Where Are the Leaders?

By David Rothkopf
Sunday, March 29, 2009

You wake up in the morning and once again the financial weather report calls for the Apocalypse followed by brief showers of despair. Seeking a ray of hope, you turn on the television and settle in to watch a Capitol Hill hearing. There in the hot seat is the man who holds the entire U.S. economy in his hands. And he looks like Harry Potter.

You listen, eager for new ideas, but somehow much of what he says seems dispiritingly predictable. Is this the best America can produce? Aren't great crises supposed to bring forth great men? Did President Obama really just compare Timothy Geithner to Alexander Hamilton? We need Roosevelt and Churchill. Even watching Obama at times, it seems that we've elected -- despite their smarts and earnestness -- a government of stumbling technocrats whose solutions either fall short or go too far. It's enough to make you want to pull the covers back over your head.

Go online, meanwhile, and you find the HTML version of the French Revolution, with left and right calling for poor Tim to be strung from a lamppost. You actually start feeling sorry for the guy. Arianna Huffington snipes that "the issue isn't his delivery, it's what he's delivering." Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz concludes that Geithner's plan "amounts to robbery of the American people." Next you find Connie Mack, Republican congressman from Florida, fulminating that "quite simply, the Timothy Geithner experience has been a disaster. . . . America needs and deserves a Treasury secretary who can truly lead us forward."

On that point, at least, he's right. We do need strong leadership. The world is in chaos. There are riots from Greece to China. Iceland has collapsed, and Mexico teeters on the edge. Pakistan is broke, melting down and awash in nukes. Yes, the stock market soared with Geithner's toxic asset plan, but didn't he and Obama dismiss Wall Street's response when the first version of the bank bailout landed with a thud last month? Don't we hate Wall Street? Obama and Geithner subsidize hedge funds on Monday and come back with heavy regulations on Thursday. What gives?

Gradually it becomes clear. This is not just a global economic crisis. It's a global leadership crisis. Obama is still finding his footing, Gordon Brown is on his way out, Hugo Chávez is nuts and Wall Street management is larcenous. Isn't there someone somewhere with decent values, a firm hand on the tiller and at least one big new idea? Where have all the leaders gone?

Tim Geithner, love him or hate him, is only one illustration of the problem. Everywhere you look, it seems that the men and women in positions of power are receding. The closer you look, the smaller they get. Once there were titans running the financial and business worlds, lions of the legislature, great statesmen astride the global stage, individuals who weren't just victims of history but who bent it to their wills. Or maybe it's just that people in the rearview mirror appear larger than they really were.

But there is the president of the United States sitting in the same "Tonight Show" seat that Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan once occupied. And just ask the heads of the Big Three automakers or of the big banks who were hauled down to testify before Congress how it feels to be a captain of industry today. So it's left to a nebbishy comic from New Jersey, the host of a fake news show, to stand in as the nation's moral conscience and call out those responsible for the collapse of journalistic, political and economic values in America.

The problems go beyond just the quality of leaders today, extending to nearly every one of the alphabet soup of institutions they purport to lead worldwide. Already, expectations are low and sinking for the upcoming meeting of the G20 in London. This is due in part to the First Law of International Meetings: The amount of leadership that comes out of any meeting is in inverse proportion to the number of leaders attending.

In this case, the G20 is already too large; in fact, 26 delegations will gather in London. But beyond the unwieldy size, there are more rifts than there are delegations, rifts over whether there should be big coordinated stimulus programs, a new reserve currency or a new financial architecture. All the meeting is likely to produce is a photo op, a schedule of future meetings and a promise to pump some money into the International Monetary Fund -- a promise the participants might find hard to keep.

How did we get here? In hindsight, the sequence of history is clear. After Vietnam and Watergate and oil crises and the failures of Eurosocialism in the 1970s, many people bought into the idea of government as the problem. The efficient markets would tell us what and who should succeed. Here in the most powerful country in the world, Republicans and Democrats alike bought into the philosophy. The values of business -- profit above all, wealth as the prime measure of success, short term over long term -- became society's values. We came to expect too much of our business leaders and too little of our political ones.

Then it all came undone. Bubble after bubble burst, in emerging markets, technology and real estate. The gap between the richest and the poorest started to rival historical extremes. During the past few years, the world's most important leader, the U.S. president, became reviled and disrespected. And as this latest crisis has unfolded, the myth that the people in charge knew better collapsed faster than an over-leveraged investment bank. The result has been a leadership void.

So if we face a leadership deficit that rivals our economic deficit, who's going to bail us out of it?

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