March Madness: Democrats vs. Dictators

Play FP's first ever tournament of champions.

By , a former associate editor at Foreign Policy.


REYKJAVIK, Iceland – The atmosphere was electric here in Iceland for the highly anticipated finals of Foreign Policy‘s first ever World Leader March Madness Tournament of Champions, pitting U.S. President Barack Obama against Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Not since Bobby Fischer stared down Boris Spassky over a chessboard in 1972 has there been so much excitement in this small, neutral island nation.

Across this small city of 120,000, local residents agreed that Ronald Reagan and Mikhael Gorbachev’s historic talks here in 1986 paled by comparison to this U.S.-Russian showdown.

“Since the collapse of our banking sector, our economy has been largely dependent on fishing and Björk,” commented President Johanna Sigurdardottir, who did not participate in this year’s contest. “We hope that the need for appropriate venues for U.S.-Russia confrontation will once again be a growth industry for us.”

This year’s contestants were more than the equal of these illustrious predecessors. Obama, who cruised through to the finals facing little resistance from Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, British Prime Minister David Cameron, and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, put the match in perspective.

“Look, this is what it’s all come down to,” the president said, emerging from Air Force One in grey hooded sweatsuit. “A father from Kenya and a mother from Kansas who taught me the meaning of hard work and fairness, my childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia, my days as a community organizer on the streets of Chicago, the long nights and days of the campaign, the tough debates over healthcare, the economy, and Afghanistan, all so that I can come here to Reykjavik and hand Mr. Putin — who I have the utmost respect for and consider a close personal friend — the ass-kicking he so richly deserves.”

Putin stealthily arrived in Reykjavik a day before Obama, popping up in the old harbor in a Russian nuclear submarine. But his tournament run has been anything but quiet: He crushed Belarus’s Aleksandr Lukashenko and Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, along the way upsetting the favorite, Hu Jintao of China, in his roll through the dictator’s side of the bracket. Putin was uncowed by Obama’s tough talk.

“If he dies, he dies,” said the prime minister at the pre-game press conference, quoting previous Moscow standard-bearer Ivan Drago and picking his teeth with what appeared to be a harpoon.

After winning the opening coin toss, Obama picked the nature of the first contest of this best-of-three competition, choosing — unsurprisingly –his preferred sport: half-court basketball.

Despite his aggressive low-post play and prodigious talent at trash-talking — “You learn this at madrassa?” and “You play defense like Saakashvili!” were among the taunts heard from the sidelines — the 5’7″ Russian was little match for his taller and more skilled opponent. Obama took Round 1, 21-7.

For the second round of competition, it was widely expected that Putin would choose his own favorite sport, judo. But the Russian leader had a surprise up his sleeve: Round 2 wasn’t on the mat, but on the stage — in a karaoke sing-off.

“A true man must not display his emotions… except in karaoke,” said Putin, exchanging his basketball jersey for a black turtleneck and handing the mic to his rival.

Obama, clearly caught off guard, warbled passably but uninspiredly through his campaign anthem, Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered.” The real show was about to begin.

Amid a barrage of laser-lights and bellowing smoke machines, the Russian leader descended to the stage on cables accompanied by a young flame-haired young woman in a miniskirt and a halter-top emblazoned with the double-headed eagle coat of arms of Peter the Great.

“How did he book Anna Chapman on such short notice?” a visibly stunned Obama wondered aloud.

The two veteran spies belted out a rousing rendition of ABBA’s “Take a Chance on Me” accompanied by a synchronized dance routine that was the stuff of Eurovision dreams.

Even before guest judge Simon Cowell could weigh in, the result was clear. This competition for world domination was headed for the traditional tie-breaker: a knife-fight on the edge of an active volcano.

Despite Obama’s recent weeks of training with former Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, the format was ideally suited to Putin, who retains formidable street-fighting skills from his hardscrabble Leningrad youth.

As Eyjafjallajokull belched acrid smoke into the clear Arctic sky, it became clear that the U.S. president could only hope to parry his adversary’s jabs as he was backed closer and closer to the crater.   

Wobbling on the lip of the volcano, with a pit of bubbling hot lava behind him, the leader of the free world appeared done for, but the night’s surprises were not over.

“Vova, stop!” a voice cried out.

“Dmitry Anatolyavich, how did you find us here?” replied Putin, looking over his shoulder while thrusting his saber at Obama.

