Running on Empty - The Growing Crisis in Western Leadership

March 04, 2023

By Paul Malvern |

If the leader is good, so too is the journey
---- Ktož jsú boží bojovníci - a 15th Century Czech Hussite War Hymn

Bad Leaders – Bad Journey

One of the most stirring examples of great leadership comes from the 15th century, where the tiny Czech nation rose up against the powerful Hapsburg empire and drove back bigger, better equipped Crusader armies composed of knights from all over Europe. While partly due to the character of the Czech people, a key factor in their success was the leadership provided by their brilliant military commander, Jan Žižka. Going into battle, his warriors sang the hymn, Ye Who are Warriors of God, which continues to be sung by Czechs even today. It contains the lines: 
“Since ages past Czechs have said and had proverbs which state, That if the leader is good, so too is the journey."
Sadly, we in the modern West are not so fortunate. For, sad to say, the leadership in almost all of our institutions is increasingly deficient – with the result that the journey through life for many ordinary citizens is far from a happy one.

A good example of such poor leadership is U.S. President Joe Biden, of whom Barak Obama once warned, “Never underestimate Joe’s ability to (expletive) things up.” For anyone not totally asleep over the last two years, Biden and his Administration seems like a waking nightmare that not even the most hardened cynic could dream up. For having promised during the 2020 election to calm the political waters and restore America to normality, Biden has instead pursued ill-advised and highly partisan policies which have weakened and divided his nation even more. And his administration’s irresponsible fiscal policies have played a major role in stoking the runaway inflation seen around the world. Then there are his many foreign policy fiascos such as the truly appalling way in which the U.S. withdrew from Afghanistan, leaving its people to the tender mercies of the Taliban. And last but not least is his determination to leave his country’s borders open to vast numbers of illegal aliens – a situation which places border states in the unenviable task of addressing a serious humanitarian crisis with very limited resources.

Sadly, it is not just the U.S. which suffers from bad leadership. For who can forget Germany’s recent leadership failures – most notably those of former Chancellor Angela Merkel? Merkel, if you will recall, is one of those incredibly intelligent people (She has a doctorate in quantum chemistry!) who, once in office, makes bad decisions that take your breath away. A good example is her decision in 2015 to open up her country’s borders to a million unvetted third world refugees in just one year, many of them young single men of military age. Initially, this went well. And then it didn’t. For on New Years Eve of that year a wave of sexual and other assaults swept across many major cities in Germany. The worst happened in Cologne where a total of 1210 criminal complaints were made, including 511 for sexual assaults and 28 for rape or attempted rape. Equally wrong-headed was her decision in 2011 to close Germany’s nuclear power stations and replace this previously dependable and cost-effective source of energy with Russian natural gas and alternate sources such as solar and wind power. A decision which is now causing Germans to scramble for new sources of power – however dirty and environmentally unfriendly – to keep the lights burning and the heat on throughout the winter.

Unfortunately, it is not just Merkel. For throughout all of this period, she had widespread support from across the political spectrum. Which has caused some to believe that such woolly-headed thinking is par for the course for German elites, whom one UK newspaper called “arrogant, incompetent and corrupt”.

Then there is Vladimir Putin, whose planned three-day blitzkrieg aimed at toppling the Ukrainian Government has been going on for over a year with no end in sight.

Nor can we forget the shambles which is the UK Conservative Government. Initially, its woes began with the resignation of former Prime Minister Boris Johnson due to his many misdeeds and blunders. But then it got really interesting when he was replaced by Liz Truss, who lasted only 45 days as Prime Minister, eventually being forced to resign due to her failed budget which tanked the British stock, bond and currency markets. Her replacement, Rishi Sunak, is holding on to power better than Truss. (Not hard to do!) But his future seems anything but bright, given a growing loss of confidence among the general public in the Conservatives’ ability to govern well and wisely.

