Can Pragmatic, Farsighted Leaders Really Solve the World’s Crises?

November 11, 2016

What could be more welcome in this cynical age than a collection of success stories proving that smart, pragmatic, and farsighted leadership can solve the world’s economic and political crises?

“At a time when most of us have glumly concluded that our governments are broken and our domestic and international problems are insurmountable,” Jonathan Tepperman writes, “I aim to show how the right individuals can overcome the most intimidating obstacles—if they follow the right strategies.” Tepperman, managing editor of Foreign Affairs, calls his book a “data-driven case for optimism at a moment of gathering darkness.”

The Fix: How Nations Survive and Thrive in a World in Decline is organized around 10 case studies across the globe. Most fulfill the author’s intention to write a “good news book,” but they often lack sufficient context or qualifications that would bring his optimism into better touch with reality. One of the most remarkable case studies is Rwanda’s effort to mete out justice and reconciliation through local courts in 2 million cases in the wake of its horrific war between Hutus and Tutsis in the 1990s. No less dramatic is the author’s account of the rise of Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame, the onetime rebel who led Tutsi forces to capture the capital, Kigali, and then years later set up a system to punish those guilty of genocide—and reintegrate them into society. “You can’t do one at the expense of the other,” Kagame tells Tepperman, who goes on to note Kagame’s more recent authoritarian tendencies.

In another useful account, The Fix describes how President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico brought together three warring political parties to negotiate economic and political reforms, including the breakup of the failing state oil monopoly. All nations, Tepperman says, can “follow Mexico’s model—one that involved quiet negotiation, painful compromise, political leaders willing to take risks and keep their word, and above all a recognition that zero-sum politics accomplishes nothing.”

But the book’s main problem is precisely that its principal and oft-repeated point—that the instances cited provide clear lessons for other countries and leaders—is usually less than persuasive.

Canada, for instance, has surely achieved economic gains from luring immigrants and embracing a multicultural self-identity, surprising progress given that French Canadians were threatening to secede only a few decades ago. But Canadians do not have border issues like those in the United States and Europe, forcing them to cope with a flood of refugees and illegal immigrants. Canada’s welcome mat, moreover, is rolled out only to foreigners with specific skill and education levels.

Indonesia has demonstrated some success in taming and co-opting Islamic extremists. But because the country is a diverse, secular, and Pacific-oriented culture, it is not necessarily “an invaluable object lesson” for the Middle East, where fratricidal conflict among rival clerics, tribal groups, warlords, and sects over the millennia has left a deep-rooted legacy of violence and hatred.

Tepperman rightly contends that South Korea deserves credit for its economic and political successes, including its progress in opening its formerly closed economy. But the book leaves the reader confused over whether the country has been helped or hurt by its history of brutal dictators, protectionism, currency manipulation, state intervention, and favoritism shown to the giant industrial conglomerates known as chaebols.

Another chapter illuminates Brazil’s success under then-President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in establishing its Bolsa Familia program of income transfers, which Tepperman reports has raised incomes and quality of life for 55 million Brazilians and become “one of the world’s most ambitious antipoverty programs.” While Bolsa Familia has had a positive impact, as have other such programs in the United States and elsewhere, Tepperman skirts over the long-developing corruption scandal that has ensnared Lula and his successor, Dilma Rousseff, and the more salient factors that drove economic growth—including Lula’s overreliance on spiraling (and hidden) debts and on a boom in commodity exports to China that went bust last year.

Closer to home, too, Tepperman tends to sugarcoat reality. He portrays former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg as a modern Pericles: “Like the city he led, much about the man—his wealth, his homes, his spending, and his policies—now seem larger than life.” Bloomberg succeeded because he built on the accomplishments of his predecessors in creating open spaces, parks, infrastructure, and higher-education opportunities, though the earlier groundwork on those efforts goes unmentioned in this book. Not to take anything away from Bloomberg’s achievements in protecting New Yorkers, but he was hardly the first mayor to reform police intelligence practices, and Tepperman too casually dismisses the city’s overreach in infiltrating mosques and “suspected radical hangouts” under Bloomberg, not to mention a stop-and-frisk program that was ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge.

The Fix concludes with a list of verities that could be found in a high school civics textbook: Leaders should take risks, use unconventional approaches, and take advantage of crises to initiate bold actions, but they should also reject “maximalist” demands that do not allow for compromise, respect checks and balances, and avoid “costly” mistakes.

In the end, for all its informative stories, The Fix falls short of the promised deep dive into what ails “a world in decline,” as the book’s subtitle puts it. Tepperman seems to rely too heavily on a multitude of studies from think tanks, international organizations, and scholars, in addition to self-serving interviews with heads of state. He remains convinced that the world’s problems result from leaders not seizing on the fixes he identifies because they “haven’t yet found the wisdom and intestinal fortitude to do what’s necessary.” It’s hard to dispute that such qualities are in short supply, but equally hard to think that they alone can save the day.