“I hacked your e-mail,” said President Dmitry Medvedev. “Did you really think ‘ABBAfan’ was a secure password?”

“What do you want?”

“I’ve come to stop this madness. Why must you fight to the death just so some American magazine can attract pageviews to its website? The Cold War is over. Think of all the problems we could solve if we worked together. Isn’t that what the reset is all about?”

“Reset this,” replied Putin, as he lunged forward for the final strike. Just then, Medvedev, exercising hitherto unobserved catlike reflexes, pushed Obama out of the way, sending an off-balance Putin barreling down into the flames below.

Clearly shaken, Obama turned to his savior. “Look Dmitry, I guess what I’m saying is, if I can change, and you can change…”

“Don’t make me regret this, Barack,” interrupted Medvedev.

The two walked down the mountain arm-in-arm and were spotted at several Reykjavik establishments later that night, enjoying a traditional Icelandic runtur.

And thus U.S. President Barack Obama was named Foreign Policy‘s inaugural March Madness Champion. And here in Reykjavik, the good citizens of this small city are once again hopeful that the tidings will bring about a new era of world peace.

But a smattering of unverifiable reports have fishermen from the Icelandic town of Olafsfjordur claiming that, in the pre-dawn hours, they saw a strapping, somewhat balding man holding a spear of molten lava astride a scaled sea beast that emerged from the bowels of the Earth.

The fearsome creature appeared to be headed on a direct course back to Arkhangelsk, perhaps indicating that this new era of détente may be even shorter-lived than the last one.

Your 2011 March Madness Dictator vs. Democrat Champion: President Barack Obama … for now.

Thanks to everyone for playing, especially the hundreds of avid readers who submitted brackets. We’ll be tabulating scores throughout this week under the strict supervision of the OSCE and Jimmy Carter. Contest winners will be announced on Friday.



Final Four Results:

Game 29

Barack Obama vs. Dilma Rousseff

It’s been a wild ride through the tournament for Rousseff, still a relatively unknown quantity in the international arena. She’s trounced Mexico’s Felipe Calderon and Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos, demonstrating regional superiority, and blocked out India’s Manmohan Singh like a BRIC-wall. The “country of the future that always will be” has arrived, baby! But now, in a primetime matchup with the Flyin’ Hawaiian, the Comandante from Belo Horizonte doesn’t look quite so impressive. Just look at last week, when the Brazilian government hitched its hopes to the possibility that Obama might endorse its aspirations to join the U.N. Security Council, as he did for India last year. Obama, perhaps anticipating this semifinal matchup, was kinda like “meh.” ‘Bam goes the dynamite.

Game 30

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad vs. Vladimir Putin

Ahmadinejad may be making leaders in Washington and Tel Aviv nervous with his nuclear ambitions and bombastic rhetoric. But compared to the days when U.S.-Soviet tensions had the world seriously contemplating the reality of global annihilation, it seems pretty small-fry. Then consider the fact that the nuclear reactor at the center of all this controversy…was built by Russia. This isn’t even close. Vlad impales.

Your Finals Matchup

Reset your dial: the Cold War is back, folks. The final winner will be announced on Monday.   

Game 31: Barack Obama vs. Vladimir Putin


Elite Eight Results:

Game 25

Barack Obama vs. David Cameron

Whatever else is going on the world — wars in the Middle East, natural disasters in Asia, a federal government on the verge of shutdown, a country on the verge of economic distress –Obama makes time for his NCAA bracket. Of course, Republicans have questioned whether the president’s dedication to the tournament is misguided — 2012 presidential aspirant Newt Gingrich tweeted that Obama is “hiding from his job behind NCAA picks.” But to be fair, it’s hard to find a time when the president of the United States isn’t dealing with at least six crises at once, and it’s not as if he’s putting the Joint Chiefs on hold while he ponders the fortunes of Duke. In any case, the GOP may just be jealous that despite all he has on his mind, Obama’s bracket is currently in the top .1 percent of the 5.9 million submitted to ESPN. For his dedication to bracketology in the face of adversity, the president has the edge over Cameron, who probably thinks Gonzaga is a kind of Italian cheese. Obama gets the win.

