David Rothkopf

Is Silvio Berlusconi the worst leader of a major country in the world?

We are not living at a moment of particularly glittering leadership on the international stage. Mediocrity, timidity, and poor performance are found from continent to continent. Even setting aside those leaders of the developing world who face the special challenges associated with poverty, failed or struggling states and related social and political tensions, we find ...

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Getty Images

We are not living at a moment of particularly glittering leadership on the international stage. Mediocrity, timidity, and poor performance are found from continent to continent. Even setting aside those leaders of the developing world who face the special challenges associated with poverty, failed or struggling states and related social and political tensions, we find the world’s larger and more prosperous countries rudderless and with plenty of room for improvement at the top.

There is a leadership void at a moment when strength, vision, and executive deftness could not be needed more.

But among the lackluster crop at the helm of the world’s major economies — the G20 countries for example — there are several classes of mediocrities. There are the leaders of promise for whom we still may have high hopes but who have yet to find their footing on a regular basis. The best example here is Barack Obama. There are leaders who are too new in their jobs to judge, such as Japan’s brand new Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff. There are the mixed bags who have had flashes of strength but who have revealed themselves as too flawed in character or ideology to be likely to ever ultimately ascend to a higher level — France’s Nicolas Sarkozy and Britain’s David Cameron are good examples here.  Angela Merkel might also be seen to be in this group, compromised by her indecisiveness. There are even those who have done well by many important measures but who have been compromised by lingering problems at home or who have not assumed a highly effective leadership role on the international stage. Manmohan Singh, among the most distinguished of the bunch, might fall into this category. Hu Jintao’s China has performed well … but no man whose government must resort to oppression and censorship, that still gives in to police state impulses, can be considered a first class leader.

There are also those who are just mediocre, not great, or worse. You can fill in the names. You can designate who might fall into each category or make up other categories of short-comings and reasons for frustrations with their performance.  But I suspect very few people will step up with a vigorous defense for any of the current class of top dogs.

And then, among this group there are those at the bottom of the barrel: The ones who have actively been bad for their countries or their regions or the world at large (which is not to say the shortcomings of even the better leaders have not produced bad consequences for some on the planet). For my money Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah certainly falls in this group, an autocrat who has exploited his people, resisted needed reforms, presided over the systematic mistreatment of women, and offered wink and a nod (and more direct) support for dangerous extremists. It is still not clear to what degree Dmitri Medvedev is his own man, but certainly the Russian government has been no champion of democracy or due process.

Now Silvio Berlusconi has not sought to crush the people of Italy to his will nor has he, despite an impressive rap sheet, underwritten terrorists. That said, he has, over the years really made a good case that among the world’s most important leaders he is perhaps the biggest embarrassment to his country.

It is not enough that the business empire he built has been demonstrated to have engaged in a wide range of unsavory practices. It is not enough that he has been at the center of a steady string of sleazy scandals. It is not enough that he has regularly made public statements that were racist, undiplomatic or just plain inappropriate to the office with which he has been entrusted. It is not even enough that he has run Italy into the ground, to the brink of an economic calamity that literally threatens not just the futures of his people but the fate of the Eurozone and indeed, of the entire international economy. (Although, you’ll have to admit, all that constitutes a pretty compelling case for including him at or near the bottom of our list.)

But now comes word of Berlusconi being overheard during a conversation which was taped by police involved in a blackmail investigation. That investigation, into one Giampaolo Tarantini, a man who has said he supplied 30 women for some of the Prime Minister’s famous parties, is focused on payments he reportedly received from the Prime Minister. While the arrest of Tarantini and his wife in one of Rome’s poshest neighborhoods was dramatic enough, it turns out that in the course of the investigation the Prime Minister, was taped venting his frustration over his perceived mistreatment by the country that enabled him to become a billionaire and the head of its government.

According to press reports, Berlusconi was overheard to say in mid-July, "They can say about me that I screw. It’s the only thing they can say about me. Is that clear? They can put listening devices where they like. They can tap my telephone calls. I don’t give a fuck. I … In a few months, I’m getting out to mind my own fucking business, from somewhere else, and so I’m leaving this shitty country of which I am sickened."

Imagine how long a president of the United States would last in office after referring to the U.S. as a "shitty country." Of course, it’s hard to imagine how a leader with Berlusconi’s personal and professional track record could remain in office long in most countries. But, all that aside, the comments add yet another crowning turd on top of the steaming pile of Italy’s Prime Minister’s political career. And they make us wonder: Could it be, that among the current class of compromised, faltering, average, unproven, undistinguished and sometimes much worse leaders of the planet’s major powers, Berlusconi is actually the least of them?

 Twitter: @djrothkopf

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