And last but not least is that ‘kindly authoritarian’, Jacinda Ardern, who recently resigned as New Zealand Prime Minister, saying that she “no longer has enough in the tank”. Ardern, who is seen as something of a superstar among international elites has recently seen a sharp decline in her popularity back home due to her country’s serious economic problems, an increase in crime, and lingering bitterness over her harsh pandemic policies that were anything but ‘kindly’. Which with an election looming in the very near future suggests that her resignation may not just involve a desire to spend more time with her family.

Trudeau’s Master Class in Poor Leadership

But for my money, the title of worst leader in the industrial West must surely go to Canada’s Justin Trudeau, who is well on his way to transforming a prosperous, tolerant and law-abiding nation blessed with cheap food and an abundance of natural resources into a woke nightmare where justice is anything but blind and shortages of food and energy appear to be major goals of public policy. Such a thought has clearly occurred to many Canadians as seen in a recent poll which showed that “most Canadians agree ‘Canada is broken’ – and they’re angry about it”. Of special interest was the poll’s finding that this sentiment was strongest among women and those in the youngest age bracket.

For those not familiar with Trudeau, suffice it to say that for a writer he is the gift that keeps on giving. For example, in January of 2022, I wrote an article on Trudeau for a UK publication, which I assumed pretty much covered the topic. And then just weeks later, his mishandling of the Truckers’ Convoy showed that he possesses reservoirs of foolishness and incompetence that go far beyond anything I had previously suspected. For this crisis more than anything else has revealed (as crises always do) just what sort of man and leader he is.

From the beginning of this crisis, he showed himself to be inflexible, petulant, and unwilling (or unable) to understand or even consider the point of view of those with a different perspective. This was made clear by his refusal to meet with the truckers, labelling them and their supporters as a “small fringe minority” holding “unacceptable views”. Given the magnitude of support for the truckers at the time from across the country, such a statement was ludicrous – a fact noted at the time by Elon Musk who tweeted that “the small minority is the government”.

Like so many things in Trudeau’s Canada, the Truckers’ Convoy never had to be the mess it became. Initially just a minor dispute about the mandatory vaccination of truckers, it could have been handled in the tried-and-true Canadian fashion – by compromise and dialogue. But being the willful child he is, Trudeau refused to talk to the truckers, condemning them in the harshest terms. With the result that the truckers and their supporters shut down the heart of Ottawa as well as a number of border crossings, this time demanding freedom and an end to all vaccine mandates. Throwing gasoline on a raging fire, Trudeau then invoked the never-before-used Emergencies Act to freeze bank accounts and give authorities special powers to suppress dissent. On February 23, 2022, the Act was revoked after being in force for only a few weeks because police were able to remove the demonstrators without using the Act’s extraordinary powers and because the Senate appeared unlikely to ratify use of the Act. Even so, the damage was done and the consequences of invoking the Act will be with us for years to come.

One obvious consequence is that Canadians now realize how fragile their civil liberties are and how little protection the Charter of Rights and Freedoms affords them.

And Trudeau’s freezing of bank accounts has damaged Canada’s reputation as a safe place in which to do business. For who in their right mind would put their money in a Canadian bank if their assets can be seized at the whim of the government? This was clearly a question on the minds of many Canadians at the time who, once the freezing of assets began, withdrew their funds in such large numbers that some feared it would precipitate a run on Canada’s banks.

As well, Trudeau’s trampling of civil rights during the convoy and the obsessive persecution of convoy members (which stands in stark contrast to the treatment received by other dissenters) has tarnished the image of our judicial system, causing some to believe that it dispenses unequal justice, where those favoured by the government can do whatever they like, while those out of favour suffer harsh treatment.

A good example is the abuse meted out to convoy organizer, Tamara Lich, whom the highly respected Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF) calls “Canada’s Political Prisoner”. Barely five feet tall, this 49-year-old grandmother of Métis heritage is no fire-breathing revolutionary. And she is certainly no danger to public safety, given that she has no criminal record or history of violence. Nor on the face of it are the offenses she is charged with particularly serious ones, as seen by the fact that one of more serious ones is just ‘mischief’.

