Why the world doesn't have real leaders anymore.

By , a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images
Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images
Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

A couple years back, I gave a talk at Princeton on the indispensable role leaders play in successful Arab-Israeli negotiations.

A couple years back, I gave a talk at Princeton on the indispensable role leaders play in successful Arab-Israeli negotiations.

A very smart professor from Turkey dismissed my argument as "reductionist," and wondered how I could have missed the broader societal and political forces responsible for success and failure. I simply responded that whatever her views on these matters, she herself hailed from a land in which one guy had fundamentally changed the entire direction of her country’s modern history. We left it at that.

Shoot me if you want, but I’m a sucker for the great man (and woman) theory of history. Yes, broad social, political, economic, and cultural structural forces shape and constrain what leaders can do. And yes, Marx was right: People make history; but rarely as they please. Indeed, we have a cartoonish view of leadership in which presidents or prime ministers articulate a vision and then through sheer will persuade us to buy it. That’s not how it really works. Instead, a leader more often than not intuits and exploits an opportunity when the times or circumstances offer it up.

Still, individuals count — big time. For my money, it’s human agency — certainly in matters of war, peace, and nation building — that is responsible for pushing societies toward the abyss or rescuing them from it. Wherever you stand on this issue, scholar John Keegan’s stunning assertion that the history of much of the twentieth century is the story of six men (Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Churchill, Roosevelt, and Mao) simply can’t be ignored.

So here we are in the second decade of the twenty-first century, a full eight decades after this bunch tried either to take over the world or save it. Where are the big, bold, ballsy leaders? Plenty of very bad guys have come and gone — Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic — and some larger-than-life good ones like Charles De Gaulle, Konrad Adenauer, Anwar Sadat, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Nelson Mandela. But by and large, today we face a leadership deficit of global proportions. Some might even say we’re rudderless.

One hundred and ninety-three countries are represented at the United Nations, among them more than 80-plus democracies. Is there one leader of any of them whom we could honestly describe as great, heroic, inspirational, transformational — the author of some incomparable and unparalleled achievement at home or on the world stage likely to be seen or remembered for the ages? There are courageous dissidents in China, and Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi is indeed inspiring. But empowered leaders governing countries and directing change are harder to identify. Maybe we’ve entered the post-heroic era: tiny steps for tiny feet. And maybe that’s not necessarily a bad thing. 

But a look around makes you wonder about the quality and effectiveness of those leaders we do have. Forget the return of the greats we miss and the bad ones we don’t want back. Do today’s leaders have what it takes to deal with the problems and challenges at hand?

Start with the world’s greatest nations — the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. You might expect great leaders from great powers. But you don’t see much greatness in the individuals who lead them: Barack Obama, David Cameron, François Hollande, Hu Jintao, and Vladimir Putin.

Instead, what you have is a bunch of talented, well-spoken guys facing a variety of economic and political challenges they cannot possibly overcome. At best, if they’re lucky, they can be successful transactional leaders — fixing a problem here and there, managing a crisis, or coping with one.

But transformational leaders who leave legacies that fundamentally alter their nation’s trajectories? Not likely. Among them, Putin may actually prove to the most successful given his control and his objectives, but even this is no longer certain because of the generational divide he confronts, with so many younger Russians seeking change.

What about those consequential powers outside of the Perm Five — Germany, India, Brazil? Surely there have got to be effective leaders here.

Angela Merkel is resilient, politically skilled. She’s a survivor in German politics, but has been roundly criticized for failing to show leadership on broader European issues, particularly the eurozone crisis. And by all accounts, she won’t make it into the Konrad Adenauer, Willy Brandt, and Helmut Kohl category. India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh may also be a skilled politician and technocrat who was once popular, but he’s now too entangled in political intrigue and charges of corruption to join the ranks of Nehru and Gandhi. Brazil offered up an intriguing candidate in former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, but, well, he’s not in power anymore.

