Voice

Rudderless

Why the world doesn't have real leaders anymore.

A couple years back, I gave a talk at Princeton on the indispensable role leaders play in successful Arab-Israeli negotiations.

A very smart professor from Turkey dismissed my argument as "reductionist," and wondered how I could have missed the broader societal and political forces responsible for success and failure. I simply responded that whatever her views on these matters, she herself hailed from a land in which one guy had fundamentally changed the entire direction of her country's modern history. We left it at that.

Shoot me if you want, but I'm a sucker for the great man (and woman) theory of history. Yes, broad social, political, economic, and cultural structural forces shape and constrain what leaders can do. And yes, Marx was right: People make history; but rarely as they please. Indeed, we have a cartoonish view of leadership in which presidents or prime ministers articulate a vision and then through sheer will persuade us to buy it. That's not how it really works. Instead, a leader more often than not intuits and exploits an opportunity when the times or circumstances offer it up.

Still, individuals count -- big time. For my money, it's human agency -- certainly in matters of war, peace, and nation building -- that is responsible for pushing societies toward the abyss or rescuing them from it. Wherever you stand on this issue, scholar John Keegan's stunning assertion that the history of much of the twentieth century is the story of six men (Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Churchill, Roosevelt, and Mao) simply can't be ignored.

So here we are in the second decade of the twenty-first century, a full eight decades after this bunch tried either to take over the world or save it. Where are the big, bold, ballsy leaders? Plenty of very bad guys have come and gone -- Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic -- and some larger-than-life good ones like Charles De Gaulle, Konrad Adenauer, Anwar Sadat, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Nelson Mandela. But by and large, today we face a leadership deficit of global proportions. Some might even say we're rudderless.

One hundred and ninety-three countries are represented at the United Nations, among them more than 80-plus democracies. Is there one leader of any of them whom we could honestly describe as great, heroic, inspirational, transformational -- the author of some incomparable and unparalleled achievement at home or on the world stage likely to be seen or remembered for the ages? There are courageous dissidents in China, and Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi is indeed inspiring. But empowered leaders governing countries and directing change are harder to identify. Maybe we've entered the post-heroic era: tiny steps for tiny feet. And maybe that's not necessarily a bad thing. 

But a look around makes you wonder about the quality and effectiveness of those leaders we do have. Forget the return of the greats we miss and the bad ones we don't want back. Do today's leaders have what it takes to deal with the problems and challenges at hand?

Start with the world's greatest nations -- the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. You might expect great leaders from great powers. But you don't see much greatness in the individuals who lead them: Barack Obama, David Cameron, François Hollande, Hu Jintao, and Vladimir Putin.

Instead, what you have is a bunch of talented, well-spoken guys facing a variety of economic and political challenges they cannot possibly overcome. At best, if they're lucky, they can be successful transactional leaders -- fixing a problem here and there, managing a crisis, or coping with one.

But transformational leaders who leave legacies that fundamentally alter their nation's trajectories? Not likely. Among them, Putin may actually prove to the most successful given his control and his objectives, but even this is no longer certain because of the generational divide he confronts, with so many younger Russians seeking change.

What about those consequential powers outside of the Perm Five -- Germany, India, Brazil? Surely there have got to be effective leaders here.

Angela Merkel is resilient, politically skilled. She's a survivor in German politics, but has been roundly criticized for failing to show leadership on broader European issues, particularly the eurozone crisis. And by all accounts, she won't make it into the Konrad Adenauer, Willy Brandt, and Helmut Kohl category. India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh may also be a skilled politician and technocrat who was once popular, but he's now too entangled in political intrigue and charges of corruption to join the ranks of Nehru and Gandhi. Brazil offered up an intriguing candidate in former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, but, well, he's not in power anymore.

