Alexis de Tocqueville suggested that whereas aristocracies often exaggerate the importance of individual leaders, democracies tend to make the opposite mistake. In a democratic form of government, Tocqueville observed, the most flattering self-image is to assume that national leaders are entirely captive to broader popular and structural forces.
Today we live in an era of international politics where, as always, national leaders are subject to structural pressures and constraints. Yet to a remarkable degree, our times also showcase the sheer significance of individual leadership at the highest level.
Consider the current international role played by arguably the eight leading nations in the world: the United States, China, Russia, India, Japan, Germany, France and Great Britain. What makes these nations especially significant is that each of them have a range of economic and military capabilities well beyond that of most UN General Assembly members. It’s reasonable to refer to these eight nations as “major powers.” And even between them, you might say that some are more equal than others. For international relations scholars, this means we live in a global system that is somewhere between unipolar and multipolar. The United States is still the world’s most powerful country; China may be on track to match it; and there are a number of other major powers to be considered.
Historically, great powers—by virtue of their very capability to do so—tend to interpret their interests broadly, and then act assertively to protect them. They throw their weight around. At the same time, however, individual leaders can make a great deal of difference in deciding exactly how this is done, and to what extent.
Consider the current leaders of today’s major powers.
Recently declared “the world’s most powerful man” by the Economist, China’s Xi Jinping rules over the world’s most populous country and its second largest economy, which continues to grow faster than any major power besides India. He also commands a rapidly modernizing military. Since assuming office in 2012 with a nationalist slogan of the “China dream,” Xi has consolidated power faster than his cautious predecessors. He emerged triumphant from the recent party congress with an elevated status on par with Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. The collective leadership system Deng imposed in the aftermath of the disastrous Cultural Revolution seemingly no longer applies: power resides only in Xi. Xi has a clear goal and a timetable to propel China into an advanced global power by 2050 while following the Chinese political system distinct from Western liberal democracy. He intends to project Chinese influence in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond.
Japan’s Shinzo Abe became prime minister the second time in 2012, in the midst of economic stagnation, territorial disputes with China and South Korea, and a crisis of public confidence. Abe strengthened the alliance with the United States and adopted measures to revive the economy. He gambled with a snap election held on Oct 22, 2017, and even though he looked shaky at times, his ruling coalition won a major electoral victory. With his well-established nationalist credentials and a supermajority in the National Diet, Abe will likely try to revise the Japanese Constitution to allow a more active military role for the country. He remains personally unpopular but conservative Japanese voters prefer stability. Abe may now become Japan’s longest serving prime minister in the postwar era. He is determined to prevent China from dominating in Asia and the world and has pursued a proactive foreign policy, departing from the postwar pacifist approach in foreign affairs.
Like Abe, India’s Narendra Modi came to power through democratic election in 2014. Unlike Abe or Xi, Modi came from a humble background but rose as a Hindu nationalist politician. Like all nationalists, Modi wants to make his own country “great again.” Modi has adopted some reform measures to make India more competitive in the global market, achieving strong results. In November 2016, an overly confident Modi adopted a demonetization to remove untaxed “black money,” which backfired, doing damage to India’s booming economy. Modi is both learning from China’s development experience and standing firm against Beijing. A successful India would serve to show China and other countries that a populous country can achieve rapid economic growth while maintaining a democratic system. Modi has moved closer to the United States, Japan and Australia in countering Beijing’s growing influence, but he has continued to follow India’s traditional nonaligned/multi-alignment strategy in order to maximize policy options for his country.
Russia has vast geographic depth, traditions of great-power activism, and some impressive regional military capabilities. Apart from oil and gas exports, it is not in the first rank of the world’s leading powers economically. Yet under Vladimir Putin, Russia clearly punches above its economic weight in today’s international system, often as a spoiler, and not to be trifled with. Putin’s Russia uses a creative array of economic pressure, covert action, realpolitik diplomacy, disinformation, and hybrid military capabilities to expand its sphere of influence within the former Soviet Union and beyond. It is not one of the world’s most wealthy countries, but it uses what capabilities it has, quite ruthlessly, to ensure that it can never be ignored. Putin’s own inclinations have a great deal to do with this.