Usually in the middle of an American presidential campaign, questions regarding who will go on to lead the most powerful country, and to some extent the free world, can be answered by a quick glance at the names on the Republican and Democratic nomination tickets. 2012 is not such an instance. Today, neither candidate for the major American political parties seems capable of articulating a vision for the United States or the world. In Europe, political leaders are obsessively looking inwards, desperate to address the fundamental financial flaws of the Eurozone. The developing world seems bereft of leaders who believe in international responsibility. All this seems a long way from the defining leadership of President Bill Clinton or even George W. Bush. Thus the question must be asked, in this age of uncertainty and challenge, who will lead?
The leadership being called for here does not have to be from politicians, or for that matter individuals. It can be represented by religious leaders, intellectual movements or even mass protests. Nelson Mandela, Pope John Paul II, Karl Marx, Samuel Huntington, the United Nations, the Bloomsbury Group, the European Union, the anti-Vietnam protests, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, Mahatma Ghandi. These are just some of the examples of the people, movements and organisations that have from time to time risen to the fore to help define human endeavour in their time. Not always universally popular or entirely successful, their common characteristic is not a value, belief, tactic or admirable quality, but rather the ability to be determining.
Mandela ended apartheid, John Paul helped tear down the Iron Curtain, Marx forever revolutionised the way we think about economics and society, the Bloomsbury Group reinvented creative philosophy, the EU abolished war on a continent and the anti-Vietnam protests helped awaken the conscience of a pliant nation. Leadership on a global (or at least regional) scale can be hard to define, but is easy to recognise. Defining ideas, individuals and movements provoke a special excitement in the hearts and minds of all who witness them. They can inspire generations across differences of class or creed to rise up and pursue their own destiny. There is no higher meaning than what true leadership can deliver the world over.
Unfortunately as this article is published, few if any institutions or individuals offer real leadership to a world in economic and political turmoil. The United States seems increasingly consumed by introspection, too tired and too short-sighted to look beyond its borders to define a new century once again. Europe too has caught the disease of self-obsession, and seems unable to move beyond dithering to help contribute to what was supposed to be the ‘European decade’. International institutions for the most part remain cumbersome, self-serving and hamstrung by their non-aligned constituents.
Other less powerful but nonetheless institutional sources of leadership also appear debilitated. The Catholic Church, for example, is straining under the weight of unending scandal, established journalism is looked upon with contempt by most Europeans and Americans, while the contemporary art world seems largely to have collapsed in on itself in an orgy of self-obsession and united opposition to talent. Business is so concerned with keeping itself alive that it seems unable to reform and grow.
In the face of such a pessimistic outlook, it would be appropriate for this article to suggest potential saviours, that might lead the world out of this interminable malaise. Unfortunately, none come to mind.
Often brought forward is the idea that leadership is a thing of the past. That social media, increased mobility and inter-connectivity renders major movements and institutions irrelevant to the lives and aspirations of the people of the world. Who needs a politician when your opinions might trend on Twitter?
Has the level of debate really fallen to the level of Facebook statuses?
If one thing is clear, it is that the abandonment of leadership by those capable of displaying it will have catastrophic effects on the whole community. Humans by their nature, and society as an extension, cannot afford to be rudderless forever. The world is drifting, and is crying out for a captain to organise the crew. If nothing can rise up to fill the catastrophic void that exists today, what will inspire the next generation to renew once again the political settlements and institutional governance that is at the heart of all human progress?
If leadership becomes just a memory of the aging generation, what will become of their grandchildren? The question posed by this article can be answered today, but in 10 years it may welll be too late.
So, the question is asked again, who will lead?