When massive financial shocks hit three years ago -- punctuated by the collapse of Lehman Brothers on Sept. 15, 2008 -- scenarios were ripe concerning new forms of heroic political leadership.
At the core of the call for a revamped G20 was the notion that only leaders could provide the type of innovative decision-making necessary for dealing with the complex range of issues related to the crisis. Yet as the global economy has continued to struggle, the image of heroic leadership has waned.
Some leaders have the will to perform this task of leadership but lack the capability.
President Obama falls into this category, exhorting Americans to buy his economic agenda but running into the obstacles presented by Congress and a cynical and deeply divided public. President Sarkozy of France is on this side of the continuum as well. From 2008 up to the present Sarkozy has been hyperactive, wanting to find solutions to the ills of the economy. But the more he pushes, the clearer it is that there is a lack of consistency and follow-through in his approach, although he has one last major opportunity to prove his detractors wrong in November at the Cannes G20 summit. Most leaders, however, simply do not have the political will or set of interests to perform a heroic role. David Cameron tries hard to be a Churchill clone in times of difficulty but is detached from economic issues as the main game. His mantra of Big Society looks threadbare in an UK that remains so blatantly divided on socio-economic lines. Even leaders from countries with success stories in the difficult economic environment notably Chancellor Merkel of Germany fall short, preferring to follow public opinion rather than to lead from the front.
Nor is this simply a phenomenon of the West.
Caught in a long moment of transition China's political leadership is increasingly risk-adverse and domestic-focused. Brazil is having an awkward progression from Lula's charismatic leadership to the managerial orientation of President Dilma Rousseff. And the shining credentials of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh have faded amid a host of corruption charges surrounding the Congress party and indeed a large part of the wider political class in India. Still, the widespread fading of heroic political leadership has not meant the hollowing out of the state. The hallmark of this era of financial era is the replacement of heroic leadership by the leadership provided by technocratic finance ministers and central bank governors.
As the strategic oratory of President Obama becomes a less convincing guide to policy-making, the tactical performances of key U.S. officials are watched even more closely -- with the market moving on everything from (unfounded) rumors that Timothy Geithner, the U.S. Treasury Secretary is about to resign or the nuanced wording of the recent keynote speech by U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke at the major Jackson Hole symposium.
Very few outsiders know the name of a Swiss politician but a decision by Phillip Hildebrand the Swiss central bank governor to peg his country's currency to the euro reverberates around the world. While the Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is widely ridiculed, Mario DraghI, the governor of the Bank of Italy and chair of the Financial Stability Board, is elevated to the position of president of the European Central Bank.
This is not to suggest that politicians are being trumped completely by technocrats, with a shift to extremes such as Japan with rotating prime ministers or even Belgium which can go well over a year without a central government in place with few people worrying or with any drastic consequences to the economy.
Yet, the shift from heroic to technocratic leadership points to trends in decision-making that needs to be appreciated.
Matching the complexity of the issues they are dealing with, many of the major decisions in the economic arena are taken by individuals who do not have anything of the face or name recognition of the leaders in the photo ops of the G20 or other international forums.
Such a trend is at odds with the image of a centralized concert of leaders grabbing hold of the policy agenda in times of crisis and change -- as leaders did on the strategic agenda in 1919 and 1945 in the aftermath of World Wars I and II. As compensation, it also points to the professionalization of the decision-making process. What the crisis demonstrates is that the economy in the 21st century is simply too crucial and complicated to be left to those who are not immersed in all of its intricacies.
Politicians at the apex of power will continue to play greater or lesser symbolic roles in fighting the crisis by mobilizing or responding to pressures from their national societies.
The instrumental details nonetheless will be left to a new type of far less charismatic type of leader calling the shots.