What about finding consequential leaders in the Arab and Muslim world? The Arab dictators whom we knew and never loved -- Saddam, the Assads, Qaddafi -- were and are brutal and extractive figures, taking so much more than they ever gave to their people. The next rung down weren't quite as bad -- Mubarak, Ben Ali, Abdullah Saleh -- but clearly better for the United States' interests than for their own peoples'. With the passing of the Ben Gurions, Sadats, Begins, King Husseins, and Rabins, the Middle East has been in the age of politicians not statesmen for some time now. A younger generation of Israeli leaders -- Netanyahu, Barak, Olmert -- bears this out.

What about the Arab Spring? After all, revolutions and crises have in the past been inspired and directed, indeed even produced consequential leaders. It's way too early to draw conclusions, but the trend lines don't look all that encouraging. The Arab uprisings have been effectively leaderless. Egypt's presidential election produced a pretty grey Muslim Brotherhood leader who will be constrained severely by the military and by his own party even if he wants to be bold.

Beyond Egypt, matters only get worse. Libya, Syria, and Yemen will be struggling for years with the quest for legitimate, respected, accountable, and effective leaders. The Arab kings who survive (in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco, and Qatar) are more enlightened, even respected; and in the case of Saudi King Abdullah, even beloved by many Saudis. But to call them great leaders strains the bounds of credulity to the breaking point. Their prospective successors don't inspire much confidence, either.

Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan is one of the few standouts. He's presided over an economic boom, increased Turkey's regional influence, and is trying -- fairly successfully -- to balance Islam, modernity, and democracy. But he does have some asterisks on human rights and press freedoms, as well as a personal penchant for inflating his own role and Turkey's without a lot of "there there."

I give up. What's going on here? Where have all the enlightened, wise, effective, charismatic leaders gone, not to mention the truly great ones? I recently briefed some military officers and asked them: Who was the last American figure you'd describe as great? Silence. When I offered up my candidate, Martin Luther King, Jr, one guy exclaimed: "But he died in 1968." Exactly, I replied. Next year we will have gone the longest stretch in our history without an undeniably great president -- Washington ... Lincoln ... FDR ... ?

I wouldn't presume to offer a comprehensive explanation as to why we have a leadership deficit on a global scale. There probably isn't one -- certainly not a one-size-fits-all answer. We tend to romanticize the performance of some of the great leaders of yore. The world's gotten a great deal more complicated over the years, and then again leaders can always appear at the most unexpected of times and in the most unusual circumstances.

So why don't we have great leaders anymore? I'd welcome some suggestions. But here are a few thoughts to get us started.

Greatness Is Rare: By definition, incomparable and unsurpassed achievement in any field or aspect of the human enterprise is rare. And it's rarer still in politics and governance. Unlike with great artists, musicians, or even athletes, politics has many moving parts. There's a dependence and contingency that complicates success at any level, let alone extraordinary achievement.

My definition of greatness encompasses a leader's overcoming some truly national crisis and trauma, converting that exigency into some transformational legacy in a way that alters the nation forever for the better, or breaking out in some new direction that isn't just successful but transformational, too. (See Mustafa Kemal's preservation of Turkey's sovereignty and national identity; Churchill's leadership during the dark, lonely days of 1940-1941; FDR's presidency from 1941-1945; Sadat's visit to Jerusalem; Kennedy's leadership during the Cuban missile crisis; or LBJ's after Kennedy's assassination and passage of historic civil rights legislation.)

Been There Done That: Nations pass through foundational trials and crises that generate their myths and narratives and provide opportunities for heroic action by their leaders. The successful nations never pass that way again because the founders and early leaders have already addressed the existential questions. As a result, later national leaders deal not with whether the nation will be, but instead what kind of country it will be. These challenges are no less important, but they're more systemic and in many ways more complex. Big accomplishments like creating a democratic nation, saving it from its enemies, preserving a union, or guiding it through economic catastrophe lend themselves to bold words and deeds if the right leader is up to it. And the nation and the political system is more apt to follow.

Media Makes Ordinary: De Gaulle used to say that leadership and authority demands a certain amount of mystique. That's hard to do in today's 24/7, we-see-everything media world. In highly centralized leadership structures -- China, North Korea, even Russia -- that's possible. But no longer in democracies. Nicholas Sarkozy is caught blasting Bibi Netanyahu on an open mic; Reagan is caught dozing; Bush 43 mangling the English language; Bill Clinton and the blue dress. Had the media that covers American presidents today been around back then, the likes of FDR, Churchill, and Kennedy would surely have been taken down a notch or two.

