Throughout the history of politics, there have always been those who have not just gone about reform, but have rather instigated long-term changes that still impact us now. Most people are able to reel off at least some Presidents, Prime Ministers and leaders of their own and other countries, and the names that they give are almost invariable: Abraham Lincoln, Joseph Stalin, Winston Churchill, JFK, Margaret Thatcher, Mikhail Gorbachev, Bill Clinton — to name just a few. These are figures who are, for different reasons, incredibly consequential. For some, their story played out on a national or regional stage, but others make an impression on the global canvas, bringing down foreign regimes or fighting wars.
It is true that many leaders today appear to be heading for the history books too, with the established such as Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin being joined by newer names such as Mohammad bin Salman, Donald Trump, and the only leader who can maintain popularity during a scandal, Emmanuel Macron. Here’s a look at the politics behind some of the most important names within the political sphere today.
The Experienced One
Germany’s 4-term (so far) Chancellor, the role she has occupied since 2005, is the real leader of the free world, Angela Merkel. She became a Member of the Bundestag in 1991, and immediately became the Minister for Women and Youth under the first Chancellor of the reunified Germany, Helmut Kohl. She then rose to the position of leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in 2000, before becoming the leader of the CDU/CSU (the CDU and the Bavarian CSU) group in the Bundestag in 2002. The steady demeanour of her rise to the de facto top job over 14 years in the Bundestag has defined her career since taking the position of Kanzlerin. Her rational brand of politics has ensured stability in both her own country and its foreign interests, leading her to be seen by her counterparts abroad as a leader to be followed on an international stage.
One of Merkel’s major concerns about both Germany and the whole of Europe is the welfare state spending on the continent, something which her centre-right CDU party has worked to reduce and find funding solutions for, while under her leadership. She constantly repeats these figures in speeches and letters: 7%, 25%, and 50%. These represent the proportion of the world’s population in Europe, the proportion of the world’s GDP in Europe, and the proportion of the world’s social spending respectively. She constantly implores her colleagues to either encourage innovation and growth to maintain this outlay, or to introduce austerity and reduce the spending. The latter solution was demonstrated by the EU-Greece bailout deal, when the trade bloc, under Merkel’s influence, requested strict austerity in Greece if it was to help the failing economy.
Most recently, though, Merkel has been attacked repeatedly for her handling of the refugee crisis from the Middle East and Africa. She was first derided as cold and uncompromising when she gave a pragmatic and frank response to a Palestinian child’s plea for help, before she was attacked for opening Germany’s doors to hundreds of thousands of refugees and asylees. She then performed a second U-turn to close the borders, but the damage was already done. At the 2017 election, Alternative für Deutschland, the far-right Eurosceptics won over 13% of the seats in the Bundestag, and Merkel only formed her new coalition and became Chancellor in March of this year, demonstrating her weak position. (In a short Channel 4 segment in 2014, Jacob Rees-Mogg memorably labelled German euroscepticism as “milk” to the UK’s “brandy”, which demonstrates Germany’s affinity to Europe.) Then, on the 1st July, Mr Seehofer, the leader of the CSU and Merkel’s interior minister, attacked her EU migration plan and offered to resign. Currently, her position is perilous, and yet her influence and power remain colossal.
Since assuming the Presidency of Russia — somewhat symbolically on the last day of 1999 — , Vladimir Putin has transformed the fledgeling nation into a true global superpower. In his time in power (punctuated by 4 years as Prime Minister between 2008 and 2012 due to the Russian Constitution), he has reincorporated Central Asia and some of Eastern Europe into Russia’s economic and political sphere of influence. In 2008, Russia annexed two parts of Georgia, and then annexed the Crimean region of Ukraine in February of 2014, demonstrating Russia’s new-found military power. Lax western policy over the past 20 years has allowed Putin to develop Russia hugely on the geopolitical stage, and now he is setting his sights on the Arctic, and the energy resources beneath the ever-diminishing ice. Russian policy is directed hugely at securing the next military victory against the expanding NATO bloc, whether this is through physical force or cyber-attacks and online campaigns.
Putin also has very strong, central control over his own country. Powers are concentrated in Moscow, and in May 2012, on his re-assumption of the office of President, he issued 14 Presidential decrees surrounding domestic policy, in what became known as the “May Decrees”. He has dragged Russia into the 21st century and modernised its economy, and improved services such as education and healthcare. However, his campaigns against homosexuality and the wider LGBT community have alienated many in his country and attracted widespread international condemnation, particularly after saying that homosexuals visiting the Sochi Games in 2014 should “leave the children in peace.” In recent years he has calmed the rhetoric down, but the human rights abuses in prisons and concentration camps have still continued throughout. Through this strict regime of terror, Putin has successfully controlled the dissenting population, and in recent years he has taken to the tactic of murdering the opposition to stop them existing. Lovely.
To Saudi Arabia, where Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (or MbS for short) is tearing up the social, religious, and economic status quo. While he deploys typical autocratic tactics such as anti-human rights measures and reckless intervention in wars, the Saudi heir-apparent is completely changing the country, and making socially liberal moves in order to tame the religious establishment and secure his grip on power. For example, on the 24th June 2018, the first female drivers were issued driving licences and were soon driving on the roads of Saudi Arabia, meaning that there is now no country in the world where females cannot drive. In addition, he shook up both the ruling House of Saud royal family and the clergy in the 2017 purge, in which over 40 members of the family and many members of the clergy were arrested for various offences, notably money laundering and corruption. However, the move was simply made to consolidate the Crown Prince’s power — everyone, including MbS himself, in the upper echelons of Saudi society is guilty of corruption — ; it is no coincidence that only his allies avoided arrest. One prominent detainee is bin Talal, a billionaire member of the royal family and Trump critic — which demonstrates MbS’ priorities on the global stage.
