David Rothkopf

Dysfunction Junction

Public officials from Beijing to D.C. are failing to rise to the world's challenges. That's where FP's Global Thinkers come in.

Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

If you were to ask a typical American voter for a list of creative, intellectually gifted public officials, he or she would probably look at you as though you had just asked for the names of the world’s most eloquent giraffes — and with good reason. The 113th Congress is on pace to produce less legislation than any since World War II, and President Barack Obama has watched his signature health-care initiative founder, thanks to mismanagement and woeful execution. A distemper is in the air, and given the recent performance of the U.S. government on matters domestic and international, its origins are understandable.

What might surprise many disgruntled Americans is the degree to which their counterparts in Europe, China, India, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America are dissatisfied with their governments. In fact, few things unite the world today like the belief that public officials are failing to rise to the challenges of our time — too crooked, too fractious, or too self-interested to attend to the needs of those they are supposed to serve.

As Wang Qishan, one of the Global Thinkers profiled in this issue, is demonstrating, corruption is so deeply embedded in the way China works that it is not merely a threat to the system — it is the system. India’s federal government, always unwieldy and difficult to manage, has really spluttered of late, and pending elections suggest that the country may be on the brink of greater ethnic tension, deeper internal divisions, and more dangerous confrontations with its neighbors. The country’s state governments, meanwhile, are so corrupt that they can’t pick up the slack left in the line by New Delhi. (In an interesting twist, India seems to have switched places with Japan, which five years ago was utterly paralyzed but today is surging forward, to the credit of another of our Global Thinkers, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.)

In the European Union, the financial crisis has revealed that not only have many EU governments failed the most basic tests of fiscal management (and political courage), but that the entire continent is knit together by a half-baked system presided over by a quasi-government apparatus that was designed to be weak and has lived up to that goal to a dangerous degree. Of course, if you lived in Libya, Afghanistan, Pakistan, or much of Africa — to say nothing of Syria — you would be looking enviously to the bureaucracy in Brussels, whose sclerosis is far more desirable than the fractious coalitions of thugs, leavened by small coteries of the well-meaning, that just barely control their capitals.

This widespread dysfunction is just one of the reasons that this year’s list of leading Global Thinkers ventures farther outside the political sphere than in the past. Another is that we have tried to focus on individuals whose ideas have been translated into actions that, in turn, have impacted millions of people across borders. And even though we are a publication whose last name is "policy," it doesn’t take much scrutiny to recognize that the majority of big ideas that are changing the world are not coming from government officials.

For example, the most transformational development of the past quarter-century is likely not the fall of the Soviet Union or the attacks of 9/11, but rather the remarkable proliferation of cell phones — from a mere 12 million in 1990 to some 7 billion today — that has knitted the world together in unprecedented ways. Of course, the information revolution, of which that expansion is a part, is why our first cluster of Global Thinkers this year addresses the emergence of the surveillance state (an anomalous and disconcerting example of American competence). Some readers may loathe a few of the individuals in this group, but the broad division over the question of who deserves condemnation and who deserves praise shows the urgency of the debate that has been triggered.

The point is that a world facing extraordinary challenges — from a vastly more complex and interconnected economy to growing inequality, from global warming to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, from resource scarcity to massive demographic shifts, from spreading extremism to the emergence of the surveillance state — is saddled with governments that are not rising to the moment. Indeed, there is a global crisis of trust that raises real questions about who can and will act on our behalf.

Of course, this is not the first time that the world has been cursed with bad leaders, corrupt systems, inefficient bureaucracies, or mendacious and weak-minded politicians. Indeed, many of the darkest eras in the story of civilization have featured such characteristics and characters. But today is a moment of special challenges in this regard. It is hard to think of a period in the past half-century when the great powers and the great emerging powers faced such challenges so broadly.

In the past, when the world has struggled with political delinquency, other voices have emerged with ideas that were capable of producing the changes that were needed. Some were scientists or academics. Some were writers or commentators. Some were military or religious leaders. Some were businesspeople. The search for such people is precisely what FP‘s list of Global Thinkers is all about.

The list could not hope to be comprehensive. And to be honest about the biggest ideas swirling around the world today, not everyone on our list is advocating notions that are actually for the better. But most people on this list are not only trying to find a better way, solve a critical problem, or present a vital question in a new light, but they are actually doing it — and producing results.

Given the widespread misfires we are seeing from some of the institutions we have created to be the engines of ideas and to translate ideas into action, we hope you will find a look at our list at least somewhat comforting. Or better yet, that you will find your own inspiration from those among our Global Thinkers who are the most inspired themselves.

 Twitter: @djrothkopf

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