When the media isn't intruding and exposing vulnerabilities, it's functioning as a challenge to leaders and regimes alike. Social media's role in the Arab Spring may be overstated, but it gives to ordinary people -- not to mention activists -- a new power to organize, mobilize, and communicate. And this can't help but trivialize and undermine any hope of the kind of distance and detachment that's required to maintain authority -- even dignity. This whole process serves to bring leaders down a level and even them out with their publics. Last year, President Obama held the first-ever presidential Twitter conference. Smart politics, maybe, but somehow using the word "Twitter" -- with its 140-character form of communication -- in the same sentence with an American president seems somehow ... well, not very presidential.

It's Just Too Complicated: The world's smaller and more connected, and the challenges of the modern era make governing -- let alone good or great governance -- much harder. Even monumental challenges such as the U.S. civil war were essentially limited to one continent. (Clearly, the world wars were exceptions, though the dire nature of the threats focused the minds of the democracies in ways no other events have since.) Now, a leader's political viability and the country's economic health is linked to global events beyond his or her control, be it debt in Greece or a currency meltdown in Thailand. A country's security -- even while protected by two oceans and massive conventional and unconventional military power -- can be rocked by transnational terror.

The nature of the problems that need to be addressed, particularly in a democracy, are systemic and require solutions driven by process and compromise. America's five deadly Ds -- dysfunctional politics; debt; deficit; dependence on hydrocarbons, and decaying infrastructure -- are slow bleeds that demand a political consensus seemingly beyond the control of a single leader.

Still, look on the bright side. Clearly, the fewer caudillos, Dear Leaders, and supreme ayatollahs there are, the better. And perhaps even the passing of the great democratic heroes will be good, too. Nations, the experts tell us, fail primarily because they lack inclusive institutions. I'd trade a few great men for some of those, particularly in the Arab world. The idea of the great leader also tends to infantilize the public and create an expectation that people are waiting to be rescued. And who knows -- maybe if we stop yearning for the ONE, we'll start taking our own civic responsibilities more seriously.

Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

Reality Check

The Michael Jackson Principle

Five leaders who need to take a look in the mirror.

In one of his more reflective songs, "Man in the Mirror," the late Michael Jackson enshrined a bit of wisdom for the ages: If you wanna make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and then make a change.

MJ was on to something. He may not have known much about negotiations, American politics, the budget deficit, or foreign policy. But the principle that we need the capacity to see the world the way it is (and ourselves as well) is a critically important component of success in politics, just as it is in life.

With that in mind, here are five honest looks in the mirror I'd like to hear about but most assuredly never will.

Barack Obama

I really would have liked to be a great president, and really thought I could be. But it's probably  not going to happen. Forget what I told Diane Sawyer in 2010 --  that I'd rather be a good one-term president than a mediocre two-termer. It was a good, self-effacing line at the time. But I never meant it. Anyway, right now, I'm not thinking about legacy. I just want to hold onto my job.

The truth is the Republicans were out to get me. But I really made it easy for them. My own sense of grandiosity and illusions about what I could achieve really helped them. I figured I was destined to be a transformational president. After all, the worst economic recession since FDR, two foreign wars, and a dysfunctional political system all seemed to make me the right guy at the right place and time. (After all, I've never failed at anything.) It's no coincidence that I chose to be sworn in on the Lincoln Bible and to recreate Honest Abe's post-inaugural meal right down to the sour cherry chutney.

But the truth is, I misread the political map and the American public. There was no way to be a post-partisan president (and what does that mean anyway?). Most sensible Americans didn't want to be saved and see the country transformed; they wanted relief -- and a guy who could solve their problems. I underestimated the depth of the economic mess I inherited and tacked too quickly to a major piece of health-care legislation, parts of which are so complex and uncertain that even I don't understand them. Jefferson was right: Transformative change shouldn't rest on slender majorities, or in my case only on Democrats.