However, his economic reform is most interesting of all, as power grabs are nothing new in Saudi society. After unveiling the Vision 2030 in 2016, bin Salman has been propagating changes to the Saudi economy to modernise it and build a future where the nation isn’t reliant on oil. One key component of the plan is the NEOM megacity (Neo from the Greek for ‘New’ and M for the Arabic for ‘Future’). After the failures of the King Abdullah Economic City, the Crown Prince now wants to start afresh to build a diverse and free city in the Saudi-Egypt border region, in order to kickstart economic progress and diversification in the country. The plan is for the city to be autonomous and have liberal laws to attract foreign investment into the nation, and then in turn boost the national economy. Phase One is scheduled to be completed by 2025, so by then there will be some indicators as to the likelihood of success for the innovative project.
The President of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping, is making huge strides with the Chinese “One Belt, One Road” project from which the country is hoping to form alliances through loans for infrastructure projects. All across Asia and Africa, the superpower is providing low or no interest loans, which don’t really have to be paid back. The only condition that they come with is support for Chinese interest. From ports in Sri Lanka and an economic corridor in Pakistan, to wind farms in Kenya and a power plant in Nigeria, China is tearing up the geopolitical order and emerging as the world superpower, as swathes of countries now sing to its tune. The project is even making inroads in Europe and Oceania, with Poland, Finland, and New Zealand officially signing up, and many Chinese companies investing in Germany, Australia, and Britain.
Domestically, China is a little confused as to its identity, economy, and politics. Officially, it is a communist state, but if Lenin, Marx, or Mao Zedong himself were to see the Chinese economy as it is today, then they would brush it aside as just another capitalist regime. Due to the crushing of the feng shui ideology and beliefs, as well as the suppression of Buddhism — particularly within Tibet — China is struggling to understand who it is. However, that seems to matter not, as the authoritarian one-party state governance allows for perceived cohesion within the country, and so the actual lack of it is almost irrelevant. The separatist movements in the west of the country and the Tibetan plateau have often sparked angry reactions from the Chinese government, with many Muslims being detained in re-education camps, and Tibetans regularly imprisoned in concentration camps. China, however, shows no sign of letting up, as they continue to push into the Himalayan Mountains and encroach on the so-called stateless people and their territory. Nepal is kind to these people, but China much less so. They want only to gain more territory and put pressure onto India.
A somewhat questionable inclusion in this category is Donald Trump. He certainly aspires to be a ‘strongman’ in politics, and his actions are certainly rash enough to warrant an inclusion in this list. We all know about Trump’s politics. There’s the good — like his frank and swift responses to Bashar Al-Assad’s regime of terror, and his willingness to attack Putin for backing the Syrian dictator — , the bad, and the ugly.Unfortunately, it is the latter two that apply to the majority of his policies — such as the travel ban on mainly Muslim countries (notably excluding Saudi Arabia), the shoddy (and failed) attempt at a healthcare reform bill, and tax cuts for the wealthy. Even most Republicans lashed out at his attacks while in Europe in July, when he repeatedly undermined Theresa May (and suggested suing the EU for good measure), and, well, the Putin thing…err…happened. (For more, see this.)
The Brilliant One
Since being elected President of France in 2017 by 32 percentage points, Emmanuel Macron has oozed class and confidence when dealing with both domestic and foreign affairs. His ‘bromance’ with Trump demonstrates his understanding of the need for international cooperation to achieve common western goals, and his ability to cast aside political differences to work closely with his allies is there for all to see. He has realised that securing good relations with Theresa May could be instrumental to getting a good Brexit for both Britain and the EU, and symbolic gestures such as the loaning of the Bayeux Tapestry to the UK help his cause greatly.
On the domestic stage, the President is fairly popular, and his La Republique En Marche! party have a very good majority to use in the National Assembly. However, Macron’s reforms are often perceived as for the wealthy and neglecting those in poverty, earning him the nickname the President of the Rich. Most of his policies do appear to have that effect — but this is likely just a side-effect of attempts to make French systems and governmental service more efficient after many decades of neglect. This is what is hidden under the noise surrounding his controversial reign.
However, the most recent controversy has shaken Macron’s administration more than any political issue could. On the 1st May, one of the President’s security team, Alexandre Benalla, joined police on the streets, and violently dealt with one protester. What caused the scandal, though, is the attempted cover-up of the incident by the Elysees Palace and the President’s inner circle, who also failed to fire Benalla until the 20th July, 2 days after the public became aware of the incident, but almost 3 months after they knew. This sparked outrage at Macron, and his government recently faced a no-confidence motion. This could yet, though, bring Macron down, an end the so-called King Macron’s reign.
The Left-Out One
The Prime Minister of the UK, Theresa May, is leading a country suffering from such a loss of self-confidence that it once more has a clear role in geopolitics. It speaks volumes that the only thing giving the country, and its struggling leader, any credence is Russia’s attacks on the UK’s soil on its citizens. Aside from this, the nation’s withdrawal from the EU has left it without a clear role in the global sphere, and, while it may assume a supporting role in a coalition with the US and France in military action abroad, it is yet to be seen how the UK will progress globally after Brexit.