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What Today's World Leaders Need Most

The inadequacy of the political and economic leadership in the advanced world is truly staggering.  Japan is observing twenty years of failure to repair the damage of its bubble economy by failing to cope with the aftermath of the spring tsunami.  The European Union is still struggling to respond to the Greek financial meltdown as its latest (inadequate and poorly conceived) fudge threatens to fall apart.  Again.  And in the US, collapsing consumer confidence following poor leadership from both the President and the Congress could be the factor that pushes the US into a double dip recession.

Watching so many second class talents struggle against first class problems is a dispiriting exercise, especially when one reflects on the costs of failure.

It is no secret anywhere that our leaders are failing.  The Europeans know their political class is floundering; the Japanese have despaired of their politicians for almost a generation; in the US the only people less popular than President Obama are his Democratic allies and Republican adversaries in the US Congress.

It is not just that our leaders are small, however.  It is that the problems are big.  Europe, the US and Japan are each in different ways facing up to a similar set of problems: the guiding assumptions of economic and social policy in the western world no longer make sense.  Demographic changes mean that all welfare states have turned from social insurance programs into Ponzi schemes; economic and technological changes mean that the stable postwar political and economic institutions and practices of the rich world no longer work; cultural changes mean that the citizens of these countries demand more from their leaders — and are less prepared to defer to or to trust them.

The economic crisis has brought all these problems to a head, largely because the combination of short term budget deficits due to the crisis and the unsustainable trend of future spending changed the rules of the game.  In countries like Greece and Spain the bond markets are delivering this message; in countries like Germany and the US it is public opinion that is no longer willing to accept the costs and debts associated with the old way of doing things.

Malvolio, the penny pinching, pleasure-grudging steward in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night read what he thought was a love letter from the aristocrat who employed him: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, some have greatness thrust upon them.”  This is true, but as Malvolio discovered, there are also those whom greatness passes by.

The rich world needs greatness now among its leaders more than at any time since World War Two; we shall see if the demand creates a supply.

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  • Luke Lea

    I would place the blame on the failure of our elite colleges and universities to properly educate its minions. In particular I would finger the approach that emphasizes “critical thinking skills” while neglecting a systematic study of the basic facts and major themes in World, European, and United States history. When it comes to understanding the problems of society there should be a lot more emphasis on the transmission of old knowledge and a lot less on the discovery of new.

    The plain fact is our academic and governing classes are woefully ignorant.

  • Peter

    Mr. Mead, it is not a matter of what the world’s leaders need most.

    It’s that the world, especially the U.S. and Europe, need a new elite.

  • Corlyss

    Regression to the mean (in the statistical sense, not the character sense).

    Interesting that the Greatest Generation, possessed of such remarkable courage and determination and self-sacrifice, produced such a bunch of cottled wimps without the stones or spine to face many issues far less troubling than those the GG had to face. We do not do them proud.

  • Lexington Green

    The greatness our leaders need is to see that individual decision-making cannot possibly solve the problems of the day. Only massively decentralized market-type responses can harness enough brain power and talent and initiative and — yes — localized and limited failures to create the needed knowledge and institutions to get us through the current maelstrom of change. The Blue Model is dying world wide. Part of its delusion was that a committee of well-intentioned experts can accomplish anything of value on a national or even global scale. They can’t. Our leaders need common sense and humility, and a willingness to set boundaries and minimalist rules, and step back and let the twelve-billion-footed beast solve its own problems its own way.

  • Kris

    “there are also those whom greatness passes by.”

    “I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker, and I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker, and in short, I was afraid.”
    — T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

  • Jim.

    We are the ones we’ve been waiting for — God help us all.

    I’m confused… should we push for the success of the Blue Social Model by producing better experts, or is the Blue Social Mode — the whole strategy of “scientific” experts leading to policy — bound to fail from the outset?

    Personally, I prefer a system where certain fundamental virtues are taught — hard work, scrupulous honesty, literacy, humility before God and Scripture, competition / sportsmanship, etc — and let people work through the individual policies on their own.

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    When comes the time, comes the man. Is it time? Or are we still debating the issues? I think in America we are thinking about going TEA Party, but are still debating and will follow procedure and will make the changes in the election of 2012.

  • Russell Snow

    What is World Wart Two?

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @Russell Snow: correction made, intern flogged. Stock options to the management team in recognition of their prompt response.

  • NW

    No solutions will be found so long as our political elites are forced to find solutions within the confines of what is morally and/or politically acceptable to progressivism.

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