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The world cannot afford incompetent leaders in power for the wrong reasons

By Peter McMahon - posted Thursday, 24 April 2003

If there is one single lesson to be learned from the current breakdown in international relations it is that we can longer afford incompetent political leadership. If the best solution to the perceived problem of one small nation's leadership is to spend multi-billions of dollars to kill unknown thousands of innocent women and children and luckless conscripts, then our leaders have failed. In the age of cheap nuclear weapons, super-diseases (invented and natural), out-of-control climate change and growing cultural tension, as a nation and as a species we need to be led by men and women who know what they are doing.

Elsewhere I have argued that the world is in the early stages of a basic shift in the way things are done. There are new ideas and practices emerging that together make up a new paradigm of social development. I also pointed out that this change would dramatically affect politics everywhere, especially in the developed countries like Australia.

There is a decidedly dangerous side to this paradigm shift. We are increasingly one global society, so everything is interconnected. Furthermore, we are creating new technologies of awesome capability. Because of this, incredibly potent but increasingly cheap weapons of mass destruction (WMD) are being built. Our interconnectedness means that all actions now have global ramifications (note how a war in Iraq has been sending the global stock markets up and down like a yoyo).


So the stakes have never been higher. If our leaders get it wrong, general wellbeing, civilisation and species survival itself are all at risk. In the past a bad leader could set back a people or nation years, maybe even decades, destroy cities and cause local environmental destruction. Now, if even one leader of a decent sized country (like Australia) or large power (like the UK) or in particular the most powerful nation makes a serious mistake it can have implications for everyone on the planet.

The condition of international political leadership currently is appalling. Most world leaders belong in jail and govern completely corrupt and undemocratic political regimes. Their leadership is mostly built on violence, extreme wealth, or knowing where the bodies - literal and metaphorical - are buried. Saddam Hussein was a particularly nasty case but there have been numerous leaders of his ilk since the end of the war and many remain in power. Whether such leaders rule through open dictatorship or through some semi-legitimate mechanism, such as leadership of a dominant tribal group, their rule is always repressive and ultimately built on violence. The most important quality such men (always men) must have is to be more ruthless than anyone else. Some intelligence is useful but any sort of deeper humane values or capacity to see different sides is utterly disastrous for political success.

It is easy to look askance at the bevy of thugs and toadies that rule a number of benighted countries as despots but political leadership in the developed world is often little better. These men and occasionally women got where they are through possessing two main abilities - acceptance by party bosses and toleration by the mass media. Generally speaking, ruthlessness and a capacity to lie and deceive are necessary traits (even when one gets the job because of dynastic connections) and of course it helps if you or your friends own the local media.

Take for example the Anglo-Saxon brotherhood that went to war against Iraq. John Howard might be a long-serving leader but no one seriously thinks he has led Australia well in what will be seen as a pivotal time. He has simply refused to confront issues like climate change, salination, Aboriginal reconciliation, drug abuse and social alienation. His decisions on national security, industrial relations, health care, education and welfare are all overtly ideologically driven and made with minimal consultation. Instead of true leadership he has doggedly followed the most simplistic economic agenda and mobilised the worst national traits of xenophobia, racism and cultural chauvinism to run Australia like some overeager US offshoot.

Tony Blair is the saddest case, a man brought undone by his own success. His obvious intelligence and communication skills have been undermined by the cynicism generated by his constant spin-doctoring and more recently by his servile approach to the Bush administration's adventurism. He has had to recreate the Labour Party to install New Labour. But there is entrenched enmity to Blair within Labour, and his subservience to Bush may be the catalyst that does him in.

As for the American president, many rate him the worst president in US history (and that's saying something!). The combination of his personal ineptitude, his political stridency and current US importance makes of his presidency a real historical tragedy.


Indeed, the whole American political system at the national level is in crisis, totally dominated as it is by moneyed interests and essentially the preserve of a dozen or so core familial networks. Congress is effectively neutered by the depredations of pork-barrel politics and most political power in the US has shifted to the presidency. The last presidential election - between the son of an ex-president and a scion of the southern Democrats; and decided by the brother of one of the candidates and the Supreme Court - should have been a warning that American national politics is now far too impacted to be genuinely representative of any real democratic will.

The people of the world as a whole need more than the nonentities foisted on them by cynical party bosses and kept in power by a mass media that refuses to ask hard questions. Every now and then a real leader - like Nelson Mandela - does arise but he was literally freed from jail by a mass movement that convulsed the whole country. We urgently need practices and structures that promote such people - with vision, integrity and intelligence - as a matter of course.

As we travel through the list of world leaders, the good ones stand out due to their rarity. For various reasons we are no closer to genuine global democracy that when the idea became popular in the late 19th century but we can at least ask more of our political leaders. In a time of growing danger, incompetent leadership is just not affordable any more.

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About the Author

Dr Peter McMahon has worked in a number of jobs including in politics at local, state and federal level. He has also taught Australian studies, politics and political economy at university level, and until recently he taught sustainable development at Murdoch University. He has been published in various newspapers, journals and magazines in Australia and has written a short history of economic development and sustainability in Western Australia. His book Global Control: Information Technology and Globalisation was published in the UK in 2002. He is now an independent researcher and writer on issues related to global change.

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