A Post-Leadership Era?

IN no recent period of history has there been such a leadership gap as exists today. Uneasy shifts in Japan and Italy, where corruption reached such extremes that leaders lost legitimacy, are immediate examples. One must look hard to find states - Iceland! - that are not in transition, often in unknown directions.

Gone is the Reagan-Thatcher era when one pointed to Mulroney in Canada, Mitterrand in France, Nakasone in Japan, and Gorbachev in Russia as leaders at least appearing to be in charge.

Today, by contrast, John Major is on the ropes in Britain. Helmut Kohl, a 1980s stalwart, is up for reelection. Mitterrand's star is waning in France. In Russia, Boris Yeltsin has become the invisible man, a leader writing decrees no one reads. In June, the era of European Union president Jacques Delors ends, and with it the postwar dream of an automatically unifying Europe.

In Greece, the talk is about who succeeds Papandreou. Local elections in Turkey show Tansu Ciller facing a strong challenge from Islamists. Pakistan's Bhutto constantly finds the military running the government, as in Algeria. Afghanistan's capital is a zone of tribal warfare. Iran's leaders are in a struggle. In China, everyone is waiting for what follows Deng Xiaoping.

South Africa is a bright spot, with the democratic accession to power of Nelson Mandela. But the new transitional government must prove itself.

Closer to home, Canada is reeling from Quebec's secession talk. The front-runner to succeed Mexico's departing Salinas was assasinated. Some give Fidel Castro in Cuba one more year. Haiti's president lives in exile.

The world is sailing into a ``post'' period. Things are post-cold-war, post-Reagan, post-80s, post-modern, post-Soviet Union, post-scientific, post-everything. Whether through popular cynicism or political corruption, two powerful acids of 20th-century modernity, many have lost faith in their leaders.

Government seems too distant and complex. Some thinkers talk of a deterioration of authority and allegiance. National borders are less clear. The media have enormous impact. Capital can be moved very swiftly from bank to bank. Moral codes are ambiguous. Leadership in a media culture can take place through hired consultants.

Ironically, the strong leaders are those least liked by liberal cosmopolitans. Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, Kim Il Sung of North Korea, Assad of Syria, and even Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore. These are not men who play Hamlet or look to the polls.

The question is, can our leaders keep alive a serious moral tone despite the complexities of these times? Is intelligence and courage evident?

Much is made of the ``democratic process.'' But that process does not exist separately from its leaders.

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