What about finding consequential leaders in the Arab and Muslim world? The Arab dictators whom we knew and never loved — Saddam, the Assads, Qaddafi — were and are brutal and extractive figures, taking so much more than they ever gave to their people. The next rung down weren’t quite as bad — Mubarak, Ben Ali, Abdullah Saleh — but clearly better for the United States’ interests than for their own peoples’. With the passing of the Ben Gurions, Sadats, Begins, King Husseins, and Rabins, the Middle East has been in the age of politicians not statesmen for some time now. A younger generation of Israeli leaders — Netanyahu, Barak, Olmert — bears this out.

What about the Arab Spring? After all, revolutions and crises have in the past been inspired and directed, indeed even produced consequential leaders. It’s way too early to draw conclusions, but the trend lines don’t look all that encouraging. The Arab uprisings have been effectively leaderless. Egypt’s presidential election produced a pretty grey Muslim Brotherhood leader who will be constrained severely by the military and by his own party even if he wants to be bold.

Beyond Egypt, matters only get worse. Libya, Syria, and Yemen will be struggling for years with the quest for legitimate, respected, accountable, and effective leaders. The Arab kings who survive (in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco, and Qatar) are more enlightened, even respected; and in the case of Saudi King Abdullah, even beloved by many Saudis. But to call them great leaders strains the bounds of credulity to the breaking point. Their prospective successors don’t inspire much confidence, either.

Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan is one of the few standouts. He’s presided over an economic boom, increased Turkey’s regional influence, and is trying — fairly successfully — to balance Islam, modernity, and democracy. But he does have some asterisks on human rights and press freedoms, as well as a personal penchant for inflating his own role and Turkey’s without a lot of "there there."

I give up. What’s going on here? Where have all the enlightened, wise, effective, charismatic leaders gone, not to mention the truly great ones? I recently briefed some military officers and asked them: Who was the last American figure you’d describe as great? Silence. When I offered up my candidate, Martin Luther King, Jr, one guy exclaimed: "But he died in 1968." Exactly, I replied. Next year we will have gone the longest stretch in our history without an undeniably great president — Washington … Lincoln … FDR … ?

I wouldn’t presume to offer a comprehensive explanation as to why we have a leadership deficit on a global scale. There probably isn’t one — certainly not a one-size-fits-all answer. We tend to romanticize the performance of some of the great leaders of yore. The world’s gotten a great deal more complicated over the years, and then again leaders can always appear at the most unexpected of times and in the most unusual circumstances.

So why don’t we have great leaders anymore? I’d welcome some suggestions. But here are a few thoughts to get us started.

Greatness Is Rare: By definition, incomparable and unsurpassed achievement in any field or aspect of the human enterprise is rare. And it’s rarer still in politics and governance. Unlike with great artists, musicians, or even athletes, politics has many moving parts. There’s a dependence and contingency that complicates success at any level, let alone extraordinary achievement.

My definition of greatness encompasses a leader’s overcoming some truly national crisis and trauma, converting that exigency into some transformational legacy in a way that alters the nation forever for the better, or breaking out in some new direction that isn’t just successful but transformational, too. (See Mustafa Kemal’s preservation of Turkey’s sovereignty and national identity; Churchill’s leadership during the dark, lonely days of 1940-1941; FDR’s presidency from 1941-1945; Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem; Kennedy’s leadership during the Cuban missile crisis; or LBJ’s after Kennedy’s assassination and passage of historic civil rights legislation.)

Been There Done That: Nations pass through foundational trials and crises that generate their myths and narratives and provide opportunities for heroic action by their leaders. The successful nations never pass that way again because the founders and early leaders have already addressed the existential questions. As a result, later national leaders deal not with whether the nation will be, but instead what kind of country it will be. These challenges are no less important, but they’re more systemic and in many ways more complex. Big accomplishments like creating a democratic nation, saving it from its enemies, preserving a union, or guiding it through economic catastrophe lend themselves to bold words and deeds if the right leader is up to it. And the nation and the political system is more apt to follow.