In spite of this, judicial officials twice denied her bail and she spent a cumulative 48 days in jail – harsh treatment that stands in sharp contrast to the usual practice in Canada where people facing much more serious charges regularly get bail.

So outrageous has her treatment been that the senior justices who reviewed her case twice overturned previous lower court rulings denying her bail, sharply criticizing those who made the rulings – in one case remarking that, “the courts are not thought police.”

Sadly, this is part of a larger problem in which virtually all of Canada’s institutions are in serious trouble with no hope of renewal as long as Trudeau remains in power. This national deterioration under Trudeau was underlined by psychologist, Jordan Peterson, who wrote, “This is not good, Canadians. We not only look like fools … we are actually being fools, led by the king of fools, and we’re going to pay for it. And so are our children and grandchildren.”

The Ultra-Rich Take the Helm

Faced with the many leadership failures seen throughout the West at the national level and recognizing the growing globalization of economic and financial activity, many large transnational corporations – and the billionaires who own or manage them – have decided that it is time for them to lend a hand at directing the affairs of the world. Which is exactly what global elites are starting to do – either intervening directly (as in the case of George Soros and Bill Gates) or indirectly through their participation in international organizations such as the World Economic Forum (WEF) and the many climate change forums to which they travel in their private, fuel-guzzling jets.

These powerful movers and shakers, aided by their allies in the media, transnational bureaucracies, and a variety of NGOs, are nothing if not ambitious. As seen by the goals they have set – such as altering the world’s climate and restructuring the way human beings around the globe live, work, eat and are governed.

And their successes to date in setting the world’s agenda have been truly impressive – if at times somewhat frightening. One obvious example of their impact must surely be the global coordination of the Covid pandemic response through bodies such as the World Health Organization (WHO), whose impacts are still being felt around the world. Another example involves the “open borders” policies seen in many Western countries. And last but not least are the never-ending warnings of global catastrophe, should we continue to enjoy reliable and inexpensive energy supplies and the delights of a perfectly cooked steak.

None of which should be surprising. For through their ownership and control of the legacy media and big social media companies upon which vast numbers of people now rely for their information, their narrative has become the dominant one in the industrial West. And using their influence over national governments, they are increasingly able to marginalize and even censor dissenting points of view, branding them as “misinformation” or “disinformation”.

While this top-down leadership style used by global elites has been spectacularly successful so far, it does lack one important element that ultimately may be their undoing - namely, their refusal to lead by example. For these elite players clearly have no intention of living as they wish us to do. Take, for example, the most recent Davos meeting where the world’s richest and most powerful leaders flew to it in their private jets – totally unconcerned by their huge carbon foot print and the environmental damage caused by their actions. Nor was there even one meal worm or grasshopper on the menu during this get-together – those tasty treats we have been told to start consuming in order to save the planet. The message here is, “do as I say, not as I do”.

This glaring hypocrisy has not gone unnoticed, with even some liberal critics being appalled by it – one good example being New York Times Global Economics Correspondent, Peter Goodman. In his recently book, Davos Man: How the Billionaires Devoured the World, he pillories many of the world’s billionaires whose egalitarian and socially responsible rhetoric stands in sharp contrast to their actual policies, which are anything but compassionate, egalitarian or socially responsible.

Living in Denial

Of course, one of the difficulties we face in addressing this growing leadership deficit is the widespread denial that exists – particularly among the leaders themselves and those who support them. For according to them, if there is a problem, it is not their fault. Rather, it is the fault of those misguided (in their view) individuals who fail to see what a great job they are doing. And so the answer is not to change direction or seek the wishes of the people, but rather for people to keep quiet and do what they are told, as Covid-advisor, Anthony Fauci, suggested. The idea being that, if critics would just stop opposing elite-driven policies, everything would be fine. The seas would stop rising. The earth would cool. Inclusion and equity would be universally accepted and perfectly implemented. The COVID vaccines would work as advertised. And “you’ll own nothing and you’ll be happy”.

