The true lesson of the era is that the harder the media search for excellence in leadership, the rarer and more short-lived it is likely to be
This past year marks the end of leadership as we know it
Every December, Time magazine chooses a man or woman who, in the editors’ opinion, has done the most to influence events over the past year. This year, the mantle has fallen on Pope Francis, the Argentine archbishop elected in February to lead the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics.
The Pope has given new energy to the Church by focusing on serving the poor in an increasingly unequal world, while tackling head-on the obstructive and self-serving Vatican bureaucracy. It is a welcome change for a Church that for years has been weakened by doctrinal disputes and its decades-long attempts to suppress the scandal of abuse by paedophile priests.
For the moment, the Pope can do no wrong. But some insiders are asking if the splash he is making reflects his hiring more professional PR people rather than a real ability to bring new life to the Church. Other contenders for the title were President Xi Jinping of China, who has established himself as a modest but effective wielder of power more speedily than expected. Others point to Prime Minister Shintaro Abe who has set out with rare determination to drag Japan out of its two decades of economic stagnation.
The Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, was crowned by the business magazine Forbes as the most powerful person of 2013 for transforming his genius for publicity stunts – such as riding a horse bare-chested in Siberia or flying with migrating cranes – into a global power play. He stepped in to prevent a US attack on Syria by persuading Bashar Al Assad to give up his chemical weapons, a move that seems to have revived the fortunes of the regime.
The Economist meanwhile has decided to nominate a “country of the year”, to celebrate collective achievements rather than the efforts of “lone egomaniacs or saints”. Its eccentric choice has fallen on Uruguay (population 3.3 million) for being the first country to legalise and regulate the production, sale and consumption of cannabis, and for choosing as its president the self-effacing Jose Mujica. Mr Mujica gives away most of his salary and lives in a ramshackle farmhouse belonging to his wife.
Clearly there is a Latin American theme linking the saintly president with the Pope from the other side of the River Plate.
One major country is absent from all these accolades. They are all to some extent a quiet indictment of President Barack Obama for his lack of legislative success in his second term and his dithering over the Syrian conflict. (Mr Obama was Time’s man of the year in 2012, so the magazine’s editors no doubt feel he has let them down).
The changing fortunes of leadership in the East and West were symbolised by the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Bali in October, where Mr Obama had intended to showcase his new focus on the Far East, including his Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement.
As it happened, Mr Obama cancelled his appearance at the summit to deal with the shutdown of the government caused by the failure of congress to authorise spending. This left President Xi to dominate proceedings.
Much opprobrium has been heaped on the head of Mr Obama for his inability to turn desires into deeds. Yet this is a function of the American constitution, which was conceived to prevent any president becoming a despot, in which it has succeeded well – perhaps too well.
But Mr Obama’s problems are now universal, according to a book published in March, The End of Power, by Moises Naim, the former Venezuelan government minister and editor for 15 years of Foreign Policy magazine.
Thanks to faster information flow and more educated and demanding populations, power is now easier to get, he writes, but harder to use and far easier to lose. Mr Obama may be commander-in-chief of the most powerful military in the world, but that does not mean he can bend Iraq or Afghanistan to his will, or even influence the course of the Syrian civil war.
The great centres of power are being hollowed out. The Pope may be in charge of a great church, but his flock is being eaten away in its Latin American heartland by Protestant evangelicals. The Chinese Communist Party may now appear to be one of the most successful ruling parties in the world, but who is to say that in a few years it will not appear as a gang of corrupt careerists? The Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, bestrode the region as a colossus a couple of years ago. After 12 years in office, having believed too strongly in his own indispensability as the maker of modern Turkey, he is struggling to stay in power.
No one paradigm can explain what is happening in the world. It may be that next year India will have a new prime minister in the form of Narendra Modi who will prove (so the markets believe) to be adept at wielding power and lifting the country out of its morass of economic underperformance. It may be that the Chinese communists, with their 10-year limit on the terms of presidents and party leaders, have found the ideal form of government.
That remains to be proved. What is certain is that the art of leadership is lost in a broad swath of the Arab world. Egypt’s first freely elected president Mohamed Morsi, proved an incompetent leader, even given the poor hand with which he started out. Mr Al Assad let his country drift into civil war. Iraq is prey to increasing violence. Lebanon is, as ever, poised on the brink of disaster.
Perhaps it is to be expected that the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003 would lead to a generation or more of instability, not just in Iraq but in the wider region.
Europe is hardly in a better position. After five years of crisis, incumbent leaders rarely survive the challenge of re-election, the major exception being Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor. Her leadership style is understated in the extreme, and not the type to attract woman-of-the-year accolades. The true lesson of the era is that the harder the media search for excellence in leadership, the rarer and more short-lived it is likely to be.
On Twitter: @aphilps