Leaders in an era of decline

The USA, it is often said, is unlucky to have a weak president in Barack Obama. Similarly, many argue that Francois Hollande is a liability for France.

The analysis is wrong, in my opinion. You could put anyone else in the White House but they’d still be restrained by the same limitations of power and influence as Obama is today. Even Franklin D. Roosevelt or John F. Kennedy would have very little room for maneuver. That is because the US is dogged by serious political problems: Failure to reach consensus on basic issues, the rise of hardline voices and the unchecked influence of lobbies have all rendered the country’s political system very dysfunctional. On top of that there is the big fiscal problems, the crisis of the middle class, and the gradual decline of the productive base.

The US is faced with the hard truth that it is no longer the sole superpower and it is increasingly strained in meeting its old strategic obligations. Washington should focus on Asia, and in particular China, which has emerged as its main strategic rival. But it is hard to do so given the rise of Islamic extremism, a Europe that has proved hopeless over Russia and Ukraine, and Israel’s increasing disdain for the US. The US would probably like to disconnect from Europe and let the Europeans take care of security in their own neighborhood. But there is no sign that this will be possible anytime soon. Obama is aware of the limitations to America’s strength and is trying to oversee a transitional period. If he has avoided an intervention in Syria and chosen a more soft approach vis-a-vis Russia, it is an acknowledgment of an unavoidable fact, not a character trait. The president’s opponents lash out at Obama because that is what they do best. The truth however is that the American public is extremely skeptical of any fresh involvement in the Middle East, let alone a face-off with Russia.

As for France, it’s a headache for Germans and other Europeans with positions of responsibility. Hollande may not be a strong leader but it is unlikely that even Charles de Gaulle himself would have been able to battle the forces of gravity that have brought France to its knees. The big structural problems – social security, demographics, labor relations, immigration – would be a daunting challenge for any other leader.

Obama and Hollande both run big countries in downward spirals of decline. They were elected also because of their countries’ problems. They will likely be succeeded by seemingly dynamic leaders who will propose simple solutions to complex problems, perhaps with a touch of demagoguery. This would be the response to an age-old popular delusion. Sensing decline, people tend to be drawn toward populism and quasi-authoritarian solutions.