There’s a dangerous anonymity in the political upheaval that is reverberating around the world which has made me less sanguine about the emergence of lasting change from the global revolt. It seems to me that what we are experiencing in the 21st century is a crisis of leadership, and a dearth of institutionalism.
The 20th century was also a time of significant, sometimes violent political upheaval. It was characterized by the confrontation of great and mutually exclusive ideas. The last century played host to three different attempts to remake and reform the world order. During the first and second world wars, followed by the cold war, the vision of democracy which had been embraced and advanced in the 19th century was put to its most important test – and prevailed. But its easy to see how it could have failed. Without the presence of great men whose lives resonate in the halls of history, our world could have looked different. Men with eternal names like Churchill, Eisenhower, Patten, Gorbachev, and Reagan. Perhaps less grand, there are other names that emerge from the 20th century which confirm it as a century of global leadership. These we all know and repeat often in conversation. They are religious leaders like Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama, John Paul II and Billy Graham. They are political leaders like F.W. de Klerk and Nelson Mandela.
These leaders confronted dangerous times – moments much more complicated than those of today when victory was much less certain. Yet through deft decision making and the willingness to take risks they ushered into the world a new – if unstable – status quo. The marriage of liberal, representative democracy with free market capitalism has become the new global norm, the playbook by which even the new dictatorships like China are under increasing pressure to compete. This marriage was not the inevitable outcome of weak leaders following the path of least resistance – but of calculating and hard negotiators facing off against fascism, dictatorship and communism with a deft hand and a relentless drive.
And these great men knew that their greatness was not enough – that they had to assure that those who came after them, who were perhaps less great, had the infrastructure of their greatness to fall back upon. Therefore, they built institutions around their ideas – never around themselves. They created the United Nations, NATO, and the Bretton Woods agreements which included the IMF and the World Bank. They laid the foundation for groups such as the Organization of American States, the African Union, the European Union, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice in the Hague. The vision was a world with strong institutions which would be able to guard against some of the most dangerous abuses which cost the lives of so many millions of people. Not the surrender of sovereignty or nationalism, but the creation of forums which would allow us to solve even then unforeseen future problems: such as environmental degradation today.
Having seen this in our recent history, I would venture a bold treatise that this new generation – my generation – revolts because it is leaderless. All over the world, we are feeling the revolts of the leaderless. Starting here at home, only two years ago the Tea Party emerged as an important political force in the country. It emerged as a populist response to a Congress that had approval ratings in the teens; elected officials more intent on padding budgets with their pet projects than doing the right thing for the nation. And it emerged as a disappointed response to our president. Barack Obama emerged onto the political scene promising to be a new kind of leader. “Hope and Change” was the epithet of the day. When in very short order the American people ascertained that the floury rhetoric was a veil to hide more of the same – and worse – they revolted. The current political crises echoing from Wisconsin are more leaderless revolts; people who have become accustomed to certain entitlements and who, responding only to their leaderlessness, revolt against those who revolted first. As all this happens, a tone-deaf Washington led by an establishment not up to the task watches in dismay and confusion.
In Latin America it has been worse. The leaderlessness has produced dangerous new anti-leaders. People like Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, Evo Morales of Bolivia, Rafael Correa of Ecuador, and the Kirchners of Argentina (and the list goes on) provide as a response to leaderlessness only more populism and a megalomaniacal personalized political project copied from the dark ages of world history. And in the Arab world, leaderless young people are revolting against the interminable dictatorships of their embarrassing leaders – ridiculous figures such as Muammar Gaddafi – and copying the American populist platforms attempting only to “throw the bums out.”
This leaderlessness has led to an anti-institutionalism which is nothing if not dangerous, for it threatens to plunge us back into a world as it was hundreds of years ago – with no common rules and beholden to no covenants. Global organizations such as the UN and the OAS who did not live up to their glorious mandates are seen as unable or unwilling to solve these new world crises. They receive in response the scorn of those who looked to them to act as they were designed and were disappointed.
But it’s not too late. America has been the guarantor of world leadership since we were founded more than 200 years ago. The “truths that we hold self-evident” have allowed this to be a place where immigrants disembarking from the Mayflower and American Airlines flight #915 rise to become important leaders in their own right. For we have since our dawning been a refugee republic. Those of us who came here have fled oppression, violence, discrimination and poverty; and are determined to build for ourselves and those who come after a small piece of the world where we don’t create problems – we solve them. It is time for us to act again. As we watch the leaderlessness and anti-institutionalism that threaten to bring down the global community, let us make a commitment. Now must be a time when this refugee republic yet again finds, encourages and empowers the true leaders who can help usher in a new “pax humana.” And let us forget our scheming and our petty political point-scoring and work through this new unsettling time to – at long last – set in place the institutions that will assure we never have storms like these again.