Game 26

Dilma Rousseff vs. Manmohan Singh

Another day, another Singh corruption scandal. This time it’s the release of new WikiLeaks cables suggesting that Indian lawmakers may have been paid to vote in favor of a nuclear deal with the United States. Singh has denied the veracity of the cables, prompting an angry response from WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. But when a world leader stoops to engage in a war of words with the white-haired cybervigilante, it doesn’t bode well for his future prospects. As for the Brazil-India geopolitical showdown, expect a rematch between these two for a coveted permanent U.N. Security Council spot at some later date — but for now, the result is clear. Rousseff’s Cinderella ride through the tournament continues.

Game 27

 Mahmoud Ahmadinejad vs. Omar al-Bashir

Both these leaders have proven masterful at maintaining power in the face of international sanctions and domestic upheaval. On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine Ahmadinejad allowing half of his country to secede, and he’s still welcome in a lot more foreign capitals than Bashir. Meanwhile, the Sudanese government has recently taken to spying on activists’ Facebook accounts to disrupt protests. Please: Iran practically invented thatAhmadinejad wins the day.

Game 28

Vladimir Putin vs. Hu Jintao

Perhaps the premier matchup of the Elite 8. Granted, Hu has 1.3 billion people cheering him on — whether they want to or not — and when it comes to economic performance and military might, it’s not even close. On the other hand, Hu has become something of a lame duck since Xi Jinping was elevated to chief of the country’s highest military body, making him the clear successor for the presidency. Putin, on the other hand, ain’t retiring anytime soon: he’s made it abundantly clear that he’ll stick around for about as long as he wants. Sorry Medvedev. Putin wins in an upset, not that Putin even understands the word.

Your Final Four Matchups:

Game 29: Obama vs. Rousseff

Game 30: Ahmadinejad vs. Putin


Sweet 16 Results:

Game 17

Barack Obama vs. Nicolas Sarkozy

Give the French president points for hustle this week, standing atop the global political stage like a pint-size De Gaulle. But as Arthur Goldhammer writes for FP, Sarkozy’s track record of global leadership — his helicopter diplomacy during the Georgian War and his dubious Union of the Mediterranean — don’t inspire much confidence that his new hawkishness can save his ailing presidency. As for Obama, only the U.S. president could spend the week touring Latin America, ordering airstrikes in Libya, coordinating a relief effort in Japan, and being briefed on a war in Afghanistan, all while being criticized for ignoring foreign affairs. Obama coasts to the Elite Eight on his superpower status.

Game 18

David Cameron vs. Julia Gillard

Though he took power less than a year ago, Cameron already feels like a fixture in the European political firmament, along with the likes of Merkel and Sarkozy. The PM’s ambitious transformation of the British economy and strong voice on foreign policy leave little doubt that, though he was elected with the shakiest of mandates from a divided electorate, this is Cameron’s Britain now. Gillard, though she took power only a month after Cameron, still feels like a newcomer with little international presence, particularly compared with her Chinese-speaking, world leader-schmoozing predecessor, Kevin Rudd.  She did make John Boehner cry, but let’s be honest, that’s not all that hard. Britannia rules the round. Cameron takes it.

Game 19

Dilma Rousseff vs. Juan Manuel Santos

Both of these Latin American leaders came into office in recent months with tough acts to follow. Rousseff’s predecessor was, at one point, the most popular politician on earth. But Rousseff — who has survived both torture at the hands of a military dictatorship and a bout with cancer — certainly seems up to the pressure. While continuing to push through economic reforms and chart an independent foreign policy, Rousseff has largely avoided the showboating populism that was often her predecessor’s Achilles heel. Meanwhile, on the other side of the continent, Santos has attempted to escape the shadow of his enormously popular predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, with an ambitious agenda that includes massive new social programs and improved relations with longtime rival Hugo Chávez. It’s paid off at home — he has a popularity rating of around 80 percent — but he’s been frustrated in his dealings with Washington, failing to secure the passage of a free trade agreement and coping with what many see as an indifference to Colombia in the new administration. Rousseff wins by a (lovely head of) hair.

Game 20

Manmohan Singh vs. Ban Ki-moon

Both these leaders are known for their low-key technocratic styles — Ban’s nickname in the South Korean government was “The Bureaucrat.” Let’s be honest, neither is all that intimidating. But when it comes to these leaders’ recent performances, it’s not even close. Singh has presided over the most impressive period of economic expansion in India’s history, putting his country on the path to overtake China’s economic growth in the next decade. Meanwhile, Ban can’t even figure out which Libyan diplomats to accredit at Turtle Bay. And while it looks increasingly likely that India will get a seat on the Security Council, it looks less likely that Ban will still be secretary-general when it happens. Singh wins handily.