So, the trick from their point of view is to find ways to silence critics and nudge or force people into doing what they are told. Which is exactly what we are seeing in many countries.

Such reasoning – if you can call it that – is the logic of a spoiled three-year-old child who wants ice cream right now and is prepared to set fire to the drapes if he or she doesn’t get their way. Unfortunately, that is the scenario we are seeing play out in many Western nations as public officials trample on some of our most hallowed freedoms. Such as the freedom of speech, conscience and association – all of which suffered greatly as a result of the draconian restrictions placed on us during the recent pandemic.

The Inability to Think

While it is easy to see how unequal to the task many of our leaders are, coming up with an explanation as to why this might be and why so many citizens appear happy to be led by them is a more difficult matter.

One possible explanation may be what the great social observer, Hannah Arendt, called the inability to think – an idea she developed in her masterful book, Eichmann in Jerusalem. In this book and her articles for The New Yorker, she struggled with the question of how a seemingly bland and unremarkable man like Eichmann could have facilitated the death of millions of innocent people by overseeing their transportation to death camps. Her conclusion was that much of the evil in the world flows from the inability to think – by which she meant the inability to think things through and consider the consequences of their actions.

While our current leaders are obviously not anywhere close to Eichmann in turns of wickedness, they nevertheless do have much to answer for – such as the social, economic and medical harms caused by their ham-fisted response to COVID, their irresponsible fiscal policies which have led to our current raging inflation, and their unhealthy obsession with climate change which promises to replace COVID as the next “boogeyman du jour”. For all of these harms are the result of our leaders’ inability (and in some cases unwillingness) to think critically and consider the consequences of their policies on the lives of the millions of ordinary human beings for whom they are responsible.

For example, did they not consider how locking down nations for months at a time might affect these societies and their economies? Did they not consider how closing schools might affect the education or future life prospects of a generation of children? Or how massive government spending of borrowed money during the pandemic might cause runaway inflation? Or how demonizing the unvaccinated might damage social cohesion and ruin lives?

Apparently not! And if it did occur to them, it must have seemed a small price to pay for short-term political advantage – a charge levelled by former Liberal Finance Minister Bill Morneau against his former boss, Justin Trudeau.

Running on Empty – Western Cultural and Spiritual Decline

But as helpful as Arendt’s insights are, they fail to take into account an even more important factor – namely, the cultural and spiritual decline currently seen in virtually all Western countries.

Over the millennia, many great thinkers have noted the remarkable similarity between the human life cycle and that of nations, empires and civilizations. Both are born, mature, grow old, become senile, and die. And while some civilizations are subsequently reborn or transformed –others disappear forever.

An especially helpful thinker in this area is the 14th century Islamic historian, sociologist, jurist, and statesman, Ibn Khaldun, whose work, The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History, has much to teach us about human society even today.

For Ibn Khaldun, the rise and fall of nations is all about group solidarity – or lack thereof. Those who found new dynasties or nations frequently live on the fringes of an already existing settled society which has grown soft due to affluence and easy living. (They are what historian Arnold Toynbee would later call ‘the external proletariat’). Being poor and disenfranchised, these people – and their leaders - develop a strong sense of group consciousness because they must depend on each other to survive. With few physical comforts and little to lose, they are tough, brave and have each other’s back – qualities that allow them to overthrow and replace rulers who have grown weak due to soft living and moral laxity.

Over the generations, these new rulers and the people they govern are themselves corrupted by wealth and easy living. And each successive generation becomes more individualistic, self-centered and pleasure oriented – which erodes morality and social cohesion even more. Eventually, such nations grow senile and are replaced by those not corrupted by affluence.

