Major casting changes forthcoming for the world stage

By 2008, some of the most influential nations in the world will be represented by new faces.

Four of the "Big Five" – the veto-wielding nations on the United Nations Security Council – will have installed or elected new presidents or prime ministers. Two of them could be women. The four with new leadership will be the US, Britain, France, and Russia.

The fifth is China, whose president, Hu Jintao, seems firmly entrenched. Indeed, one of China's problems today is that the upcoming generation of would-be leaders seems more interested in business than politics.

President Bush will end his term and his successor will come from a long list of already declared candidates that could grow even longer.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair has announced his impending departure and, unless his Labor Party faces a surprise overturning by the Conservatives, will almost certainly be succeeded by his long-term comrade-in-arms, Gordon Brown.

President Vladimir Putin of Russia is supposed to leave office at the end of his second term but after a series of autocratic political moves, he may be tempted to pull the strings of a near-puppet successor.

President Jacques Chirac of France will step down, and a French electorate rattled by economic drift, uncertainty about France's role in the world, and the troubled integration of a substantial Muslim minority, is looking for new faces. One of them is Ségolène Royal, a socialist whose campaign has been slipping a little lately against her principal opponent, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy. She remains, however, a formidable popular candidate.

Should Sen. Hillary Clinton win her race for the presidency in the US, and Ms. Royal hers for the presidency in France, two of the "Big Five" would be led by women. Another woman, Chancellor Angela Merkel, already holds leadership office in Germany, which aspires to turn the "Big Five" into the "Big Six." But though there has been continuing talk of reform and expansion for the Security Council, there is little prospect of the veto-wielding five opening their ranks to a newcomer, be it Germany, or another nation with similar ambitions.

Of all the possible new faces, perhaps the most intriguing change in style, though not policy, would be the replacement of Mr. Blair by Mr. Brown. Blair has a charming, outgoing personality that has meshed well with American leaders, starting with Bill Clinton and continuing with George W. Bush. He has also been a stout ally of Mr. Bush in the Iraq war, even though it has been unpopular with Britons and cost Blair political support. But Blair has argued persuasively that the contest with evil and terrorism is a question of principle, not politics.

In the current issue of Foreign Affairs, Blair writes that the clash with Islamic extremists is not a clash of civilizations; it is a clash about civilization. "It is the age-old battle between progress and reaction ... between optimism and hope, on the one hand, and pessimism and fear, on the other." The war, he says, can be won "only by showing that our values are stronger, better, and more just than the alternative."

Brown, by contrast, is something of a brooding Scot without Blair's charisma. He is unlikely to make major change in either domestic or foreign policies, and is a strong supporter of the Atlantic alliance. However, his attachment to it may be less passionate than Blair's.

What can we expect of Mr. Putin's successor? That depends on whether he or she is a Putin clone. President Putin may just have revealed his true feelings about the US in a searing denunciation this past weekend. America's unilateral, militaristic actions, he charged, have made the world a more dangerous place.

He has made it clear that he intends to be a force in Russian politics after he is obliged to step down. The question is whether he can orchestrate the election of a successor who exhibits similar hostility towards the US.

Who the new US interlocutor will be with Putin's successor we do not yet know. Time was when the two major political parties used to strive for common cause in foreign policy. The Iraq war has changed that. There would be sharp disagreements about the projection of American force abroad between, for example, a President McCain and a President Obama.

New faces are emerging on the world stage. New challenges will emerge with them – and perhaps new hopes and solutions.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is a professor of communications at Brigham Young University.

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