Game 21

Muammar al-Qaddafi vs. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

On paper, these two charismatic, oil-rich Middle Eastern leaders look pretty evenly matched. Both are known for their bombastic and often paranoid rhetoric. Both are longtime enemies of the United States. Both have used force against their own people to put down protests. Both have supported international terrorism. Both have, at various points, pursued nuclear programs despite international sanctions. Both are close, personal friends of Hugo Chávez. Yes, Qaddafi is certainly a better dresser, but it’s hard to get away from the fact that he’s currently hiding out from international airstrikes behind human shields while a rebel army controlling a large chunk of his country regroups. Ahmadinejad, meanwhile, seems more secure than ever. Ahmadinejad beats the sanctions for the win.

Game 22

Omar al-Bashir vs. Laurent Gbagbo

Though Ivory Coast strongman Gbagbo continues to hold on as his country descends into civil war, his prospects for long-term survival look pretty dim. And for Bashir, this is all old hat. He wrote the book on chaos and conflict within his own borders, having already waged multiple internal wars in his country and weathered a war crimes indictment. And now, bizarrely, he appears to have a realistic chance of normalizing relations with the United States. Bashir survives again.

Game 23

Vladimir Putin vs. Kim Jong Il

This is a fitting match-up, as Kim was probably born in Russia. According to official North Korean accounts, however, he was born on North Korea’s highest peak under a double-rainbow. He also apparently shot a 38 under par (the first time he played golf) and has written over 1,500 books. Russia’s prime minister is hardly immune from the cult of personality, but at least when he engages in feats of Chuck Norris-like derring-do, he’s sure to get photographic evidence. Putin wins, and he didn’t even have to take his shirt off.

Game 24

Hu Jintao vs. Hugo Chávez

Chávez’s “21st Century Socialism” is really little more than a throwback to the Latin American leftist movements of the last century — state control of the economy, democratic erosion, and strident anti-American rhetoric. Hu’s China, on the other hand, has updated the approach by marrying Communist-style autocracy with free-market capitalism. The results are pretty clear: Countries from Latin America to Africa, from the Middle East to Southeast Asia are either courting a rising China or trying to figure out how to counter it, while Chavez’s model has few adherents left other than Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega. And the Venezuelan economy is contracting, while China’s is growing by double digits. Are things really that bad? Well, recent statements From Chavez suggest that he might give up on Earth and take his ideological crusade to other planets. Hu wins, completing a sweep for the BRICs.

Elite Eight matchups:

Game 25: Obama vs. Cameron

Game 26: Rousseff vs. Singh

Game 21: Ahmadinejad vs. Bashir

Game 22: Putin vs. Hu



Round of 32 results:

Game 1

Barack Obama vs. Stephen Harper

Despite the U.S. president’s seemingly ambivalent response to the events in Libya — and the strange timing of his trip to Latin America during crises in the Middle East and East Asia — it was U.S. support that pushed the intervention forward. Despite doubling down in Afghanistan, this really is Obama’s war, and a reminder of the central role U.S. power still plays in global geopolitics. Canada — while involved — is not quite so central. Obama wins easily.

Game 2

Nicolas Sarkozy vs. Angela Merkel

As they have so many times before, Sarkozy’s political fortunes seemed on the ropes a few weeks ago, with his government reeling from scandals regarding political ties to the ousted Ben Ali regime in Tunisia. But his forceful campaigning for intervention in Libya may yet save his hide. As one French diplomat told the Guardian, “The French do like to have their president play world statesman.” The stolid Merkel meanwhile, normally not prone to rash decisions, appears to be floundering on the question of Germany’s nuclear future after reversing an earlier decision to build new reactors. Sarkozy wins in an upset.

Game 3

Silvio Berlusconi vs. David Cameron

Confronted with his first major international crisis, Cameron appears to be leading — pulling the more reluctant United States into yet another military engagement (even though Britain now lacks even a single aircraft carrier). Berlusconi’s government, meanwhile, seems to be playing both sides — supporting intervention of Italy’s former colony, while keeping open its business links in Tripoli. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the prime minister even called his own…er…personal performance into question recently, saying “I am 75 years old…even if I am a rascal, 33 girls in two months seems to me to be too many.” We were pulling for another round of bunga-bunga jokes, but: Cameron wins.