Sadly, such a phenomenon is already under way in the West – as can be seen in a number of areas. One good example is the economic sphere where many corporations and individuals seem willing to do whatever it takes, however immoral or unethical, to amass wealth – thus echoing Ibn Khaldun’s observation that. “People are now devoted to lying, gambling, cheating, fraud, theft, perjury, and usury.” (Those familiar with the many recent financial scandals will see echoes of this in our own age!)  

Sadly, this decline in morality and spiritual values can be seen in many other areas – including politics and government, education, media, the law and even religion. All too often this process begins with elites who, out of pridefulness, greed, ambition, or contempt for those they view as beneath them, reject the lessons of the past and the deep wisdom and common sense of ordinary people – instead seeking to recreate the world in their own flawed image.

The problem here is that, while this process of decline initially involves a relatively small number of people at the top, this moral rot quickly spreads to the population as a whole who in Ibn Khaldun’s words, “adopt the qualities of their environment and company.”

Which, sadly, is where we are today, giving proof to the old adage that “a fish rots from the head down”.

Fixing the Mess

Of course, none of this makes for happy reading. For no one wants to believe that they are part of a civilization that is in decline. But as John Adams, the second President of the United States, noted, “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence …”. Moreover, we are duty bound to look carefully at the historical record and what it tells us about our current world. For as philosopher, George Santayana, reminds us, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

For it is only when we fully understand the situation facing us that we can make the changes (including changes in our leaders and how we are governed) needed to avoid the fate that otherwise awaits us.

Happily, there is still time. And there is reason to hope. For in spite of the working together of governments, the corporate media, and transnational organizations to restrict debate on the issues of the day, alternate points of view are being heard – if somewhat slowly. And the decline of trust in institutions, decried by some, is actually good in many ways since it means that those in power can no longer count on everyone blindly accepting whatever they are told. Even more encouraging are the many grassroots and anti-establishment movements that are springing up to resist the growing authoritarianism of our rulers – good examples being the Truckers Convoy in Canada and the many anti-establishment political parties and movements in Europe.

Will this make a difference? Who knows? But it is a start. And it is a sign that not everyone is prepared to sacrifice their freedom and mindlessly do what they are told in hopes of being left alone or at the very least not being ‘cancelled’.

And even if this growing public resistance does not succeed - which is a possibility given the power and wealth of our national and transnational elites who seem determined to impose some form of technocratic tyranny on us - all is not lost. For much can be done at the micro level to help us and those we love thrive in bad times.

One important first step involves making sure our families are strong and happy. For this is vitally important if we are to lead good and rewarding lives while our public institutions continue to deteriorate – which seems a real possibility. Another important step involves citizens putting serious effort into discovering what is really happening, rather than uncritically accepting the official narrative touted by governments, mega corporations and the legacy media.

And depending on just how bad things get, another approach might involve finding alternative ways of getting the goods and services we and our families require – as happened in the former Communist countries of Eastern and Central Europe, where the State-managed systems were hopelessly incompetent and inefficient. One way of doing this might require the creation of alternate institutions as happened following the collapse of Rome where the Christian Church (and in particular the monasteries) provided many of the social, educational and health care services which disappeared due to the collapse of the Roman State.

Finally - and perhaps most importantly - we need to rediscover the spiritual foundation upon which the West was founded. For without such a foundation anything we do will be like building on shifting sand.

In short, we can fix this. But doing so will require all the determination and wisdom we can muster. And we will have to start immediately since the window of opportunity is a narrow one. Initially this will seem hard to accomplish. But taken in small incremental steps, it is doable. For as the Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu, wrote long ago, “"A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step".

Photo credit: Statue of Jan Žižka at National Memorial on Vítkov Hill in Prague, Czech Republic
Asurnipal, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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We provide commentary on the cultural decline of the Western world, from a conservative perspective.