It’s not only Britain. The west needs honest, trustworthy leaders to deter autocrats

By Simon Tisdall* -The Observer

A critical showdown is looming with Russia and China, but public confidence and belief in democratic politicians and institutions are waning

Henry Kissinger has said present-day western leaders do not bear comparison to their ‘strong’ postwar counterparts.

Promoting his latest book last week, 99-year-old Henry Kissinger, the controversial former doyen of US foreign policymaking, bemoaned the low calibre of present-day political leadership. That’s a bit stiff, coming from a man who was close to Richard Nixon, the only US president ever to resign in disgrace.

Yet Kissinger’s rose-tinted praise for “strong” postwar leaders – Margaret Thatcher, France’s Charles de Gaulle and West Germany’s Konrad Adenauer are among his all-time greats – does not mean he’s wrong now. With notable exceptions, the west’s current crop of presidents and prime ministers is weak, uninspiring and untrustworthy.

This matters more than ever. If the western democracies are to survive, let alone win, the global struggle against a rising authoritarian tide, personified by ruthless figures such as Vladimir Putin in Russia and Xi Jinping in China, they desperately require leaders of skill, courage and integrity.

As Boris Johnson’s shameless antics show, such qualities are frequently lacking or wholly absent at the highest levels. While few politicians in comparable countries stoop as low, Boris blight is not confined to Britain. Across the democratic sphere, there are gaping black holes where trust and vision should be.

Perhaps this is the unlovely norm. Perhaps mediocre politicians pursuing shoddy, self-serving deals and compromises is actually what keeps western liberal democracy staggering on. Who wants “strong” leaders if, like Thatcher, they divide and destroy in order to rule?

Yet with the world facing huge simultaneous crises over climate, biodiversity, hunger, migration, energy, Covid and war, who can afford pusillanimity at the top?

Few doubt Joe Biden’s courage and integrity. How many people would have taken on the US presidency at age 78? In contrast to Donald Trump, he’s a paradigm of probity. That said, fewer and fewer Americans appear impressed by his leadership skills 18 months in.

With his approval rating puddling at 38%, Biden faces lame duck humiliations if, as expected, Republicans win control of Congress in November.

In France, Emmanuel Macron has a similar problem. Re-elected president in an either-or contest with the far-right’s Marine Le Pen, he promptly lost his parliamentary majority when voters were offered alternatives. A deflated “Jupiter” is making a forced descent to earth.

In Germany, Spain and Italy – other vanguard democracies – leaders are under fire for lack of ideas, or lack of nerve, by economically stressed and ideologically and culturally polarised electorates who suspect they are not up to the job. In the UK, the “mother of parliaments” daily re-enacts the mother of all battles.

All the same, critics of Germany’s “sulky sausage” chancellor, Olaf Scholz, might reflect that his predecessor, Angela Merkel, was widely regarded as Europe’s master politician. Until she quit. Her legacy, not least her coddling of Putin and disastrous energy policies, has since undergone radical reappraisal.

If lacklustre individuals are not solely to blame for underpowered western leadership, what else is? Disillusion with pan-European democracy plays a part. Most Europeans still like the idea of the EU. Public support increased after the Ukraine invasion.

Yet concrete achievements are few. Most recently, EU states have struggled to implement energy sanctions on Russia or fashion a united diplomatic stance. Some will buckle as winter cold takes hold. Internally, endless divisions over issues such as debt and migration strengthen perceptions of weakness.

A behind-the-scenes documentary, which records Macron’s unilateral, over-personalised and ultimately futile pre-invasion “phone diplomacy” with Putin, shows how readily a national leader may jettison European solidarity when it suits.

Across the geopolitical west, public trust and confidence in the institutions underpinning democracy is waning, whether the issue is unrepresentative electoral systems, politicised judges, a discredited UN and a failing “rules-based order”, or the chronic inability of governments to deliver their promises.

Again, Britain’s is a cautionary tale. Johnson’s serial dishonesty over everything from Brexit to sex pests fed cynicism and apathy about politics and strained constitutional conventions to breaking point. Mini-Trump will soon be gone, but he did maxi-damage.

Institutional breakdown in the US has led some to ask whether the country is ungovernable. The 2020 “big lie” has done great harm, as has a partisan supreme court whose rulings on abortion, gun ownership and climate action defied majority opinion and common sense.

A new Gallup survey found public confidence in US institutions has fallen to a record average low of 27%. The presidency, Congress, the courts, the media, banks, churches and big tech are all less trusted than ever. In the US, as in the UK, government and public badly need to reconnect.

If the peoples of the west no longer believe their own myths, are not confident that democracy works, and lack faith in elected leaders, where does that leave the global fight against authoritarianism? Last month’s summit of the west’s wealthiest countries heightened the sense of fighting a losing battle.

As Mark Malloch-Brown, a former UK minister and president of the Open Society Foundations, has noted, pampered G7 leaders, relaxing at a Bavarian spa, signally failed to grasp the bigger picture. Focusing on help for Ukraine, they devoted only 90 minutes to the earth-shattering challenges of climate, food and health.

A reckoning is due, and it may arrive soon. A critical east-west, north-south showdown looms in November when these same G7 leaders will run up hard against powerful Ukraine war neutrals such as India, South Africa, Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia at the G20 summit in Bali.

They have very different agendas.

What’s coming is a definitive tug-of-war with Russia, China and their allies for power, influence and legitimacy across the unoccupied middle ground of a deconstructed, post-invasion world.

Is the future democratic? It’s in the balance. Lack of leadership, plus lack of self-belief, may yet be the west’s undoing.


*Simon Tisdall is a foreign affairs commentator. He has been a foreign leader writer, foreign editor and US editor for the Guardian

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