Game 4

Jacob Zuma vs. Julia Gillard

Gillard’s flagship carbon-tax plan saw a bounce in support this week, raising the Australian prime minister’s fortunes. South Africa’s government voted — against most of its fellow rising powers — to support the intervention in Libya, though Zuma seems deeply ambivalent about it and new questions are being raised about his relationship with Qaddafi. The land from down under takes this one over the Rainbow Nation. Gillard wins.

Game 5

Muammar al-Qaddafi vs. Ali Abdullah Saleh

Close call. Two embattled dictators took the court, and neither was afraid to break out the guns. Despite employing similarly brutal repressive measures against protesters, Saleh has managed to avoid the international airstrikes suffered by Qaddafi. On the other hand, the Yemeni president’s people are running for the hills after the defection of three senior military officials. Neither may be long for this world, but the Mad Dog certainly knows how to play the game. Qaddafi wins, barely.

Game 6

King Abdullah vs. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

With two other pro-American Sunni dictatorships — Tunisia and Egypt — having bitten the dust in recent weeks, the ailing king can’t be feeling so great about his regional influence these days, and recent moves – sending troops into Bahrain and announcing new stimulus spending in response to domestic protests, don’t speak of overwhelming confidence. Across, the Persian Gulf, on the other hand, the Saudi intervention in Bahrain and the international strikes on Libya have given Ahmadinejad a brand new set of talking points. Ahmadinejad wins, in a nasty match.

Game 7

Omar al-Bashir vs. Robert Mugabe

The first of two battles of African despots demonstrates that sometimes giving up some power is the best way to hold onto it. The growing chaos in Southern Sudan is surely to the liking of the northern Sudanese leader, whose decision to cut the south loose is appearing more and more shrewd. And, so far, he hasn’t started a civil war, so he gets points for restraint. Meanwhile, the increasingly irrelevant Mugabe is calling Western powers “vampires” over the attack on Libya; a rhetorical tactic unlikely to distract from his own country’s political chaos and economic distress. Bashir wins this one.

Game 8

Laurent Gbagbo vs. Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo

The persistent Gbagbo just won’t go, having recently bolstered his forces with thousands of new recruits. While troops loyal to his rival (and the legitimate president of Ivory Coast), Allasane Ouattara, appear to be gaining ground, Gbagbo stands to benefit from the fact that the international community’s attention is almost entirely focused on Libya right now. Meanwhile, Obiang is reportedly suffering from TK cancer, while his family’s spending splurge continues: his son, Teodorin bought a new $380 million yacht, further cementing Equatorial Guinea’s reputation as the living embodiment of the resource curse. In this battle of playboy versus warlord, Gbagbo avoids a stalemate and holds on for the victory.     

Game 9

Felipe Calderon vs. Dilma Rousseff

The perception that Calderon’s war on drugs is failing isn’t likely to be helped much after he forced the U.S. ambassador to Mexico to resign for saying as much. In this clash of the Latin American titans, Mexico’s looking weak. Meanwhile, Brazil’s laid claim to the upcoming 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, and is looking to the future. Rousseff had what appeared to be a friendly meeting with Obama and won an acknowledgement — if not an outright endorsement, of the country’s security council hopes. Rousseff wins, olé, olé, olé, olé    

Game 10

Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner vs. Juan Manuel Santos

Neither Latin leader won a stopover from Obama — particularly surprising in the case of Santos’ Colombia — but their political fortunes are heading in very different directions. Colombia’s credit rating was raised this week, good news for Santos’s ambition to win the country OECD membership. On the other extreme, new WikiLeaks cables suggest that the G-20 considered suspending Argentina’s membership over Kirchner’s erratic behavior and the country’s “mafia”-style protectionism. Santos wins.

Game 11

Manmohan Singh vs. Lee Myung-bak

Despite the massive corruption scandals in India’s ruling party, Singh appears oddly above it all, with seemingly little risk of losing his position and widespread support among the electorate. Lee spent most of this week trying to convince his country they weren’t at risk for radiation poisoning from Japan’s Fukushima nuclear reactor and accepted an environmental prize from the ruling family of the United Arab Emirates, not a country normally known for its green ways. Singh gets the victory.

