By Roger Bowen
Forbes has rated President Obama as the world’s third most powerful leader, behind Russian President Vladmir Putin at Number 1 and German Chancellor Angela Merkel at Number 2. I could not be more pleased that Obama lost out to Putin for reasons pointed out below, and I also have to wonder about Merkel’s ranking.
If you are a conservative Republican, you may be pleased that Obama lost to Putin. American right-wingers routinely denigrate President Obama for pulling our troops out of Iraq, for downsizing our military presence in Afghanistan, for opening up relations with Cuba, for promising to close down Guantanamo, for “leading from behind” in Libya, for persuading Iran to defer its nuclear weapon ambitions and for projecting “soft power” instead of hard power. For contrary reasons, the right wing in America seems to admire Putin for his military takeover of the Crimea, for his military aggression against eastern Ukraine, and now for using air power to prop up the dictatorial Assad regime in Syria.
But I could not be more pleased that Obama is supposedly less powerful than Putin because Obama occupies the moral high ground that can be held only by those national leaders who seek legitimate authority rather than shamelessly exercise illegitimate power. Power, after all, is the brutish ability to enforce your will over others while authority is an earned capacity to initiate policies that are only likely to be obeyed. Obama’s authority, for instance, grew by working with six other major powers to rein in Iran’s nuclear ambitions and by imposing sanctions on the Russian economy following its illegal annexation of Crimea. Putin’s economy has suffered as a result, which may well be the reason for Russia’s recent aggressive action to support the morally bankrupt Assad regime in Syria: when an economy is suffering, despots whip up nationalistic frenzy by deploying the military abroad.
The contrast between power and authority is most clear in how each nation’s domestic politics are linked with their international behavior. Putin has stifled freedom of the press and speech at home while unleashing his military to engage in foreign adventurism. Obama has promoted the rights of gays and lesbians, expanded medical coverage for millions and aggressively protected citizens against environmental degradation while downsizing a bloated military budget, avoiding reckless war-making, and by extending foreign trade deals that will make the international market place less susceptible to protectionism. Obama has also proposed — though rebuffed by Republicans — opening up a path to citizenship for millions of immigrants here illegally.
In contrast, very few refugees want to move to Russia. Its economy, which should arguably be of vital importance to a magazine like Forbes, is in decline, government-supported corruption is rife, and upward mobility for the small middle class has been stalled.
Obama’s public popularity ratings, as Forbes points out, struggle to reach 50 percent, while Putin’s allegedly approach 90 percent! Russians, it seems, admire the projection of military force abroad, while more than half of all Americans berate President Obama for not having a more aggressive foreign policy. Americans, however, see disagreement with government policy as a sign of health in our democracy, while Russians understand that disagreement with official policy can result in censorship, imprisonment or even death.
Forbes places Chancellor Merkel ahead of President Obama for two reasons: she is “the backbone of the 28-member European Union,” i.e., Germany has the continent’s dominant economy; and because she has opened her nation to millions of immigrants fleeing violence in the Middle East and Afghanistan. Merkel apparently merited Forbes’s second place showing behind Putin, however, because the German leader fails to build her nation’s military might, yet, I would add, for all the right reasons: German security relies on American-led NATO, Germany is still atoning for its savagery in WWII, and Germany’s proximity to the Russian bear prompts the use of diplomacy over development of military might.
By the very criteria that Forbes employed in ranking the most powerful people in the world — power over lots of people, financial resources (GDP), power in multiple spheres and evidence of actually using power — the magazine of and for plutocrats has not made the case for its top three leaders, but it has, unfortunately, elevated Putin, one of the world’s richest and most brutal despots, because Putin is an unapologetic imperialist, using military power to conquer people abroad and to silence them at home. I have to wonder what its fourth-ranked most powerful person, Pope Francis, thinks about ranking world leaders according to their willingness to use naked power rather than moral authority.
Roger Bowen is a political scientist who has written books and articles about democracy and its enemies over the past 35 years. He lives in Prospect Harbor.