State of the world: In search of leadership

There are many world leaders, but why is there no leadership?

Foreign Minister Riad Yassin of Yemen addresses a plenary meeting of the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit 2015 at the United Nations headquarters in New York [REUTERS]
Yemeni foreign minister addresses a plenary meeting of the UN Sustainable Development Summit in New York [REUTERS]

Here they go again. And here I am: once again in New York as world leaders pose for photographers and deliver lofty speeches at the UN’s “new year” party gathering. 

Judging from the attendance, the opening of the 70th session of the UN General Assembly promises to be no less of a tedious ritual than previous years.

And in the absence of the likes of Chavez, Gaddafi, and Ahmadinejad, it will even lack the political entertainment those populist leaders brought to the podium.

But dullness is nothing new and, considering our world’s complex and urgent challenges, it’s the least of its/our problems.

The problem as I see it as I look around: There are many world leaders, but no leadership.

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Spiteful and pathetic

Instead of leading by example among the “Family of Nations”, world leaders are acting like toxic in-laws. They come into town to preach that which they don’t practise, cause tensions, and create more problems than they solve.

The way I heard it, US President Barack Obama at first didn’t want to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sideline of the UNGA session, but then a meeting was set up hastily as both sides distanced themselves from asking for it. (Meanwhile, Putin declined a meeting with British Prime Minister David Cameron but accepted to meet with the British singer Elton John, who had asked for a meeting following Putin’s inflammatory statement about homosexuality).

Obama and Putin will talk about Syria and Ukraine, but I doubt they will listen.

Such is the poor state of affairs among the UN in-laws. Political and diplomatic expediency dictate their communication, just as narrow interests hamper their cooperation.

Greetings, toasting and playing national anthems are as - or perhaps more - important than dealing with dying Syrians, or persecuted Rohingya.

When they do meet, as in last week’s US-China summit, much of the preparation is centred on protocol, which apparently prompts other important or meaningful issues. Greetings, toasting, and playing national anthems are as – or perhaps more – important than dealing with dying Syrians or persecuted Rohingya.

What does the G-2 stand for?

Presidents Obama and Xi seemed to have decided, out of domestic concerns, that they can’t or won’t do much for each other, and, therefore, ensured that their summit included all the trappings of success but without any concrete achievements.

The Washington Post reported that the White House state dinner featured lavish dresses, tech titans, and Hollywood heavyweights – but there was little or no progress to report on currency manipulation and cyber espionage, etc, let alone Asian security and world poverty. (The silver lining: Michelle Obama wore a dress by Chinese-American designer Vera Wang).

All of which dampens the hopes (wrongly) pinned on the new dynamics between G-2 powers – US and China – to responsibly manage the global economy, especially following the last international financial crisis.

Alas, they proved that they couldn’t even act responsibly in Southeast Asia, where they’re further complicating the security and economic landscape instead of improving it.

Also read: Can anyone stop the killing in Syria?

And while the US, Russia, and China fail the test of leadership, those in their shadows are incapable of coordinating among themselves or making the leap towards more meaningful roles.

US President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama await the arrival of Chinese President Xi Jinping for a State Dinner at the White House [REUTERS]US President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama await the arrival of Chinese President Xi Jinping for a State Dinner at the White House [REUTERS]

Even Europe, which is presumably more capable than the rest to act globally, has been either terribly divided or playing catch-up with the US and Russia.

When was the last time you heard of Japan, India or the UK taking an international initiative of any sort? How effective is the group of G-20 when the leading G-2 fail to lead? 

Brazil, India, and Germany might seek a permanent seat at the UN Security Council, but how will that lead to better world governance?

Ever since the world moved away from bipolarity of the Cold War, it’s been torn between the unipolarity of US leadership, the new bipolarity of the US and China, and multipolarity of various world powers and groupings.

In other words: The old world order is no more, but there’s no new world order either.

The confusion allows all to blame all, and in the process, everyone escapes accountability for their lack of international responsibility.

Lessons in leadership

For all practical purposes, world leaders have set themselves up to be lectured like amateurs on the rights and wrongs of leadership by an unlikely mentor.

Also read: The pontiff should highlight Palestine

Pope Francis, the head of the Catholic Church, lectured his audience at the UN with clarity, boldness, and conviction that is lacking in great power politics.

Among other reprimands, the pope rebuked world leaders for failing to put an end to the many conflicts in the world, particularly in the Middle East, and for putting partisan interests above real human beings (notwithstanding, his neglect to talk about Palestine).

The pontiff even scolded the global financial institutions that subject countries to oppressive lending systems and subject people to mechanisms, which generate “greater poverty, exclusion, and dependence”.

The secretary-general for Amnesty International, Salil Shetty, also accused the powerful leaders of hypocrisy as they lecture about peace while being the world’s largest manufacturers of arms, and how they rail against corruption while allowing corporations to use financial and tax loopholes.

Tower of Babel?

None of these leadership failures or shortcomings diminishes the importance of the UN and its role in the global scene.

There is no escape from the verbal diarrhoea at the UN headquarters in the coming few days. But babble doesn’t mean transforming the UN into the Tower of Babel.

The world is better off with a UN than without one. The UN remains an indispensable world forum to coordinate policies, voice grievances, and even take collective action.

But the effectiveness of the world body is determined only by the efficacy of the leaders of its member states, notably those permanent residents of the UN Security Council – the world’s government.

One could only hope that beyond their wooden speeches, their formal or informal meetings on the sidelines of the assembly will produce more than just frowns and yawns.

Yes, the world is better off when leaders act in their nations’ best interests. But civilisation is best served when leaders also act in the best interest of their region and that of the community of nations.

That requires leadership.

Marwan Bishara is the senior political analyst at Al Jazeera.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.


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