Dec 01

The World’s One True Leader

An Article By Ian Kilbride.

We are living in an era of weak, poor and undistinguished political leadership globally, with one notable exception. Scoping the world leadership stage, we tend to look north towards the US, Europe, China and Russia to set the leadership tone for much of the rest of the world. The current crop fails to inspire.

Starting with the US, the last President to show true leadership, and at times charismatic leadership, was Barack Obama. I had the privilege of being in the front row of an audience with Obama in August 2006 when was just a first term Senator from Illinois and could see immediately that he had all the hallmarks of Presidentialism. Articulate, intelligent, diplomatic yet firm on the issues, he also struck me as a good human being, noting his modesty and courtesy when meeting with the backroom staff who had arranged his talk in Cape Town. Obama’s leadership is a world away from the crude bluster and threat of the Trump presidency. A Presidency that left the United States a divided nation, with its electoral system severely threatened and its leading position on the world stage tarnished. Arguably President Biden has restored some decency back into US politics and has gone to some lengths to restore the US’s international relations, but his own mental and physical fragility raise serious doubts about his ability to win and sustain a second term in office. Simply put, can he beat Trump in 2024?

Heading across the pond, British politics has been calamitous since the June 2016 vote to leave the European Union. While Theresa May is regarded by many as a decent and competent politician, she was clearly out of her depth when inheriting the poison chalice bequeathed to her by the resignation of David (now Lord) Cameron. Volumes have been written about (and sometimes by) Boris Johnson, but having won an electoral landslide in 2019, Johnson’s own political land slid away due in large part to his own lack of personal ethical code, as has become ever clearer in the current Covid Inquiry. To say that Liz Truss’s occupancy of No. 10 Downing Street was a freak accident is an understatement. But more serious was her and her Chancellor’s catastrophic damage to the fragile UK economy with her warmed-over bag of the fag packet home economics policies that shook the markets and indeed the nation in their bald naivete. So now Britain has yet another unelected Prime Minister in Rishi Sunak, whose time in office is ticking until what pollsters forecast will be the Tories biggest electoral defeat in modern times.

Heading east, we see the scrutable figure of Xi Jinping, the increasingly authoritarian and dictatorial Chinese leader of the world’s second largest country and economy. Having purged his political opponents and consolidated his power, leaving him effectively Premier for life, Xi has cracked down not only on ethnic minorities in China, but adopted an increasingly bellicose stance towards Taiwan, the Philippines and even Australia. China’s tech billionaires have also had their wings clipped by the imperious Xi, leaving international investors sceptical about direct or portfolio investment in an economy urgently in need of stimulus and growth. But it is Xi’s mishandling of the Covid pandemic that will be remembered for generations to come.

And then there’s Vladimir Putin, the strongman global leader who has flouted international law, wreaked death and misery on tens of thousands of innocent Ukrainians and threatened the world with a nuclear catastrophe. Heroic to many Russians for his restoration of national pride, for others, Putin is the epitome of a Napolean-like tin-pot dictator who has sacrificed the lives of thousands of his own soldiers for no gain or advantage, while presiding over the demise of his country’s economy.

So, who today is the world’s outstanding leader? In my view, it is Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Just 45 years old, the former TV comedian makes for an unlikely candidate as the world’s greatest national leader, but it is this very unpreparedness that adds to his stature. Perhaps like most other observers in the early days of Russia’s blitzkrieg invasion of Ukraine, I half expected the diminutive comedic TV celebrity Zelensky to flee his country on the pretext of fighting the war from a safer position and to spend his remaining days travelling the western diplomatic circuit cap in hand for personal handouts to sustain him and his family. We’ve seen this movie before. But no, Zelensky not only bunkered down, has led not fled. Unique in the 21st century, Zelensky has held his country together against the world’s third most powerful military machine, not only holding the line, but even repelling the aggressor. He has communicated brilliantly daily with his compatriots as well as with global leaders. While using his considerable oratory skills to the fullest, this man is not acting. He is a living leader and while the outcome of the war remains uncertain and Ukraine faces deep challenges internally and not just on its borders, Zelensky epitomises that which other politicians lack, true leadership.