The year of the woeful world leader
The dictionaries have decided on their 2018 words of the year. Oxford picked “toxic”. Merriam-Webster went for “justice”. Collins chose “single-use”. I'd zero in on “misgovernment”. Surely, 2018 saw a staggering number of countries woefully misruled by the worst crop of world leaders in recent memory.
The most egregious examples are in the news every day. US President Donald Trump tops the chart as he runs out of straws to clutch in trying to convince Americans that his election has been good for them. The stock market bump of which he was so proud is disappearing. The fiscal deficit is the highest since 2012. Trade wars notwithstanding, the trade deficit is at a ten-year high.
The turnover on the presidential staff has reached catastrophic levels: 65 per cent of Trump's “A Team” had been replaced since his election as of December 14, according to the Brookings Institution, and that doesn't even include Cabinet members (12 of the 24 officials in the Cabinet have been replaced and now a thirteenth, Defence Secretary James Mattis, is leaving). Trump is having trouble filling once-coveted positions, and the officials he fired and those who have resigned are sometimes unconstrained in criticising him — a situation that, were it to occur in a corporation, would have tanked its stock.
All this doesn't even scratch the surface of what Trump has done. The damage he has wreaked on the US role in the world is only beginning to manifest itself. Almost everywhere (with a few exceptions such as Israel and South Korea) favourable views of the US are declining, and people are becoming convinced that the US doesn't care about other countries' interests. Alliances are loosening and the multilateral world order is creaking.
Almost as obvious is the misgovernment of the UK. Blind to the reality of disappearing economic growth, slowing business investment and a growing trade deficit, Prime Minister Theresa May's government has persevered in trying to pull the country out of the European Union and in fantasising about withdrawal terms that the EU rejected from the start. Destroyed by the EU's dream team of super-competent negotiators, May's bungling, ill-prepared representatives flailed about, resigned in exasperation and finally produced a deal nobody really wants — not even the EU, though it's skewed heavily in its favour.
With her support weak even within her own party and her negotiating options exhausted, May now is setting up the country for a no-deal Brexit scenario that would cause massive disruption to millions of lives — anything to avoid the only reasonable option, a new vote on EU membership for a UK public that found out this year it had been misled by Brexit campaigners who lied about the consequences of withdrawal.
Even beyond these two most obvious examples of mismanagement and incompetence, things aren't looking much better. Last year, Emmanuel Macron of France looked like the Western world's great hope with his sweeping reform plans and a grand vision for a tighter-knit EU. He ends the year in retreat before what's looking like the most effective Facebook-driven revolt in a Western nation to date, the Yellow Vest movement that started as a protest against a small increase in fuel taxes but grew into a violent anti-elite rebellion.
Another potential leader of the west, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, spent most of the year hobbled by an open revolt within her party, the Christian Democratic Union, and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union. The conservative rebels paralysed the Government demanding tougher immigration policies and forcing Merkel into exhausting back-room battles that left her drained, sometimes even apathetic. The Union performed badly in two important state elections, and Merkel was forced to give up the party leadership.
This was a year of chaos in other democracies, too.
The populist government in Italy drew up a fantasy budget that included a version of a universal basic income and fought with the EU over it (only to end up lowering its unrealistic projections) while the economy slid towards recession.
In Spain, Mariano Rajoy's centre-right government buckled under the weight of corruption scandals and the outgoing prime minister spent a whole day at a restaurant as socialist rival Pedro Sánchez unseated him in a kind of parliamentary coup. Sánchez, however, isn't doing too well, either: his government is beset by scandals, he faces a reprise of troublemaking by Catalonian separatists that made it almost impossible for Rajoy to focus on anything else.
It hasn't been a great year for strongmen and hybrid regimes, either.
Russian President Vladimir Putin was re-elected, but has since seen a drop in popularity following a highly unpopular retirement-age increase. Russia's economy and Russians' incomes are stagnating, and Putin's been constrained overseas by a string of public failures by Russia's aggressive military intelligence service and an inability to build a working relationship with the US.
Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, once fêted as a bold reformer, has seen his reputation destroyed by the October murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The brutal act has undermined international support for MBS, as the prince is known, and thrown a monkey wrench into his plans to reduce the Saudi economy's oil dependence.
The current crew of error-prone rulers makes for a fractious world with a growing potential for conflict, armed and otherwise, domestic and international. The elites, both democratic and authoritarian, are weak, and they invite backlashes against their mismanagement. Protest movements and anti-establishment parties have sprung up and are strengthening everywhere; they have different goals but are all bolstered by social-network technology that amplifies anger and violence.
Even the few notable exceptions to the misgovernment rule of 2018 don't inspire much confidence.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has made no major errors, but his popularity is trending down ahead of next year's election.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who vowed to clean up the country after the disheartening corruption that plagued it under Jacob Zuma, couldn't maintain “Ramaphoria” for long. He has restored investor confidence but his anti-corruption efforts haven't yielded quick results and fears of a land expropriation campaign continue to hang over the country.
Most intriguingly, Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has avoided major errors for years, may have made some in 2018. It's unclear whether accepting Trump's trade-war challenge was a good idea. For all its might, China is still a middle-income country that's extremely dependent on trade.
The shortage of competent, clear-headed, hubris-free leadership in today's world may be a freak accident. But if it's the new normal, living in this world will require new skills from ordinary people, too. Vigilance and easy mobility in case a country deteriorates intolerably are two of them; a capacity for constructive protest is a third. Bad leadership isn't just something we read about on news sites. It could signal the deterioration of institutions, both global and domestic, that shape our lives.
• Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics and business