Game 12

Ban Ki-moon vs. Anders Fogh Rasmussen

Rasmussen has certainly been part of the Libya discussion, but it remains unclear whether NATO will eventually take control of the military operation. Meanwhile, the bureaucratic Ban finally looks like he has his act together: United Nations has rarely seemed more relevant to world events after the most highly anticipated Security Council session in years. But the secretary general may have opened a Pandora’s Box he can’t close. Ban wins, by meager consensus.

Game 13

Vladimir Putin vs. Aleksandr Lukashenko
In recent days, Putin has once again told off the entire international community and found time to play with an endangered snow leopard. Lukashenko earned himself yet another round of EU sanctions. Putin wins without even moving a muscle.

Game 14

Kim Jong Il vs. Than Shwe

As succession speculation grows in the run-up to next month’s North Korean parliament meeting, heir apparent Kim Jong Un has won himself an invitation for an official visit to China — a vote of confidence for the future of the Kim regime. Looks like the Dear Leader and his family still have the death grip on rule north of the 38th parallel. Meanwhile, in the armpit of Southeast Asia, Than Shwe (and his generals) maintain a firm grip on power — despite having officially reverted to “civilian” status to contest recent elections. But we figure that in this battle of dictators, if you’ve gotta pretend to be a democrat it just ain’t cutting it. Kim krushes.

Game 15

Hu Jintao vs. Gubanguly Berdimohammedov

Giant outdoor markets in the shapes of ancient carpets notwithstanding, this wasn’t really a fair fight. Hu dat say dem gonna beat China?

Game 16

Hugo Chávez vs. The Castro Brothers

Chávez’s staunch support for Qaddafi may be ill-advised in the long run, but at least he’s sticking with his friends. Fidel Castro, meanwhile, showed some foresight by correctly predicting international military intervention in Libya — though his notion that it’s an American-led plot to steal Libya’s oil might raise some objections in Foggy Bottom. But recent days have made it abundantly clear that Chávez has supplanted the Castros as the most prominent international voice of the Latin American left. Bring on the Socialist Arepas! Chávez wins one for the revolution.

And so… your Sweet 16 matchups are:

Game 17: Obama vs. Sarkozy

Game 18: Cameron vs. Gillard

Game 19: Rousseff vs. Santos

Game 20: Singh vs. Ban

Game 21: Qaddafi vs. Ahmadinejad

Game 22: Bashir vs. Gbagbo

Game 23: Putin vs. Kim

Game 24: Hu vs. Chavez

Click through for contest explanation and previous rounds.


Click for a full-size version to print out and send back.

We’re getting into the spirit of March Madness (as the annual U.S. collegiate basketball tournament is affectionately called, for our international readers) here at Foreign Policy — and trying to find a bit of distraction in an otherwise distressing news month. Here then, we present our First Annual World Leader March Madness tournament bracket.

We’ve broken it down into two divisions: the democrats (with a couple of multilateral bigwigs thrown in for good measure) and the dictators. Obviously, there are plenty more presidents and prime ministers we could have included — Japan’s Naoto Kan gets a pass from mockery this week, Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai is too ambiguous to fit in either category, and Russia’s Dmitry Medvedev was going to be included but senior United Russia party officials insisted on the last-minute substitution of Vladimir Putin.

Here’s how it all works: For each round of games we’ll preview the matchup and let you — the readers — make your arguments for why each leader should move on to the next round. The criteria for “winning” are up to you. Should Silvio Berlusconi’s bunga-bunga prowess get him the win over David Cameron’s slash-and-burn governing style? Does Vladimir Putin wear his baldness better than erstwhile ally Aleksandr Lukashenko? Or, if you’re a numbers person, perhaps it’s all purchasing power parity? It’s your call. (And ours, since a panel of FP judges will ultimately decide who wins.) One hard-and-fast rule, though, in these momentous times: A contestant will be automatically eliminated if their government is overthrown during the tournament.

This is all in good fun, so let’s avoid nationalist grudge matches in the comments. Obviously, some of these leaders have done some not-so-funny things in their day, but sometimes mockery is the best response to a bad guy.

