Reading the papers these days I find that the two world leaders who stir the most passion in me are Pope Francis and Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia. One is everything you’d want in a leader, the other everything you wouldn’t want. One holds sway over 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, the other over nine time zones. One keeps surprising me with his capacity for empathy, the other by how much he has become a first-class jerk and thug. But neither can be ignored and both have an outsized influence on the world today.
First, the pope. At a time when so many leaders around the world are looking to promote their political fortunes by exploiting grievances and fault lines, we have a pope asking his flock to do something hard, something outside their comfort zone, pushing them to be more inclusive of gays and divorced people.
Yes, Francis was rebuffed by conservative bishops at a recent Vatican synod when he asked them to embrace the notion that “homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community,” adding, “Are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities?”
But, as an editorial in The New York Times noted: “The very fact that Francis ordered church leaders to address these challenges seems a landmark in Vatican history.” The pope asked that rejected language be published for all to see, while also cautioning against “hostile inflexibility - that is, wanting to close oneself within the written word, and not allowing oneself to be surprised by God.”
“Hostile inflexibility?” Whose leadership does that describe? Look at Putin’s recent behavior: His military was indirectly involved in downing a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine and his KGB has not only been trying to take a bite out of Ukraine but are nibbling on Estonia, Georgia and Moldova, all under the guise of protecting “Russian speakers.”
I opposed NATO expansion because I believed that there are few global problems that we can solve without the help of Russia. By expanding NATO at the end of the Cold War, when Russia was weak, we helped to cultivate a politics there that would one day be very receptive to Putin’s message that the West is ganging up on Russia. But, that said, the message is a lie. The West has no intention of bringing Ukraine into NATO. And please raise your hand if you think the European Union plans to invade Russia.
Yet Putin just exploits these fears for two reasons. First, he has a huge chip on his shoulder - no, excuse me; he has a whole lumberyard there - of resentment that Russia is no longer the global power it once was. But rather than make Russia great again by tapping its creative people - empowering them with education, the rule of law and consensual politics to realize their full potential - he has opted for the shortcut of tapping his oil and gas wells and seizing power from his people.
And instead of creating a Russia that is an example to its neighbors, he relies on the brute force that his oil and gas can still buy him. While he rails against NATO, he is really afraid of EU expansion - that Ukrainians would rather embrace the EU market and democracy rules than their historical ties to Russia because they know that through the European Union, they can realize potentials that would never be possible with Russia.
By seizing Crimea and stoking up nationalism, Putin was not protecting Russia from NATO. He was protecting himself from the viruses of EU accountability and transparency, which, if they took hold in Ukraine, could spread to Moscow, undermining his kleptocracy.
Normally, I wouldn’t care, but when the world is dividing between zones of order and disorder, and the world of order needs to be collaborating to stem and reverse disorder, the fact that Putin is stoking disorder on Russia’s borders, and not collaborating to promote order in the Middle East, is a real problem. What’s more worrying is that the country he threatens most is Russia. If things go bad there - and its economy is already sagging under Western sanctions - the world of disorder will get a lot bigger.
That is why Putin’s leadership matters, and so does the pope’s. I’m focused on Putin because I think he is making the world a worse place for bad reasons, when he could make a difference in Europe and the Middle East with just an ounce more decency and collaboration. America, too, has plenty to learn from the pope’s humility, but say what you will, we’re still focused on trying to strengthen the global commons, whether by protecting people from jihadists in Iraq or fighting Ebola in Africa. We could do more. Putin needs to do a lot more.
“The best leaders don’t set timid and selfish goals that are easy to meet but instead set bold and inclusive goals that are hard to achieve,” remarked Timothy Shriver, the chairman of Special Olympics, who has just written a book on leadership, “Fully Alive: Discovering What Matters Most.” “We’re all looking for ways to make sense of a world without a center, but we’ll only find that in people who lead with authentic humility and reckless generosity.”