In many of his books, including World Order, Henry Kissinger highlighted the role of politicians in shaping the world order. World orders in different eras arose from different historical backgrounds. However, they did not form naturally; they were created by politicians with great wisdom. With a remarkable insight and a global perspective, these statesmen were able to galvanize different elements (including things and ideas) to create a world order. In Kissinger’s opinion, politicians in the modern era such as Otto von Bismarck and Klemens von Metternich, and statesmen in the contemporary era such as Richard Nixon, Deng Xiaoping, and Lee Kuan Yew were world leaders with exceptional wisdom. Without them there would be no world order, and the international community would be knee-deep in crisis.
Today, the world order is facing challenges on all fronts. Elements such as geopolitics, income inequality brought on by globalization, and technological changes have coalesced into waves of populism, nationalism, and protectionism that have swept all over the world. These trends have also forced leaders to pander to populism, nationalism, and protectionism, culminating in a situation where domestic and international politics are in disarray.
In this state of affairs, the world is crying out for leaders with great wisdom. The current world order and its rules are built by the western world. Although the western world is miles ahead in terms of its economy and military, it is sorely lacking in terms of capable and wise leaders. It is filled with mediocre individuals at the helm.
The recently concluded G7 summit in Japan is a sign that the era of mediocre leaders is upon us. In terms of world order building, this meeting was disappointing in every sense of the word.
First of all, the agenda of the meeting had been hijacked. The G7 (US, UK, Germany, France, Japan, Italy and Canada) summit is originally a platform for these major industrialized countries to discuss and coordinate their economic policies, thereby contributing to the development and growth of the world’s economy. However, this year’s summit became a pseudo security meeting, where issues such as the South China Sea dispute, the Korean peninsula nuclear crisis, and Ukraine’s Crimean crisis were touched on. In terms of economic policy coordination, no good ideas were announced. This was not the first year the G7 summit deviated from its agenda. Soon after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the G7 summit started to shift its focus to geopolitics. Russia became a formal member in the 1998 meeting, turning the grouping into the G8. But Russia was forced to leave in 2014, turning the grouping back into the G7. These changes showed that the G7 has lost the plot.
Secondly, with no agenda, the G7 summit quickly became a show, as politicians jostled for space in front of the television cameras. The host country was also eager to provide opportunities for the leaders to strut their stuff to the world.
Thirdly, in terms of leadership, the G7’s performance was even more unacceptable. At this year’s summit, US President Barack Obama became a plaything in the hands of Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and followed his every whim and fancy. While Obama might be planning his own foreign policy legacy, he did not demonstrate any vision befitting the leader of the most powerful nation in the world. It was clear that Obama had been hijacked by Abe and that he had entirely abdicated his responsibility in leading the world economy.
Shinzo Abe is another example of poor leadership. Abe had his own agenda and he pursued them unabashedly. Firstly, he made used of Obama and manipulated him to espouse his logic. Secondly, he changed the G7’s economic agenda into a security one. Abe reiterated three principles for maritime security that he had articulated at the 2014 Asia Security Summit: making maritime claims based on international law, not using force or coercion, and settling disputes by peaceful means. Security issues should be discussed, but the G7 summit was the wrong place to do it. Thirdly, he made a wrong judgment about current world affairs, by overrating Abenomics and falsely accusing emerging markets for the global economic crisis. Just look at Japan’s economy in recent years — would you believe that Abenomics has been successful? Japan’s GDP is shrinking, making it one of the few major economies with diminishing GDP. Although Russia’s GDP is also contracting, the country is still under western sanctions. Moreover, Japan is also suffering from other critical problems such as an aging society and shrinking population size. Yet Abe chose to ignore these burning issues and continued to work on promoting Abenomics in Japan and even to the rest of the world. Abe was also seriously off the mark about emerging markets, especially China. He indirectly pinned the blame for the global economic slowdown on China. From his words, we can discern two facts: Firstly, Abe was merely repeating what others have said before, that China’s economy is heading towards gloom and doom. Secondly, what Abe said reflected his inadequate understanding about China’s economy, grossly underestimating China’s economic growth potential. All these demonstrate that Japan has a long way to go before it can re-emerge as a major power again. A leader with no global vision cannot lead his country back to its glory days!
While holding a referendum may seem to be democratic and respecting of the people’s wishes, it is actually the most irresponsible thing a politician can do.
It was not just the leaders who failed; we can find similar examples at all levels of government in most of the developed countries. Bureaucrats such as US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s recent speeches implied that the US was viewing China and Russia as enemies, and that the US was ready to go to war with them any time. When asked the question: “How long can Taiwan’s current military force withstand a war with China?”, Taiwan’s Defense Minister replied with the answer: “We will fight to the last soldier to protect our population of 23 million.” All these responses were not wrong per se, but they gave the impression that these ministers were mere followers, not strategists with foresight. If they had a global outlook, they would at least mull over how to prevent conflict and war, not just merely preparing to go to war.
Of course there are wise leaders in some countries, but they are bogged down with domestic issues that render them helpless in the international domain. For example, Germany’s Angela Merkel was forced to reverse her decision to welcome refugees by a changing political climate in her country, as seen from the rising popularity of the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.
From the above discussion, we can observe a few trends about world politics. Firstly, important summits have become a platform for countries to complain about each other or about countries that are not attending the meeting. The G7 leaders gathered to gripe about other countries, rather than to present any viable solutions for existing problems. The world economy has become more uncertain after the G7 summit. Secondly, with populism rearing its ugly head in the western world, its leaders are pointing their fingers at other countries rather than reflecting on their own shortcomings. They are especially critical of countries they viewed as competitors or enemies, such as China and Russia.
Thirdly, and more serious than the first two trends, politicians are being irresponsible in the name of democracy. This is evident in their use of the referendum mechanism. While holding a referendum may seem to be democratic and respecting of the people’s wishes, it is actually the most irresponsible thing a politician can do. It is also the most low-cost way. Greece and the UK have done it. The result of the referendum might not be what the politicians had hoped for, yet the people were asked to take responsibility for the decision. Therefore, a referendum is just a convenient tool for politicians to push decision-making to the masses.
A world without wise political leaders makes the world an unsafe one. Left- and right-wing populism is seen in every part of the western world, like the US’ Donald Trump, France’s Front National, Germany’s AfD, the UK’s Labor Party, etc. Anti-globalization rhetoric by Trump and others is frowned upon by mainstream politicians and the establishment. However, we need to ask some questions: How did they become popular? How did they capture people’s imagination? Why are people receptive to their views? In fact, the answer is plain simple: the rise of Trump and the like is not because they are trusted by the masses; it is because the masses are disappointed with the current politicians and their worsening governance of the world. So why not let others have a go?
Hence, the world is waiting for a savior, a hero who can rescue us from these troubled times. However, it can go to the other extreme as well; the examples of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini show that heroes can either save or destroy the world. In today’s world, it is hard to imagine waging a major conflict like WWI and WWII to change the world order, as weapons of mass destruction like nuclear bombs will likely wipe all of us off this world. Yet, soft power or smart power is too illusory to effect any real change to the world order.
Developed countries are on the decline and are helpless in forging a better world; newly emerging countries have yet to develop the muscles to build a new order. This presents an opening for entities and groups with different voices and leanings to have their day in the sun. In the midst of this crisis, there lies a great opportunity for politicians with great foresight, grand visions, and political wisdom to build a new world order.
(Translated by Chean Chian Cheong)