Media Makes Ordinary: De Gaulle used to say that leadership and authority demands a certain amount of mystique. That’s hard to do in today’s 24/7, we-see-everything media world. In highly centralized leadership structures — China, North Korea, even Russia — that’s possible. But no longer in democracies. Nicholas Sarkozy is caught blasting Bibi Netanyahu on an open mic; Reagan is caught dozing; Bush 43 mangling the English language; Bill Clinton and the blue dress. Had the media that covers American presidents today been around back then, the likes of FDR, Churchill, and Kennedy would surely have been taken down a notch or two.

When the media isn’t intruding and exposing vulnerabilities, it’s functioning as a challenge to leaders and regimes alike. Social media’s role in the Arab Spring may be overstated, but it gives to ordinary people — not to mention activists — a new power to organize, mobilize, and communicate. And this can’t help but trivialize and undermine any hope of the kind of distance and detachment that’s required to maintain authority — even dignity. This whole process serves to bring leaders down a level and even them out with their publics. Last year, President Obama held the first-ever presidential Twitter conference. Smart politics, maybe, but somehow using the word "Twitter" — with its 140-character form of communication — in the same sentence with an American president seems somehow … well, not very presidential.

It’s Just Too Complicated: The world’s smaller and more connected, and the challenges of the modern era make governing — let alone good or great governance — much harder. Even monumental challenges such as the U.S. civil war were essentially limited to one continent. (Clearly, the world wars were exceptions, though the dire nature of the threats focused the minds of the democracies in ways no other events have since.) Now, a leader’s political viability and the country’s economic health is linked to global events beyond his or her control, be it debt in Greece or a currency meltdown in Thailand. A country’s security — even while protected by two oceans and massive conventional and unconventional military power — can be rocked by transnational terror.

The nature of the problems that need to be addressed, particularly in a democracy, are systemic and require solutions driven by process and compromise. America’s five deadly Ds — dysfunctional politics; debt; deficit; dependence on hydrocarbons, and decaying infrastructure — are slow bleeds that demand a political consensus seemingly beyond the control of a single leader.

Still, look on the bright side. Clearly, the fewer caudillos, Dear Leaders, and supreme ayatollahs there are, the better. And perhaps even the passing of the great democratic heroes will be good, too. Nations, the experts tell us, fail primarily because they lack inclusive institutions. I’d trade a few great men for some of those, particularly in the Arab world. The idea of the great leader also tends to infantilize the public and create an expectation that people are waiting to be rescued. And who knows — maybe if we stop yearning for the ONE, we’ll start taking our own civic responsibilities more seriously.

Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former U.S. State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2

More from Foreign Policy

A photo collage illustration shows U.S. political figures plotted on a foreign-policy spectrum from most assertive to least. From left: Dick Cheney, Nikki Haley, Joe Biden, George H.W. Bush, Ron Desantis, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, Vivek Ramaswamy, and Bernie Sanders.
A photo collage illustration shows U.S. political figures plotted on a foreign-policy spectrum from most assertive to least. From left: Dick Cheney, Nikki Haley, Joe Biden, George H.W. Bush, Ron Desantis, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, Vivek Ramaswamy, and Bernie Sanders.

The Scrambled Spectrum of U.S. Foreign-Policy Thinking

Presidents, officials, and candidates tend to fall into six camps that don’t follow party lines.

A girl touches a photograph of her relative on the Memory Wall of Fallen Defenders of Ukraine in the Russian-Ukrainian war in Kyiv.
A girl touches a photograph of her relative on the Memory Wall of Fallen Defenders of Ukraine in the Russian-Ukrainian war in Kyiv.

What Does Victory Look Like in Ukraine?

Ukrainians differ on what would keep their nation safe from Russia.

A man is seen in profile standing several yards away from a prison.
A man is seen in profile standing several yards away from a prison.

The Biden Administration Is Dangerously Downplaying the Global Terrorism Threat

Today, there are more terror groups in existence, in more countries around the world, and with more territory under their control than ever before.

Then-Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez arrives for a closed-door briefing by intelligence officials at the U.S. Capitol in Washington.
Then-Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez arrives for a closed-door briefing by intelligence officials at the U.S. Capitol in Washington.

Blue Hawk Down

Sen. Bob Menendez’s indictment will shape the future of Congress’s foreign policy.