As the UN launches its annual high-level week, the organization’s quintessential gathering of ‘world leaders’, new and old political players will have their moment under the spotlight at the green-marbled rostrum of the General Assembly hall.
Outside the 38-floor glass building, popular movements of global citizens will be seeking to countervail today’s de facto norm of international relations, otherwise known as globalization, which they often view as another imperialistic effort.
But is the advent of a globalized new world order also producing global(ized) political leaders, invariably referred to as ‘world leaders’ by the media? Typically reserved for leaders of large or powerful nations, this idiom often leaves a neo-imperial aftertaste; world leaders are, in the mainstream western-dominated media landscape, western leaders, with the possible exceptions of the Chinese, Russian and, maybe, Brazilian or South African Heads of State.
Despite his towering influence on international affairs and worldwide name recognition, it is not clear that Fidel Castro was ever called a world leader. And yet, during his era, there was a palpable thirst for true global political leaders, whose aura transcends national frontiers and political spaces; and perhaps even more so today, not just because of the telecommunication revolution, but also because of a new consciousness that the planet faces global perils that call for global stewardship.
With countless humanitarian crises, climate change and terrorism -a serious epiphenomenon often fueled by sensationalist media coverage and fanned by politicians- world leaders simply cannot eschew the world’s pressing global challenges.
In today’s globalized world, is the global citizenry seeking global leaders? Probably yes, but with the caveat that because of the latest media revolution, today’s global leaders can spring out of virtually nowhere - almost overnight. And increasingly, the media, new and traditional alike, much more than political parties, are the vector of a new breed of politicians.
Young, dynamic and communications savvy, a new cast of political leaders is on the rise. They are tapping into the power of the media, in all its innovative and powerful forms, to counter the re-emergence of an old form of insular brand of political leaders. Setting a new vision of world affairs, they have set their sights on a wider and more responsive audience; they appeal to a large swath of the world’s disillusioned citizens, using their media savviness to project a brighter and more optimistic future on the global stage. Their audience has been largely receptive: they are the Facebook and Twitter generations, forces of global engagement, who share a common sense of belonging to some sort of supra-national community.
France’s Emanuel Macron and Canada’s Justin Trudeau share common features: youthful, bold, telegenic, nonconformist; but so were John F. Kennedy or Fidel Castro half a century ago. Then, as today, the media’s fascination with those political figures is such that, one could argue, they effectively ‘make’ them. The contrarian argument, of course, is that the same media produced a septuagenerian President Trump in the United States, elected on an autarkic, protectionist platform.
Trump and Macron will deliver their maiden UN speech on 19 September. Despite their opposed worldview, they have one striking feature in common – they both have, singlehandedly and overnight, shattered the incontrovertible role of traditional political parties: Trump took the Republican Party hostage, casting a shadow over the future of the Grand Old Party; Macron literally pulverized France’s political parties from the left and right. Whereas Trump, the billionaire real estate mogul and reality TV star enjoyed household name recognition prior to launching his presidential bid, Macron was an unknown, minor political figure two years before his election. In a mere 10 months, circumventing traditional political parties, he revolutionized French politics.
Because of their extraordinary political feat, both Macron and Trump must be internalizing their victories in messianic terms; the win of David versus Goliath. And because of their nations’ place in the world, both see themselves as global leaders. But whether or not they will appeal to citizenries beyond their national borders – globalists and isolationists alike – both must know that if they do not produce results for their own citizens, their fall will be as rapid as their meteoric rise to power. No matter how far their media reach may be, their approval ratings at home have already reached historical lows. Promoting an image of global leadership may flatter their national pride, and even appeal to some of the world’s global citizens, but it is unlikely to help them deal with their domestic challenges.
Even as new leaders reach a global audience and exert worldwide influence, all politics may still be local - even in the era of globalization, Facebook and Twitter. For a brief moment, they will use their UN stage to grandstand and project their power (and ego). But this will not be enough to make them global leaders for a planet in need - and in peril.
* The original version of this article appeared in the Global Challenges Quarterly Report: Global Governance for Global Citizens