Of course, it wouldn’t really be March Madness without a competition for the fans. So we’re inviting you to submit your own completed brackets to Simply click the image above to print out the tournament bracket form, and write in the leader you think will win each game in the space provided. Then either scan your filled-out version of the bracket and email it to us, or fax it to +1 202-728-7234. Or, if that seems like too much trouble, send us an email with your picks for each round (as in Game 1: Obama, Game 2: Merkel, and so on).

We will accept submissions until Monday, March 21 at 12pm EDT. As in the standard March Madness basketball brakets, correct answers for each round will receive points (weighted for the later rounds) — so, 1 point for first round games, 2 for the Sweet 16, 3 for the Elite Eight, 4 for the Final Four, and 5 for the Championship.

The ten readers with the most points will each receive a free one-year subscription to the print edition of Foreign Policy. And if you’re really that good at picking winners, perhaps we’ll introduce you to some friends at the State Department — they could definitely use the help!

Let’s get to the first round of matchups:


Game 9

The Democrats

Mexican President Felipe Calderon vs. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff

Calderon hobbles into the tournament, fighting an unpopular and increasingly bloody war against drug trafficking — and reeling from recent revelations that his government has allowed U.S. drone flights into Mexican airspace. Newcomer Rousseff isn’t quite as feisty as her predecessor, Lula Da Silva, but this onetime Marxist guerilla fighter has to be considered the odds-on favorite.

Game 10

Argentinian President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner vs. Colombian President Juan Manual Santos

A clash of temperments: Kirchner’s style can be erratic – according to one WikiLeaked cable, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has questioned her sanity. The take no prisoners style she exhibited during a recent showdown with Britain may grab headlines, but will it work against the more measured style of Santos, who made his name as defense minister during the Colombian government’s brutal conflict with the FARC rebels. Unfortunately Santos won’t be able to take any pointers from Obama this week – the U.S. president has left Colombia off the agenda for his Latin America trip.

Game 11

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh vs. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak

The elderly Indian economist has delivered years of impressive economic growth for the rising superpower, but he’s current fighting his way out from under a cascade of corruption scandals within his party. Lee was elected on a promise of standing up to Kim Jong Il, but has often been criticized by hardliners for indecisiveness in the face of North Korean aggression. Can Singh make his 1.1 billion people proud in this battle of Asian economic powerhouses?

Game 12

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon vs. Nato Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen

A special multilateral match-up: Often criticized for being slow and ineffectual in response to global crises, Ban has been out in front of the situation in Libya, strongly condemning the Qaddafi regime. But while Ban names and shames, Rasmussen shows up with heavy artillery. Rasmussen may face one of NATO’s toughest challenges in years this week as an international coalition forms to enforce the no-fly zone in Libya. So who’s got more game, the bureaucratic Korean or the melancholy Dane?

The Dictators

Game 13

Russian Prime Minister Vlaimir Putin vs. Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko

These two were once the staunchest of allies, but an ongoing energy pricing dispute has made Lukashenko critical of his Eastern neighbor. Putin’s control of Belarus’ energy supply — and his sick judo moves — should give him a heavy advantage. A man who’s not afraid to get up close and personal with grizzly bears isn’t likely to be intimidated by a fading strongman.

North Korean Leader Kim Jong Il vs. Burmese leader Than Shwe

A face-off between Asia’s two most repressive and eccentric leaders. Kim Jong Il is known to be a huge basketball fan — he reportedly has a video library of every game Michael Jordan ever played. And he can also think outside the box: A special version of the game he reportedly had a hand in designing for North Korea award three points for a dunk, four points for a three-pointer that does not touch the rim and eight points for a basket scored in the final three seconds. Like many athletes, Than Shwe is highly superstitious: he’s moved his country’s capital, redesigned the currency, and even gone on TV dressed in drag because of the advice of his official astrologer.

Chinese President Hu Jintao vs. Turkmenistani President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov            

The paranoid Turkmen leader — reportedly so suspicious of foulplay that he believes cats are trying to assassinate him — faces a monumental task in his first-round matchup against the world’s second (some might even say first) most powerful leader. Berdimuhamedov’s ace in the hole might be the 20 billion cubic meters of natural gas his country his planning to sell China. Nonetheless, Hu and his wicked backhand should be feeling mighty confident.  

