A presidential-election year in the United States always brings questions of leadership into focus. In 2016 the American election should be closely watched to see if the country follows the international trend and chooses a leader who emphasises “strength”, above all.
Across the world—from Russia to China and from India to Egypt—macho leadership is back in fashion. The patron saint of the world’s macho leaders is, of course, President Vladimir Putin, who has taken the style to almost parodic lengths, by posing bare-chested with a gun and while working out in the gym. It is perhaps no coincidence that the Russian leader has done best in forging personal relations with fellow tough guys such as President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt (whom he presented with a wood-handled Kalashnikov), President Jacob Zuma in South Africa and Viktor Orban, the prime minister of Hungary.
Strongman leadership has its comic side. But it also has distinctly unfunny aspects. In Russia, Egypt, Turkey, Hungary and South Africa, the rise of the leaders emphasising strength above all has been associated with an erosion of democracy and an assault on civil society.
The taste for macho leadership has also spread to Asia, where the three biggest powers, China, Japan and India, are now all led by charismatic nationalists who have made a point of their decisive approach, and their willingness to take tough decisions at home while facing down foreigners overseas. In each case—Xi Jinping in China, Shinzo Abe in Japan and Narendra Modi in India—replacing leaders who had a lower-key and more collective mode of leadership.
The tough get going
The big question in 2016 will be whether the taste for macho leadership will spread to the major Western powers. In recent years, the West has resisted the trend. President Barack Obama is a cerebral former law professor who prefers lofty rhetoric to menacing stares. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, has a cautious and low-key approach and is often referred to as Mutti (mum). David Cameron in Britain is too laid-back and aristocratic to do anything vulgar like flexing his muscles for the camera. And François Hollande in France, diminutive and owlish, has been nicknamed Flanby, after a wobbly pudding.
But the signs are that 2016 might see the West begin to flirt with tough guys and gals. The early leader in the race for the Republican nomination was Donald Trump, who has made a feature of his brash self-confidence and willingness to offend. Almost all the Republican candidates followed Mr Trump’s example in arguing that Mr Obama is “weak” and promising to return strong leadership to the White House.
For solid historical reasons, many countries in western Europe are rather wary of leaders who base their appeal on personal toughness and charisma. After Hitler, Mussolini and Franco, the charismatic strongman is a leadership model that is treated with justified suspicion in Germany, Italy and Spain. But the recent premierships of Silvio Berlusconi in Rome and José María Aznar in Madrid suggested that there is still some residual taste for the macho style in southern European politics.
Many in France still clearly hanker for a de Gaulle. At the moment, the country certainly seems to want stronger leadership than that offered by Mr Hollande, who has languished in the polls for years. The question of French leadership is likely to come to the fore in 2016, as the country gears up for a presidential election the following year. The two front-runners in the polls, Nicolas Sarkozy on the centre-right and Marine le Pen on the far right, are both promising to bring a more decisive and radical brand of leadership to the Elysée.
It is also quite likely that 2016 will be the year in which Mrs Merkel’s reputation at last takes a dive, particularly if she is seen as having mishandled the refugee and migrant crises. Yet Mrs Merkel, in her quiet way, seems to have eliminated most plausible rivals for the leadership of both her party and her country.
Much will depend on the social and economic backdrop to European politics. Another round of problems for the euro, an anaemic economic recovery and continuing flows of refugees and migrants from the Middle East and north Africa could intensify a sense of crisis. To date, the main beneficiaries from the heightened anxieties of European voters have been fringe parties of the right and left. But the natural response of mainstream leaders to the rise of populist parties tends to involve adopting some of their policies and elements of their political manner. European leaders, who are often keen students of American politics, will also be watching the American presidential election closely to see what kind of politics is working on the other side of the Atlantic.
The result could well see 2016 marking the year in which the macho style returned to Western politics.