2021: The year of failed political leadership

This year has shown that governance guided only by ideology without any concern for moral outcomes is dangerous.

A protester holds a placard during a demonstration demanding more action while G20 climate and environment ministers hold a meeting in Naples, Italy on July 22, 2021
A protester holds a placard during a demonstration demanding more action while G20 climate and environment ministers hold a meeting in Naples, Italy, July 22, 2021 [File: Reuters/Guglielmo Mangiapane]

2021 was the year of political leadership, or more importantly, lack of it, and an invitation to reflect on the social consequences of leadership failures. I think for many of us, it was the year that felt like when time slows down while you are witnessing an accident happen – two seconds that feel like two minutes – or in this case, twelve months that feel like a decade of closings, openings, lockdowns, mandates, curfews, hoarding and devastation.

In this year, in which millions of people lost everything, we are reminded that the purpose of leadership goes beyond telling people what to do. We are prompted to consider – in the spirit of recently departed philosopher bell hooks – how governance that has no love for the people it oversees is vulnerable to tyranny and failure.

Since the end of World War II, the dominant thinking in political science was that we were all stuck in a battle for ideas, that ideology was the most important thing to debate and that everything would flow from that. Communism versus capitalism was the thing, never mind the violence that proponents of both ideologies inflicted all around the world in the name of ideology.

Capitalist governments assassinated communist leaders in poor countries and funded shadow wars while ignoring the leadership vacuums they created, while communist governments sponsored never-ending conflicts while discounting their human cost.

From the so-called Third World, we watched as each side went to exactly the same extreme as the other, often in our countries, but tried to reassure us that when they enacted violence on us, it was out of love and when the other side did it, it was out of greed and hatred.

There was only limited engagement with the moral claims that the various leaders made: what mattered was that they sang from the correct ideological hymnbook.

2021 has reminded us that governance guided only by ideology without any concern for moral outcomes is a dangerous and deadly trap. Around the world, countries of various political persuasion are making a mockery of the claim that ideology can be an accurate predictor of how a country will perform in the middle of a crisis.

The main challenge is of course the COVID-19 pandemic, crashing into its third year and causing unprecedented upheaval and devastation. At the time of writing there were 280 million cases reported worldwide and up to 5.4 million deaths – i.e. the equivalent of a country the size of Slovakia being wiped out.

With the Omicron variant, countries like France and the United States are reporting their highest number of cases since the beginning of the pandemic, despite having vaccines in abundance. At the same time, there is a real anxiety in countries that have been denied access to vaccines through the complicity of the world’s wealthiest nations that this is the wave that will break through their meagre defences and the cycle of lockdowns and travel bans they have been depending on.

But it is not just COVID-19 that has revealed the paucity of moral leadership in the world. The global refugee and migrant crisis continues, with an increasing number of people on the move all over the world because of conflict, economic collapse and climate change.

The return of the Taliban in Afghanistan left hundreds of thousands of Afghans scrambling for an exit, the vast majority ending up in neighbouring countries like Pakistan and Iran without a plan except to avoid the reprisals that have since been enacted against those considered to have collaborated with the US occupation. In Myanmar, minorities persecuted by the junta are arriving in Bangladesh and Thailand by the hundreds, while the slow collapse of several Central American nations into political uncertainty and gang violence continues to send caravans towards the US-Mexico border.

The Mediterranean Sea remains a watery grave for thousands of people denied safe routes to asylum or migration while the English Channel and the Belarussian-Polish border have turned into new fronts where European countries can play politics with the lives of vulnerable people. Uighur people are still languishing in detention camps in China and the war in Yemen rages on, driven by Gulf countries and fought with weapons manufactured in the West.

2021 was also the year that the climate crisis hinted at the scale of devastation that is knocking at our doors. Flood waters rushed through and destroyed towns and cities in countries as far apart as Germany, the Philippines, Australia, Indonesia and Brazil. Unprecedented rainfall all over the world surged rivers that had quietly run their course for hundreds of years and they suddenly burst their banks.

In 2021, temperatures in the Arctic peaked, while scientists warned that Antarctica’s Doomsday Glacier threatens to collapse in the next three years and could raise sea levels by more than half a metre (about 20 inches), damning coastal cities like New York, Mumbai, and Mombasa. And yet, the UN Climate Conference held in Glasgow culminated in a mealy-mouthed statement and a heartbroken conference chair softly weeping at the podium as a result of the failure.

2021 is an invitation to reconsider ideology as the be all and end all for measuring how governments perform, inviting us instead to judge them by what they do and not just what they say. The capitalism of the United States has failed to deliver a meaningful response to the COVID-19 pandemic; it has secured a glut of vaccines but failed in establishing a functioning COVID-19 testing system or retaining medical staff, as doctors and nurses leave the profession for lack of support.

Meanwhile tiny communist Cuba has developed its own vaccine, fully inoculated 85 percent of its population and kept a low mortality rate of 0.9 percent compared to the US’s 1.6 percent.

Canada, often vaunted as an example of democracy and progress has been one of the worst offenders in regards to hoarding vaccines and taking discriminatory political action, including racist bans against Southern African countries for flagging the emergence of the new strain.

Russia is spoiling for a war in Ukraine even while the COVID-19 death rate in the country hovers at around 2.9 percent.

By contrast, the leadership of Prime Minister Jacinda Adern in New Zealand continues to set a new global standard for what governance beyond rhetoric and ideological competition should look like – providing for people, maintaining open lines of communication between government and the governed, responding swiftly to emerging challenges.

All of these contradictions and more are an invitation to think beyond ideology as a simplistic frame of reference. 2021 has reminded us that there is an emptiness behind the simplistic “us-versus-them” narratives that currently dominate political thinking and practice. These are approaches to politics that are centred on competition rather than cooperation, and jingoistic nationalism that privileges the political survival of the few over the collective well-being of the many.

In the spirit of bell hooks, whose untimely death has robbed the world of a scholar who created a framework of thinking about politics and society rooted in values like love, 2021 was the year that a tiny virus invited us to remember why we enter society in the first place – to make sure that we are all better off and not to pursue empty ideological triumphs at the expense of others. Political leaders should take heed if 2022 is to be any better.

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