David Rothkopf

How Not to Lead the World

The U.N. General Assembly is providing a real-time seminar on failed leadership.


Few terms are as abused, misused and overused as "world leader." While headlines daily suggest that the planet is operating without adult supervision, the folly of classifying most of our heads of state and government as "leaders" is never clearer than at the opening of the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly.

This year, the U.N. circus was once again welcomed to New York by snarled traffic and snarling Manhattanites — all of whom almost certainly wish that just once, the entourages and press conferences and cocktail receptions and empty, rambling speeches would be directed to the citizens of somewhere else. Detroit’s been having a tough time, how about there? Or Athens? Or how about they just set up a Facebook page and let national governments simply post their speeches for all to see? Think of the savings. Or, to put it in better perspective: Think of what would be lost if we skipped the meeting altogether.

That’s right, nothing. Nothing at all.

Once again, all of the Commedia dell’arte cast of players on the global stage are fulfilling their roles. While Muammar al-Qaddafi, one of the great buffo characters of recent U.N. history — perhaps the greatest of them all — is but a memory, we got to see the final performance in this eight-year run of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran. Like Qaddafi, he will be missed by no one except the connoisseurs of the ludicrous and students of abnormal psychology — and for them, there are always reruns of Sascha Baron Cohen’s The Dictator.

But Ahmadinejad, for all the headlines he generates while fulminating and spitting out nonsense about Israel’s lack of legitimacy or Iran’s invincible might, is also illustrative of just how misplaced the term "world leader" is. For one thing, he is not even the real leader of his own country. Instead, true power lies with the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Council of Guardians, and other top religious leaders. Ahmadinejad, for all his bluster, is much more like the country’s top spokesmodel than he is the final word on any of its key decisions. Indeed, to those present at his press briefing on Monday morning, it seemed impossible to imagine this guy — who clearly has a screw loose — actually administering much of anything.

One of the starring roles in each year’s autumn pageant in New York goes by default to the president of the United States. Since the founding of the United Nations, he has been called "the most powerful man in the world." This naturally makes him the most important of the world’s leaders. For this reason, President Barack Obama apparently decided to wedge in an appearance in front of the U.N. between his interview with Whoopi Goldberg and the crew at The View, his stop at the conference of America’s true president-for-life, Bill Clinton, and other campaign-related appearances.

Obama’s decision not to meet with other world leaders was brushed off by the White House with a "well, if he met with one he’d have to meet with 10" line. This of course implies that meeting with world leaders is actually really just a slippery slope leading to wasted time. There is no room in this defense (which, let’s be honest, boils down to choosing Whoopi over Bibi) for the notion that something might be gained from meeting with these men or women. Which certainly suggests that the world’s most important leader doesn’t think much of his colleagues.

He showed considerably more respect for them and the principles underlying both the U.N. and the United States in his remarks to the General Assembly.  However, while they were generally well-received, the central headline-grabber in his speech was a promise to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons, something that neither he nor anyone present in that chamber today may actually be willing or able to do.

This leads in turn to the also important point that the president of the United States may no longer be the most powerful man in the world. That is not because the United States is not the most powerful nation in the world — it still is. But rather, it is because the president can’t seem to get much done in Washington; Congress has become a roadblock for executive action of most sorts; and whereas the president can take independent action in most instances, the United States lacks the will or the resources to project force or use soft power elsewhere in the world. Thus, even the job of No. 1 world leader ain’t what it used to be.

Beyond the nuttier dictators of this world and presidents of countries that are bound like Gulliver in Lilliput by the limitations of their own national bank accounts and flawed political systems, there are others flaunting the world leader label in New York this week who also provoke questions about their legitimate claim to that title. From Benjamin Netanyahu, whom very nearly no one is likely to follow, to Egypt’s Mohamed Morsy, whose control of his country is as ambiguous as is his cloudy view (shared by Obama) of the U.S.-Egypt relationship, from Pakistan’s Asif Ali Zadari to Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai, the U.N. is awash in political figures who face such serious problems back home that real leadership would have suggested they pass on this week’s opportunity to hobnob over canapés at the Waldorf.

So, to recap: Some of the leaders in New York this week aren’t actually the leaders in their own countries. And others are not really considered important players by their peers. Still others are seeing their ability to lead diminished or constrained. And above and beyond these factors is the reality that the secret to being a world leader is not so much having a vision or a title or a big army, but getting other people to follow you.

Given the U.N.’s recent record of inaction on vital issues from Syria to climate change, the one thing these so-called leaders have proven beyond a reasonable doubt is that motivating followers and energizing alliances is not their strong suit.  

There are, we should acknowledge, real leaders out there — people creating new jobs, overseeing the development of new technologies, curing diseases, solving big problems. They just don’t happen to be the people causing most of the traffic jams in New York this week. So perhaps if we can’t get these people in town for the General Assembly to actually lead, we might do the next best thing and stop calling them what they are clearly not.

 Twitter: @djrothkopf

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