I'm also not entirely sure I really understood who I was, either. I'm not a transformative risk taker. My MO is to look for balance, to reason things out coolly and deliberately. It's helped me in foreign policy, where I've been pretty competent in avoiding costly messes abroad or making any new ones of my own. But my coolness and deliberative style hasn't helped me all that much at home, where most Americans are focused. People are really worried about the future, and I really couldn't do much on the policy or the politics to reassure them. The fact is, I really don't like politics. I lack FDR's fire-in-the-belly partisanship, LBJ's in-your-face approach to Congress, and Ronald Reagan's genuineness, authenticity, and leadership. The only thing I have going for me now is that the other guy -- Richie Rich -- is more out of touch with the public than I am. It's sad, really. What I told Sawyer could actually come true. If it comes to that, I hope the good president part stays in there. But I'm not so sure.

Chip Somodevilla/GettyImages

Mitt Romney

I'm a very happy guy. Life has been very, very kind to me. I'm a man of faith and family and have amassed a great fortune, too. And now I have an opportunity to be something I'm not sure I ever thought I could be: president of the United States. I really do look like an American president: I have great hair and the kind of background -- governor, businessman, civic-minded philanthropist -- that has propelled others into the White House.

I know I wasn't the first, second, third, fourth, or fifth choice of my party, but they'll get over it. And I know I can seem a bit awkward, stiff, and tone deaf on the campaign trail. But I'm getting better at it. And I have two things going for me: The economy sucks now, and it will continue to suck in November.

Whether or not I have a vision and a plan to get the country moving again is another matter. But I'm honest enough with myself (privately) to wonder. The party I represent really is out of control. Like the president, I'm also a balancer, not an ideologue; I really do know that to fix the economy and our other slow bleeds requires both serious spending cuts and tax increases. I may have worked at the upper reaches of high finance and the private-equity world, but I'm smart enough to know that. I also know that I'll need help from the Democrats and a different way of operating across the aisle. My real problem is that I don't know whether I have the courage and the will to defy my own party, which frankly has lost its soul and its mind. My campaign rhetoric, commitments, and promises are going to put me  further behind the eight ball. But then again; I'm really not all that worried. Even if I don't win in November, I'm still going to be a very happy guy with a wonderful wife and great kids. I'll still have my faith and a lot of money, too.

Mario Tama/GettyImages

Hillary Clinton

I'm a survivor. Life's offered up some tough challenges and a few setbacks. But I've emerged through it all much smarter, tougher, and wiser as a consequence. I was profoundly disappointed in losing the presidential primary sweepstakes to a guy who probably wasn't entirely ready for prime time. But I kept my honor and dignity in defeat.

I may not have been the most consequential secretary of state in the republic's history. But then again, my boss hasn't really let me own the big issues, like Iran and the Arab-Israeli peace process.

But you know what? It's just as well. Right now these issues are real losers, and I can go around giving great speeches and getting rave reviews and even bigger applause without really owning anything that I personally screwed up. And hey, the kind of planetary humanism I've pursued -- women's, girl's, and LGBT rights, Internet and religious freedom, the environment, technology and social media -- are important 21st-century issues. Nobody can say that I haven't been a loyal team player. My approval ratings are better than the president's.

I'm tired, though, and need a break to sort things out and decompress. I have a lot of options -- writing another big book, giving more speeches, working with Bill on his Global Initiative. All that sounds fine for a year or so, but it's pretty boring stuff. The truth is I'm not done with public life. When I look around, there are few more talented politicians on either side with my experience and star power. James Buchanan wasn't such a great secretary of state either, but he was the last to ascend from the job to the presidency. And I know I can be a better president than he was. It will be risky, though. If Obama wins in 2012, the historical odds of his being replaced by another Democrat aren't all that great. It's only happened once since FDR -- Bush 41 and Reagan. But hey, I'm a trendsetter. And I'm tired of always losing out to the boys. I can't wait to see Bill as first lady.