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez vs. Cuba’s Castro Brothers

The Castros — the only two-person team in the competition — aren’t as spry as they used to be. On the other hand, as the Veneuzelan president would no doubt admit, Fidel taught him everything he knows. And Fidel surely knows how to wear a tracksuit. We’ll be watching for any last-minute constitutional changes that could adjust the outcome. Whoever progresses here carries the torch of the Latin left into the next round.


The Democrats

Game 1

U.S. President Barack Obama vs. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper

We know the U.S. commander in chief has game. But with his mind on the Middle East, his upcoming Latin America trip, and the partisan meltdown in Congress, can he bring it against the Northern Avenger? Harper’s poll numbers have been slipping lately, but with Canadian economic forecasts looking mighty sunny, keep an eye out for an upset.

Game 2

French President Nicolas Sarkozy vs. German Chancellor Angela Merkel

There’s a long history of bad blood between Europe’s big two, though they’ve been able to work together lately. Neither is in top fighting form at the moment: Sarkozy’s government has been embarrassed by its handling of the revolutions in North Africa, while Merkel’s position as Europe’s de facto economic leader looks shakier than ever. Expect mile-a-minute showboating from the gregarious Frenchman while Merkel’s governing style often emulates her country’s soccer team: technically skillful but agonizingly dull.

Game 3

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi vs. British Prime Minister David Cameron

Berlusconi limps into the tournament facing an array of charges ranging from bribery to paying for sex with teenagers. On the other hand, given that he’s survived half a dozen scandals in the past year, even one of which would have ended the career of a lesser politician, it might not be wise to bet against the Teflon Don. Cameron was strong out of the gate with bold cuts to Britain’s social services and defense budgets, but has lately faced stiffer-than-expected opposition in going after university tuition and the National Health Service — a sophomore slump may be setting in at 10 Downing Street.

Game 4

South African President Jacob Zuma vs. Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard

This Southern Hemispheric showdown between two canny political operators pits the South African veteran with a checkered past against Australia’s upstart, carbon-taxing, Tilda Swinton look-alike. Zuma has surprised many critics by sticking with market-friendly policies aimed at continuing South Africa’s impressive economic growth, but he’s been a little too friendly with regional strongmen like Muammar al-Qaddafi and Robert Mugabe for the liking of many. Gillard ousted her boss, Kevin Rudd, in a party shake-up last summer, but is still a largely unknown quantity in international politics. A tossup.

The Dictators

Game 5

Libyan leader Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi vs. Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh

Two weeks ago, both of these longtime Middle Eastern strongmen appeared done for. But despite emboldened opposition movements and some notably bizarre public claims — al Qaeda putting LSD in the Nescafé (Qaddafi) and descriptions of a diabolical “control room” in Tel Aviv (Saleh) — they both seem to be hanging on. Both leaders exhibit similar styles of play: playing anxious Western powers against Islamic fundamentalists for decades to suit their own needs. As this goes to print, the U.N. Security Council has just authorized international military intervention in Libya. Will the Mad Dog still be in power by Monday?

Game 6

Saudi King Abdullah vs. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

Iran and Saudi Arabia have essentially been fighting a low-level proxy war for regional superiority for the last three decades. This matchup pits the anti-American, Shiite, and always outspoken Ahmadinejad against the pro-American, Sunni, and famously reserved Abdullah. Key to the game: the outcome in Bahrain.

Game 7

Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir vs. Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe

Africa’s two most notorious dictators are going through a bit of a rough patch. Bashir — already hemmed in by an indictment by the International Criminal Court — saw half his country disappear after a successful independence referendum in the south. Mugabe, once a promising young hope, has been behaving even more erratically than normal — jailing citizens for just watching the news footage from the Middle East. Whoever wins this one, their countries lose.

Game 8

Equatorial Guinean President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo vs. (unrecognized) Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo

We’ve seen that Gbagbo can play defense: Despite losing a presidential election, thumbing his nose at the United Nations, facing international opprobrium, and risking plunging his country into civil war, he’s still hanging onto power. But can he outmaneuver the cartoonishly kleptocratic (and well-funded) Obiang? Spike Lee and Jack Nicholson might not be sitting courtside at this game, but given the decadent Hollywood lifestyle of Obiang’s son, a few D-list rappers and Playboy bunnies might take an interest.

So send in your ballots by Monday and make your best arguments for who should win in the comments section. The judges are listening!

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @joshuakeating

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