Quick, who’s the British prime minister? Who’s the German chancellor? Half credit for naming Tony Blair or Angela Merkel, but that’s still a failing grade. Don’t be embarrassed if you can’t answer, though. Few people can. At this volatile moment in history, the quality of leadership in Western countries is lower than it has been in generations. Voters are angry. Many potentially strong leaders either cannot find a way into power or simply refuse to enter politics. As a result, the West is being led by a mixed crop of amateurs, political dinosaurs, and would-be leaders who cannot lead because their countries are too divided.
This collapse in leadership quality has clear effects. A war is raging in Ukraine that skillful diplomacy might have prevented. Tensions between the West and China are at a frightening peak. Countries in the “Global South” are drifting away from the “rules-based international order” that the United States and its allies seek to impose, arguing that it is actually a cover for the consolidation of Western power. The vision that united Western countries in the wake of the Cold War is dissolving. The West has no coherent strategy other than the sustained application of economic sanctions and military power.
Britain has had a caretaker government since the boorish populist Boris Johnson fell from power after three disastrous years. Germany has a three-party government led by the uber-bland Olaf Scholz. France still has a formidable president, Emmanuel Macron, but voters neutralized him this summer by electing a Parliament dominated by his opponents. President Biden is about to turn 80. His main rival, Donald Trump, is an aging demagogue who lacks even an elementary appreciation of statecraft and, it seems, democracy itself.
It was not ever so. Britain produced titans like Harold Wilson, Margaret Thatcher, and Blair; regardless of what one thought of their policies, they were commanding figures with coherent world views. France did arguably even better, going from Charles de Gaulle to a string of presidents who were also major world figures, including Georges Pompidou, François Mitterrand, and Jacques Chirac. Germany was blessed by chancellors like Willy Brandt, Helmut Kohl, and Merkel. Not so long ago even the United States had a president, Barack Obama, who was thoughtful, vigorous, and admired around the world. Today one searches in vain for their counterparts.
There are popular leaders in the world, though. Some are authoritarians who have built potent movements by rejecting basic principles of democracy. The leaders of Hungary, Turkey, and India have consolidated their power in part by demonizing immigrants and other minority groups. President Viktor Orban of Hungary has warned that permitting immigration will lead to the replacement of his people by “a mixed race.”
In the years ahead, war, poverty, and climate change will create many more refugees. Reaction against those refugees will further swell the ranks of nativist political movements. It’s happening in the United States as well as in Europe and beyond. Trump has described immigrants as violent criminals. His main Republican challenger, Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, has asked his state legislature for money to transport illegal immigrants “to Delaware or Martha’s Vineyard.” Either Trump or DeSantis might lead the United States closer to the harsh governing style that has developed in Hungary, Turkey, and India.
The leadership vacuum that is weakening the West, however, is not global. President Xi Jinping of China might be the world’s most successful big-power leader. Using all the tools available to an autocratic regime, he has crushed dissent, presided over extraordinary economic growth, and spread China’s reach around the world without using military force. He and other Chinese leaders would argue that their country’s success is due in part to its rejection of Western-style democracy. The idea that every citizen should have an equal vote, and thus an equal chance to shape a country’s future, contradicts Chinese history and tradition. It also would have horrified political philosophers as far back as ancient Greece. Yet the West is blessed or condemned to have a system in which the voting masses, wise or ignorant, make key choices. That system produced great leaders in the past. Lately, not so many.
Thankfully, one region of the world is bucking the global trend by showing that democracy can still produce bold political leaders: South America. Voters in Bolivia, Chile, and Colombia have recently elected presidents who favor sweeping reforms but are also committed to electoral democracy. Brazil could soon follow. These countries may have lessons to teach Europeans and Americans — if we are ready to learn.
Nostalgia for past leaders has contributed to the remarkable reemergence of the 99-year-old foreign policy guru Henry Kissinger. His new book is an assessment of six world leaders he admired. He concludes that leadership requires three qualities: “the capacity to inspire and to sustain vision over time . . . the ability to resist being swept along by the mood of the moment . . . [and] a sense of history.” Try finding those qualities in today’s Western leaders.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.