The world’s weak leadership isn’t up to the Ukraine crisis

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The world is facing its biggest political/military crisis since the end of the Cold War, and for better or worse, the leadership of its largest countries has serious problems. Probably for worse.

Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin, seems angry and out of touch. 

Putin clearly expected the invasion of Ukraine to be a walkover. A translation of the public statement intended for Feb. 26, declaring victory in Ukraine, reveals his thinking to be both grandiose and unrealistic.

Putin used to be a secret policeman, a trade in which accurate information is important. But in his many years at the top, he’s created — or perhaps become a prisoner of — a system in which bad news does not flow to the top.

There’s nothing new about this in Russia, of course, the home of the original Potemkin Village. But it’s deadly. In successful systems, bad news flows to the top. In unsuccessful systems, underlings make sure it doesn’t reach their superiors because they don’t want to look bad.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with the head of Russia’s Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, a big business lobby group, at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 2, 2022.
SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images

In really unsuccessful systems, superiors make clear to their underlings that they don’t want to hear the bad news. I think that’s what’s happened to Putin. I saw a video being passed around by pro-Putin trolls on the Web that showed him riding in limos and walking around to the tune of gangsta rap, but it didn’t make him look powerful so much as isolated.

Now things haven’t gone according to plan, and there doesn’t appear to be a plan B because Putin never seriously considered the possibility of failure. Russia is isolated diplomatically and economically to an unprecedented degree, while it flounders militarily.

This doesn’t make Putin less dangerous necessarily — in some ways it makes him more so — but it does mean that he’s unlikely to behave in a clearheaded or objectively reasonable fashion.

Ukraine military damage
A view of heavy damage in the residential area of Borodyanka, on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, Thursday, March 3, 2022.
Joe Biden
US President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress in the U.S. Capitol House Chamber on March 1, 2022 in Washington, DC.
aul Loeb – Pool/Getty Images

Here in the United States, meanwhile, we have leadership problems of our own. President Joe Biden managed to stumble his way through an uninspired State of the Union address in which he confused Ukrainians and Iranians, but he has shown no signs of being capable of the kind of leadership we need. (Unlike the Germans, he’s not even rethinking his dumb energy policies, which need to be changed to promote energy independence and weaken Putin further.)

Everybody knows this, and Democrats aren’t happy about it, but removing Joe wouldn’t help as Vice President Kamala Harris seems to be no improvement. Her kindergarten-level statement on Ukraine in an interview sounded like something out of a “Saturday Night Live” skit: “So Ukraine is a country in Europe. It exists next to another country called Russia. Russia is a bigger country. Russia is a powerful country. Russia decided to invade a smaller country called Ukraine. So, basically, that’s wrong.”

Thanks for that, Kamala. Despite being assigned to solve the border crisis (nope) and prevent the Ukraine invasion with a conference in Munich (nope), Kamala hasn’t brought much to the table in terms of ability.

Behind her in the presidential succession line is House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who isn’t looking much better. And as she prepares to turn 82, the likelihood that Pelosi would bring fresh energy to the presidency is low.

Meanwhile, another big player, China, isn’t much more impressive. President Xi Jinping, while younger than Biden and Pelosi at a sprightly 69, is in a tenuous position at home. China’s zero-COVID policy has failed and the public resents it, a real-estate collapse looms even as other businesses teeter financially — and Xi’s power hangs by a thread as he faces challengers who don’t like his one-man state or his saber-rattling abroad.

China hasn’t broken with Putin, but it hasn’t really supported him either. Some see that changing, with China perhaps playing a role in brokering peace, but so far it would be fair to call China’s stance something more like “waffling.” Xi wants an unprecedented third term as president and general secretary, but maybe he’s been there too long already.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping pose during their meeting in Beijing, on February 4, 2022.
Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during a news conference in Ottawa, Ontario Friday, Feb. 25, 2022.
drian Wyld/The Canadian Press via AP

(And it’s not just age. We need only look north to Canada to see Justin Trudeau — known to some as Prime Minister Zoolander — demonstrate that the trademark mixture of ineptitude and thuggishness can start young.)

Only in Europe do we see, surprisingly, glimmers of more sensible behavior, as fear of a Russian invasion concentrates the minds of leaders there.

The truth is, throughout the past two years of COVID panic, we’ve seen that the world’s leadership class isn’t up to the task. Now, facing a major diplomatic crisis, we have to hope it will do better. Hope and maybe pray a little.

Glenn Harlan Reynolds is a professor of law at the University of Tennessee and founder of the blog.

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