Most of us like to think we’re pretty well-informed. We watch the news, we read in-depth reports, heck, we even understand weird acronyms like OECD, ICC, and IMF.
But even the most observant among us can forget the stuff we’re reading comes through a filter. Our papers, magazines, and news sites all love a good narrative, and that means casting world leaders as characters in an ongoing story called “try to make the news as simple as possible.” Go looking on any reputable site, and you’re liable to still find articles pedaling bunkum like this:
You’ve probably heard of Angela Merkel. The chancellor of Germany since 2005, Merkel is both the EU’s most powerful politician and something of a beacon for liberals. Papers like the Guardian and Washington Post have dubbed her the “leader of the free world.” On the flip side, right-wing sites like Breitbart have dismissively called her the “liberal hero.”
This perception is bolstered by the only two policies of hers most English speakers can name: supporting the EU and throwing open the doors for Syrian refugees. But, as our German readers will already know, this isn’t the full Merkel story. The world’s most powerful woman is actually way closer to a conservative like Britain’s Theresa May than anyone a Democrat might vote for.
Merkel is head of an avowedly Christian party, which translates into policy. At various times, she has approved a burka ban, voted against legalizing gay marriage, and (ironically) authored a manifesto that said mass immigration would “threaten [Germany’s] inner peace.” She’s arguably even more conservative on fiscal policy. And, having just nearly lost an election by trying to pick up left-wing voters, she’s probably about to tack further right.
As leader of America’s cooler, colder northern sibling, Justin Trudeau is the global poster boy for male progressives. He’s telegenic, an outspoken feminist, and has declared Canada open to the world’s refugees. Never mind that he had to embarrassingly backtrack on the refugee thing, he’s still about as “woke” as they come, right?
Well, it’s true that Trudeau is no President Trump. But it’s also true that he’s nowhere near as progressive as endless fawning articles make out. For all his soaring rhetoric on gender and equality, the prime minister has done almost nothing to boost his own progressive causes.
Earlier this year, Oxfam released a scorecard for Canada’s gender progress under Trudeau. They surmised that nothing had changed. The government had taken virtually no steps to create meaningful change, while actively exacerbating issues among First Nations women. The only real gain was in leadership, with Trudeau appointing more women to high office than his predecessor.
Despite this, Trudeau is still seen abroad as a weird combination of handsome Jesus and progressive Superman. Maybe other world leaders should give his PR team a call.
If you ask most people to name one fact about Saudi Arabia, they’ll probably reply with, “Women can’t drive there.” The theocratic Islamic petro-kingdom is widely assumed to be so religiously conservative that basic rights are nonexistent. Everyone has heard of the feared religious police, the way dress codes are subject to law, and the general restrictions on what Saudi women can do.
What they might not have heard is that their information is kind of out-of-date. After King Salman appointed his son, Mohammed bin Salman, as crown prince in June 2017, the Kingdom suddenly hit the reverse gear on many of its craziest policies.
With Mohammed bin Salman effectively running the country, women have been given the right to drive, to go to music concerts (themselves a big deal), and to visit sports stadiums. The religious police have been stripped of their power. Islamist clerics have been jailed. While it may be a cynical gamble to shore up the crown prince’s popular support, it does at least mean Saudi Arabia is slowly becoming a less terrible place.
The barrel-chested, frequently shirtless strongman of Russia, Vladimir Putin occupies a special place in the Western imagination. He’s the boogeyman, a Machiavellian prince pulling the strings behind the world’s stage. He may be an evil genius, but he’s a genius nonetheless.
This reputation doesn’t survive much contact with reality. Look at most of chess master Putin’s most recent moves, and he looks less like a cunning fox and more like a drunken dog.
Putin’s most recent geopolitical gambles have all had decidedly mixed results. Annexing Crimea resulted in a slew of sanctions against Russia, plus an extremely expensive water shortage in Crimea itself. Intervention in Syria has kept Assad in power but led to terrorist attacks against Russia and the assassination of a Russian diplomat. And meddling in the US election has resulted in a president who stuffs his cabinet with Russia hawks.
As a direct result of his actions, Putin’s Russia is now isolated on the world stage. Following the invasion of Ukraine, his Eurasian Union has become a pipe dream. He’s not a total bungler, but neither is Putin the geopolitical Hannibal Lecter of popular imagination.
Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma (aka Myanmar) spent so long as the female Nelson Mandela that her new image can seem like a betrayal. After decades of speaking out in favor of democracy and against repression, Aung San Suu Kyi shocked the world this year by refusing to condemn the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims by the Burmese army. With around 800,000 of the minority now refugees, Aung San Suu Kyi’s reputation has plunged from “saint” to “ogre.”
There’s just one issue: Aung San Suu Kyi was never a saint. Nor is she an ogre. The truth is way more nuanced than that.
Despite the perception abroad, Burma has not become a democracy. The military still controls the border and the interior ministry and remains in control of defense. If this more open path doesn’t pan out, the generals could still stop the experiment and return the country to a dictatorship. Her whole life, Aung San Suu Kyi has dreamed of guiding Burma to true democracy. By speaking out against the military now, she could imperil the whole process.
