The conflict in Syria “is the worst man-made disaster the world has seen since World War II,” said UN Commissioner for Human Rights Prince Zeid Al-Hussein. His statement highlights the bigger challenge of an absence of leadership globally. Worldwide, instability, conflict and populism have poured into the space left vacant by strong leadership.
The Syrian conflict is symptomatic of this paralysis, as nearly 350,000 people have died, 6.3 million have been displaced and an additional 4.9 million forced to seek refuge since 2011. Whether in the West or elsewhere, a real crisis of leadership is afoot.
The world is going through a period of unprecedented instability. Economic insecurity and the spread of violent extremism have created a climate of fear and hopelessness that has rendered political initiatives redundant. Factual indicators of this state of affairs are worrying indeed: 65 million people are living as refugees, there are 57 ongoing military conflicts, and global debt stands at a record $152 trillion.
Such analysis is not intended to create skepticism, but rather build awareness of the need for a systemic shift in global governance. Renowned economist William Beveridge warned of remaining unaware of global challenges when he said: “Ignorance is an evil weed, which dictators may cultivate among their dupes.” As political leadership falls prey to authoritarianism and demagoguery, such statements are immensely important.
There are those who lament the departure of Ottoman Sultan Mehmed VI in 1922 as some sort of watershed in Islamic leadership. Bandits in the form of Daesh purport to have picked up the mantle of caliphate in the void of any supranational Islamic governance structure.
Zaid M. Belbagi
Nine years since the global financial crisis, the world is suffering from a debt hangover of gargantuan proportions. Gross debt in the non-financial sector has more than doubled since the turn of the century. Slow global growth has made recovery difficult, as it has created a vicious circle in which poor growth hampers deleveraging and outstanding debts exacerbate the slowdown.
A critical factor for these circumstances is the absence of leadership in repairing the broken financial system. Though a complete overhaul was required, temporary measures were instead introduced that did not tackle the issue of debt. Research has shown that high debt is linked to lower growth, even when crises are avoided.
Current debt levels are now at a record 225 percent of world gross domestic product (GDP). This is indicative of a continued failure to confront the main reason why the last crisis took place: Financial recklessness.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF), which was set up after World War II to administer the global monetary system, lacks the oversight and executive power to enact change among its 189 members. On another level, there has been an absence of charismatic and unifying leadership regarding the state of the world’s finances.
Economics informs politics. As political discourse globally becomes more extreme, it is clear that the chasm left by a lack of compelling political leadership has allowed instability to fester. Earlier this month, North Korea launched four missiles that descended close to Japan’s northwest coast, the latest in a series of missile tests demonstrating an ever-expanding nuclear program. The world’s only response was to complain.
As the Russian bear swallowed Crimea and sunk its claws into Syria, the international community showed a complete inability to confront such unilateral action. Instances of states projecting power have always been a feature of international politics. What makes recent events so concerning is that they have become part of a pattern: A neutered international community encourages threatening behavior by others.
The general malaise in political leadership is evident across the board. President Francois Hollande’s administration resigned itself to “France having to learn to live with terrorism,” former President Barack Obama stood by as the regularity of shootings and lawlessness increased across the US, and EU decision-makers looked the other way as Eastern European leaders spouted thoroughly xenophobic vitriol about the race and religion of migrants.
Therein lies another problem: Not only does the Muslim world lack the ability to speak and make its case, it is plagued by a crisis in leadership. There are those who lament the departure of Ottoman Sultan Mehmed VI in 1922 as some sort of watershed in Islamic leadership. Bandits in the form of Daesh purport to have picked up the mantle of caliphate in the void of any supranational Islamic governance structure.
But the decline of Islamic leadership far predates the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Arguably, since Johannes Gutenberg revolutionized mass printing in the 1450s, driving Christendom into modernity, Muslims have stood in the way of innovation. It took some 400 years for movable type to come into common usage in the Middle East, a period during which the same venerated Ottoman authorities punished book-printing with death.
In the same manner that 20th-century household names were swept away by failing to invest in technology, Muslim leadership went into terminal decline following a failure to invest in what is now known as “research and development.” Looking at graphics of global terror and insecurity, the Islamic world is the epicenter of such suffering, and given failures in education and governance, the case for nurturing effective leadership is similarly all too apparent.
German philosopher Friedrich Nietzche maintained that history spurred the creation of leaders, supermen, suited to the circumstances of the time. In an age where leadership and complacency have become interchangeable terms, the demand for remarkable characters to lead the way is pressing.
• Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator. He also acts as an adviser to private clients between London and the GCC.