politics in the 21st century. Depending on how things turn out, Burma could become either a bridge or a battleground.
So it comes as a bit of shock when you realize that the fate of this rather important country rests largely on the shoulders of two people. One is President Thein Sein, the ex-general who is cautiously trying to push the country toward greater openness. His countrymen are hoping he's serious, while the senior military officers who once ran the place are watching from the wings, alert to any signs that his present course might entail a diminishment of their status or wealth.
The other is Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate whose long years of opposition to the military regime have made her a hero in her homeland and around the world. For the past few weeks she has been out on the campaign trail, running for a seat in parliament. If she wins, she will gain a powerful platform for her message of change, one that could have a profound effect on her country's political future.
These two leaders are very different characters. But they have one very specific thing in common: they are both 66 years old (having been born just two months apart, back in that fateful year of 1945). Partly for that reason, their stories also overlap in another point -- the many lingering questions about their state of health.
Thein Sein has a bad heart. Aung San Suu Kyi recently had to cut short a campaign appearance when she experienced a bout of dizziness. In 2009, when she was still under house arrest, there were serious concerns about her health, with doctors warning about stark dehydration and weight loss.
Burma, it should be mentioned, also has a long and dismal history of political violence. Aung San Suu Kyi's father, a hero of Burma's campaign for national independence, was assassinated. Aung San Suu Kyi herself has been the subject of many threats, and she was the target of at least one attempted assassination that we know of. As for Thein Sein, many of his brother officers have fallen prey to power struggles that have curtailed their freedom, or their lives, over the years.
I cannot pretend to state with any authority what would happen to Burma if either the ex-general or the Lady were to disappear from the scene. And that is precisely the point: The power of personality is one of the great wild cards of modern politics.
Now, I don't share Thomas Carlyle's long-discredited Great Man theory of history. Not everything depends on individuals, and to argue for their importance is not to discount other elements. I happen to believe that institutions, economics, and culture all have hugely significant effects on the development of societies. Yet we should never neglect the human factor.
Indeed, at this very moment in history we are seeing abundant examples of this principle at work, for better and for worse. Like Vladimir Putin or loathe him -- yet it is extremely hard to deny that the ex-KGB officer with the Machiavellian mindset has left a deep personal stamp on modern-day Russia.
Similarly, today's capitalist-communist China remains on the path mapped out for it by the ruthless pragmatist Deng Xiaoping. Nowadays it is easy to forget that there were many senior members of the Chinese Communist Party at the end of the 1970s who wanted to see China continue on the course of orthodox Maoism, rigidly wedded to stubborn isolationism and central planning. There was no inherent reason why they could not have done so; just take a look at North Korea. But Deng gained the upper hand, and China has been correspondingly transformed.
Imagine a Cuba without Castro, or a Zimbabwe without Mugabe. It is simplistic to say that their compatriots would have been better off had these two men never existed; democracy would never have come easily in countries where the baggage of the past weighed so heavily. But it is extremely hard to picture how either of these countries would look today had it not been for these all-too-dominant leaders.
The reverse is also true. One of the most distinctive features of the so-called Arab Spring has been the lack of dominant revolutionary figures who could serve as rallying points for the forces of resistance. This absence attests, of course, to the long years of authoritarian rule in the region. The Qaddafis and the Mubaraks devoted enormous effort and expense to ensuring that eloquent and charismatic dissidents were nipped in the bud. We do not know the names of the most devoted foes of Arab autocracy; many have long since expired in the dungeons of the mukhabarat.
Syria's protean opposition is a case in point. It is filled with brilliant human rights activists, but most of them have spent long years in exile, and no longer share a common language with the people currently suffering at the hands of government troops. The new crop of grassroots activists inside the country boast little experience or name recognition.
Revolutionary situations are by definition exceptional. The confusion that results from sudden upheaval often gives an edge to radicals, who capitalize on the hard-edged clarity of their programs, or to demagogues, who seduce through charisma. Indeed, one can argue that the factor of personality becomes especially important precisely in transitional situations, when institutions are weak, lines of authority get wobbly, and accustomed norms come under attack.
Yet personalities can also play a beneficial role under such circumstances. Earlier this week I spent an evening listening to F.W. de Klerk, the former South African president, as he ruminated about his own experience in that country's transition to democracy in the early 1990s. It was de Klerk, as leader of the South African government and the dominant National Party, who made the strategic decision to surrender white minority control over the political system and pave the way for black majority rule.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that de Klerk would attribute great significance to the power of personality. Surely, cynics might say, he has an interest in talking up his own role in the abandonment of apartheid, which the forces of history ensured was going to happen sooner or later. Why should he take credit for being in the right place at the right time?
This argument is lazy. It is easy to forget today, decades later, that no path was preordained for South Africa at the time. There were moments when violent anarchy, civil war, or stubborn stonewalling by the white minority all seemed equally likely options.
And I believe that de Klerk, at the same event, was quite right to say that "bad chemistry between people can prevent negotiations, can become a big stumbling block to negotiations, can be a negative in the process of building a consensus about the way forward." (In this respect he bemoaned the 1995 assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, which he rightly described as a "tragedy" for the Middle East peace process.) If anyone knows the value of personalities, it has to be de Klerk, who still speaks of Mandela with palpable respect.
We have seen something like this same principle at work in Burma, where Thein Sein's attempt to establish cordial relations with Aung San Suu Kyi (rather than vilifying her as his predecessors had done for decades) established a vital precondition for progress. This is no guarantee that everything will work out smoothly -- far from it. But at least there are grounds for hope.
The picture presented by the countries of the Arab Spring is a far more dispiriting one. As de Klerk put it, "[L]eaders aren't manufactured. You can't order them on the Internet." He's right about that. Still, for the sake of future generations, this would a good time to start thinking about how new ones might be produced.