Demand more of America's leaders

It is difficult not to be alarmed by the mountain of serious problems bedeviling the world right now.

A global network of terrorists has all of us in its crosshairs. A number of local wars and near-wars burn – some with nuclear weapons at hand. A web of international criminals markets drugs, weapons, and corruption. Several deadly pandemics overlay the poverty of nearly half of humankind.

And the same globalized business practices that are bringing prosperity to some seem to be risking the collective future with climate change and resource misuse. (This is only a partial list. The reader may write in her or his Major Worry here: ___________________.)

One of the pleasant myths of history is that great crises call forth great leaders. Just when needed most, towering figures emerge to steer us safely through. Were that true, even the most nervous could relax. The next Roosevelt or Churchill or Rabin will be here shortly.

Sadly, the reality seems to be that contemporary leadership is often the problem, not the answer. Many of the figures springing out of contemporary crises are demagogues and despots, "leaders" who in many cases are manufacturing the very crises they are claiming to solve. Robert Mugabe's self-indulgent destruction of Zimbabwe leaps to mind.

For the deadly misuse of power, former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic set the modern model. He is on trial by an international criminal tribunal, but the rest of these people are still on their shifty feet. In every region, some variety of manipulative leadership has taken hold. Some have seized power by coup; some inherited power and want to stay on. The most dangerous are the many like Milosevic who bulldoze elections with the politics of hatred.

By no means is malice in office confined to the developing world. Extremist politicians are emerging to distort democracy in the wealthy West as successfully as their incendiary cousins are starting fires in developing countries.

Well, you say, one good leader will do. We need a commander in chief, not a committee.

Here again, the myth of great leaders on call runs up against a modern reality. We don't have simple problems anymore. In fact, the art of making problems seem simple is the art of the demagogue. Nothing on civilization's list of major problems reduces to an "us-them, friend-enemy" fight. The problems that most confound us are problems that cross professional disciplines and national borders. Campaigns against terrorism, AIDS, narcotics, and global warming alike merge economics, culture, science, the media, and basic education in ways that no global savior on horseback could possibly master. Modern leadership must be multidisciplinary, collaborative, and decidedly multinational.

Well, if we can't wait for some future crisis to furnish great leadership, what can we do?

It would be pleasant, especially for Americans, to think that the USA embodies the answer to these requirements for transcendent contemporary leadership. As our leaders remind us, we are a superpower, even a hyperpower – by some measures perhaps the most powerful country in history. Ought that status not to confer automatic leadership on America, more specifically on America's leaders?

US politicians certainly seem to think so. Leaders of all political stripes throng the TV talk shows with remedies for all the earth's failings. Unfortunately, this "do as we say" style may engender more resentment than action. One wonders if most of this is done for its domestic political effect.

Powerful or not, America may need more to freshen up its leadership credentials than to be issuing orders. America today is encountering the same kinds of defects in leadership that dog other societies.

In a country of business, many of our most-watched businessmen turn out to be petty rajahs who have damaged America's economy and international financial standing. In a country of great religiosity, the Catholic bishops reveal themselves examples of prerogative rather than morality. In a media-rich society, TV, radio, and movie exports show how the commerce of trash crowds out the exemplary. In the senior democracy on earth, American politics illustrates how compulsive us-them polarities block the quest for the common good.

What can individual citizens do in an era when the problems are more impressive than the leaders? We can't barricade ourselves in and await another Roosevelt or Churchill. That is a formula only for allowing the mountain of problems to grow higher and more deadly.

What Americans can do is start demanding more of all their leaders – ethics from businessmen, morality from church leaders, vision from politicians, and depth from them all.

• Larry Seaquist, a former US Navy warship captain and Pentagon strategist, writes about contemporary war and peace.

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