Brendan Smialowsk/AFP/GettyImages

Benjamin Netanyahu

I know I often brandish a tough-talking, self-confident, even brash exterior, but I'm a worried man. But what else would you expect? Jews worry for a living.

Lately I've had string of good fortune: I've outmaneuvered all of my rivals, avoided early elections, and put together the deepest government in Israel's history. And let's face it: The more screwed up the Arab world becomes, the more room I have to avoid tough decisions on key issues like negotiating with the Palestinians. Believe me, I have no illusions on this one. What the Palestinians want from me -- June 1967 borders with minor modifications, a capital in East Jerusalem, security arrangements that give them actual sovereignty, and a resolution to the refugee issue that symbolically or practically recognizes the "right of return" -- I cannot and will not give. Above all, I want them to concede on Israel's identity issue: recognition of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people. Only then will the world know that Israel -- as the Jewish state -- can never be a Palestinian one.

Things may be manageable for now, but I know they won't remain that way. Israel has some legitimate fears: Iran with the bomb, the fraying of the peace treaty with Egypt. My predecessor, Ehud Olmert, once said that Israeli prime ministers have to sleep with one eye open. I'm sleeping with two open. As Henry Kissinger said, even paranoids have their enemies -- and mine abound. Kadima figures they can do a Trojan Horse redux and undermine me from within. The left in Israel hates me, but they're irrelevant. The right doesn't trust  me and worries I'll turn into some kind of transformed hawk like Yitzhak Rabin. No danger of that -- the Arabs can't stand me and the ones who had to deal with me, like Hosni Mubarak, are gone. Jordan's King Abdullah is prepared to give me the benefit of the doubt from time to time. But even that's wearing thin now, too.

As for Israel's only real ally, let's just say it's complicated. The U.S.-Israeli relationship -- institutionally -- is in good shape. And the Jewish community and the Evangelicals (I got aboard that train early) are supportive. Congress, too (did you see how many standing ovations they gave me?). But I continue to worry about President Obama. He's different than Bill Clinton. Yeah, Clinton didn't like me either. But at least he understood politics and he was in love with Israel. Nor is this Obama guy like George W. Bush, either, who was instinctively pro-Israel, however frustrated he was with Ariel Sharon. Obama is too cold, analytical, and detached for me. He's not buying the Exodus thing. I have to figure: If he had the chance, he'd stick it to me in a heartbeat.  Gotta hope my good friend Mitt Romney wins. He's got a lot of goodwill toward Israel. It might take me a full two years to piss him off.

GaeTibbon-Pool/GettyImages

 Bashar al-Assad

Oy vey, am I in trouble. I thought I was pretty clever when I got this job. I opened up the economy and attracted a lot of foreign investment. Damascus never looked better -- at least in the hotel, night spots, and restaurant category. I even tried to do some cosmetic political reform.

But I really couldn't escape the gene pool or the neighborhood. I'm a thug and the pretty wife, cute kids, ophthalmologist thing doesn't change that. I fooled the Europeans and even a few Americans  for a while. But when you grow up in my house (really a cross between the Corleones, Sopranos, and the Addams family), you are what you are. In my case, I've got all the flaws of my old man and none of his strengths. He killed anywhere between 10,000 to 30,000 people in Hama in 1982, but at least he managed to stay in power and control the country. I'm already a mass murderer and may well be forced to leave -- or, if I'm not careful, a much worse end is in store. I don't want to end up like Qaddafi.

Still, not all's lost. The Russians are with me -- for now. The Iranian mullahs and the Pasdaran don't want to see me fall. The U.N. is irrelevant (did you see how I ran them out of town?). The Turks seems scared of their own shadow. The Americans are too preoccupied with domestic matters to risk military intervention. They're done with Middle East quagmires. All I really face is a bunch of angry Sunni villagers, and I haven't even begun to crack down yet.

But I'd better keep the jet gassed up and ready with enough caviar and vodka to get me to Moscow. Russia's too cold and Asma won't like the shopping. But, like they say about old age, even Russia sure beats the alternative.

Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/GettyImages