By Ian Bremmer
Earlier this summer, as I watched the Pope attract millions as he toured Brazil, I noticed how rare the scene was. Here was a man in control of an embattled institution, and he had somehow rallied his troops. By going back to the basics of Catholic belief—embracing humility, supporting the downtrodden, asking for sacrifice— as well as pushing the envelope (with his more progressive stance on homosexuality, for example), Pope Francis had begun to rehabilitate the church. It was viable leadership: the kind that motivates, inspires, and unites.
This is becoming increasingly rare. We live in a world where no single country or group of countries can provide dominant, sustainable global leadership—G-Zero, as I call it—and that's in large part because so many countries lack solid leadership at home. As I look around the world, I see only three leaders of major countries that, like the pope, are managing to squelch opposition, carve out a more impactful role for themselves, and undertake difficult reforms, all while leveraging their popularity and consolidating their strength.
In Japan, Shinzo Abe, the country's former and also new prime minister, has enjoyed extraordinary popularity since reemerging as a national leader last year. Abe, who had a disappointing stint as prime minister in 2006-2007, has come back with force, promoting a namesake economics plan that has Japan shedding its "lost decades" and inspiring Japanese citizens. So far, "Abenomics" is producing some impressive results. Profits among major Japanese companies in the 2nd quarter of this year were double the figure a year ago. Private consumption in the same period increased 3.8 percent on an annualized basis. The Nikkei stock average is up over 30 percent this year.
He's young, charismatic, and his administration's approval rating has hovered in the 60 percent range throughout most of his term (though it has declined over time). His leadership was given a further vote of confidence in an upper house election this summer when his ruling coalition scored a landslide victory and consolidated its party. For now, Japanese see Abe and his policies as the best shot Japan has had in a long time at getting its mojo back.
Likewise for Xi Jinping, China's President. I've covered his popularity in another column, including his aspirational "Chinese Dream" speeches, the apocryphal urban legend of Xi taking cab rides to talk to commoners, and his charming improvisation with world leaders. Xi's latest legend-burnishing photo op is of him holding his own umbrella with his pant legs rolled up. It's an innocent gesture, with deeper bureaucracy-shaking undertones for his Chinese constituents. With the help of a centralized government, he has the hold of his people through a mix of accessibility and charisma.
In Mexico, Enrique Peña Nieto is a leader unlike pretty much any other in the world today. With his leadership, Mexico is on the cusp of becoming the world's third country that has gone from developing to developed in the last 50 years (Taiwan and South Korea being the other two). Over the past decade, Mexico missed out on the commodity boom that benefited so many other resource-rich emerging markets; no government has really been able to address the main problems in the economy—fiscal woes, deteriorating competitiveness, and a bloated, increasingly inefficient public energy sector. After he was elected, Peña Nieto's first move was to form Pacto por Mexico, an agreement between his party and two others to help pass a multi-faceted economic reform agenda. Now, Peña Nieto is pushing tax, labor, and energy reforms.
One might point to the drop off in his approval ratings—down about 10 points over last 3 months—but voters are still largely in favor of the reform agenda he champions. Furthermore, the opposition is incredibly weak, and his ruling coalition has a firm hold on power. There was a bit of an economic slowdown in the first quarter of the year; expect the economy to pick up, and Peña Nieto's approval ratings along with it.
Part of Peña Nieto's goal is to strengthen the very nature of the presidency again, the role of the state in pushing for progress and economic solutions, the ability to loosen the hold of vested interests. And he's taking on these lofty goals with keen political instincts and sufficient popular support.
And that really is what a leader is meant to do: unite people if not under one cause, then at least one shared vision, whether it's a Chinese dream, a Pact for Mexico, or "three arrows" of Abenomics. In a time of financial scarcity for most, the best way to do that is with humility and a dash of populism in making the right bold bets that everyone can rally behind. It's a lesson Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, Nelson Mandela, Helmut Kohl, and even early Tony Blair can teach us as well. More modern leaders would be wise to learn it. Unfortunately, it's not a skillset that can always be taught—nor can it always be implemented. In a G-Zero world, all too often, political conditions can strip would-be stand-out leaders of the maneuverability needed for breakthrough.
This column is based on a transcribed phone interview with Bremmer.