It has been said that people are disappointed with Aung San Suu Kyi because they built her up to be a saint, not a politician. But the lady is as concerned with public attitudes as, say, Paul Ryan. And she needs to be. While the violence against the Rohingya is deplorable, Aung San Suu Kyi isn’t a miracle worker. She’s a politician in an extremely difficult position, and her actions sadly reflect that.
Elizabeth II is the most famous queen on Earth not to have had Freddie Mercury in them at some point (unless we’re missing some particularly juicy palace gossip). There are thousands of articles out there listing the weird powers she still holds over Britain and parts of the Commonwealth. Even well-read non-Brits might assume she still has the ability to do some important, queenly stuff.
We’ll set the record straight here. On paper, the queen has a lot of powers. In reality? She probably has less power over the UK than the guy who fetches Theresa May’s tea.
In UK law, a whole bunch of the queen’s powers have been devolved to Parliament and the judiciary. While they may technically lie with the queen, her actually using them would trigger a constitutional crisis, one probably followed by the swift dissolution of the monarchy. The last monarch who refused to sign a bill into law was King George IV in 1829. He was quickly forced into a humiliating public climbdown.
Interestingly, there is one true power the queen has over her subjects: She is immune from prosecution. That means if she wants to nick a crate of beer and get in a fistfight at a soccer match, there’s nothing the police can do to stop her.
Ever since November 2016, a trend has grown in the media for calling new populist politicians “the next Donald Trump.” The latest figure to be graced with this title is Andrej Babis, the newly elected Czech leader. But while such tags may make foreign news easier for readers to digest, it also severely distorts their view of things. Babis is less “the next Trump” and more “a guy who would totally agree with Trump on immigration and Islam but disagree on pretty much everything else.”
Like Trump, Babis is an outsider populist billionaire. Unlike Trump, he’s an experienced member of government (as finance minister), a supporter of the European Union (if not the Euro), and largely lacking in the nationalism that propelled Trump to the presidency. (He advocates a close relationship with Germany, for example.) His ANO party—which means “yes” in Czech—is part of the centrist coalition in the European parliament. When The Washington Post suggested he shared Trump’s fondness for Putin, Babis wrote to them directly, reaffirming his support for NATO.
Babis is also shadier than Trump. While the US president is being investigated for collusion with Russia, Babis is already known to have stolen millions of dollars from a small business fund.
As the region that gave us Che Guevara, it’s perhaps no surprise that South America has a reputation for being a left-wing nirvana. Of the 26 countries that allow gay marriage, four are in the region—the biggest grouping outside of Europe. In the early 2000s, a “pink tide” swamped the southern continent, resulting in eight left-wing governments. Anti-US tirades became a fact of life. Even today, the region is seen as largely anti-US and anti-capitalist.
That image may now be out-of-date. Over a decade after the pink tide, and South America has gone from being a land of rabble-rousing leftists to a place of center-right technocrats.
Both Argentina and Brazil currently have center-right leaders, while Chile’s center-right Sebastian Pinera seems likely to win December’s election. Colombia and Paraguay are led by right-wingers, Peru is lead by a centrist, and Ecuador in 2017 came within a gnat’s hair of electing its first center-right leader in years. Of the remaining leftist governments, only Uruguay is functioning well. Venezuela is about to implode, and Bolivia’s president is trying to remove term limits and become the next Maduro. The leftist dream may not be dead down south, but it is on life support.
President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia is the guy who ended a 52-year civil war. After over five decades locked in a brutal conflict with left-wing insurgents FARC, Santos managed to negotiate a truce that saw one of the largest terrorist groups on Earth voluntarily disarm. He’s since negotiated a cease-fire with smaller rebel group ELN. For his efforts, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
At this point, you may be thinking that Santos sounds like the biggest dove in the Americas. While that’s kinda true, it’s also kinda false. For all he’s embraced peace in the last few years, President Santos started his career as a possible war criminal.
From 2006 to 2009, Santos served as defense minister under President Alvaro Uribe, a period when the war with FARC was at its height. It’s also the period when Colombian soldiers started abducting and killing innocent civilians and dressing them up as guerillas to boost their kill count. Over 2,000 people were killed this way on Santos’s watch. Human rights groups say the knowledge went all the way to the top.
It’s important to note that Santos denies the charges. But it’s also important to note that the ICC wants to indict his former boss for the killings. If Uribe knew about them, there’s no way Santos couldn’t have.
In November 2017, the iron grip of Zimbabwe dictator Robert Mugabe loosened and then shattered in two dramatic weeks. The sudden end of the long-serving authoritarian’s reign should have given pause for thought to dictators everywhere. Perhaps none more so than North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.
Although portrayed in the West as faintly comical, Kim is a ruthless operator. The casual cruelty of his purges has given the impression that he’s strong-willed enough to be around forever. But, as Mugabe’s downfall shows, nothing can last forever. And there’s already evidence that Kim’s grasp on power is a lot weaker than most of us think.
Thae Yong Ho is one of the highest-ranking North Korean defectors in history, fleeing the regime in 2016. In January 2017, he gave an interesting speech predicting Kim’s days were numbered. According to Thae, criticism of the regime has been growing as technology makes it easier for North Koreans to see what life is like outside their hermit kingdom. At the same time, Kim’s bloody purges are seeing him lose popularity among the elite.
Far from being unshakeable, Kim may be clinging on for dear life. Here’s to hoping a North Korean spring finally kicks this pudgy despot out of power.