A year ago in this space, I introduced the world’s three most promising new young leaders. All three seemed to be dynamic visionaries, deeply conscious of the magnitude of today’s global challenges. Now, after another year in office, how are they doing?
Wonderfully well. They have gone from being the “three most promising” to the three best. Americans rarely hear about them, but they have become models of national leadership. If other presidents and prime ministers would take lessons from them, the world would be a better place.
Each of the three has faced shocking upheaval, but all have responded the way national leaders should. They treat every citizen with respect, focus relentlessly on their country’s long-term future, and recognize that our times require radically new ideas and bold politicians to embody them. The sheen on new leaders often fades quickly, but these three continue to inspire. They contradict the view that the world is becoming irretrievably worse and no one is fighting back.
Turmoil has shaken all three of the politicians I placed on my best-new-leaders list a year ago. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and all New Zealanders were stunned by a terror attack on two mosques in which a gunman killed 51 people. In Ethiopia, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed wept at the funeral of his assassinated army chief of staff. President Carlos Alvarado of Costa Rica, which has a long history of social peace, faced a once-in-a-generation explosion of protest. Despite these setbacks, though, all three leaders have kept to the path of farsighted leadership.
Following the mosque shootings in New Zealand, Prime Minister Ardern proposed a ban on most semiautomatic rifles and pushed the law through Parliament in three weeks. But without attracting much notice outside her own country, she has done something more intriguing than controlling firearms. She shaped her first budget around the startling motion that the “well-being” of citizens is more important than economic growth.
Ardern’s first “well-being budget” lists her five priorities: transitioning to a sustainable low-emission economy; fighting child poverty; promoting digital innovation; increasing opportunities for indigenous people; and investing in mental health. “How are our people faring?” she asked in presenting the budget. “How is their overall well-being and mental health? How is our environment doing? These are the measures that will give us a true measure of our success.”
President Alvarado of Costa Rica has unveiled a plan that would end all use of carbon-based fuels by 2050. His wife, the architect and urban planner Claudia Dobles, who is overseeing the plan, recently presented a blueprint for a new national transit system based around electric taxis, buses, and an electric train that would be the country’s “spinal cord.” Fortune Magazine recently placed Dobles at No. 15 on its list of the world’s 50 greatest leaders; her husband didn’t make the list, though Prime Minister Ardern came in at No. 2, just below Bill and Melinda Gates.
Alvarado aroused intense opposition this year by pushing a painful fiscal reform through Congress. It reduces public pensions, increases taxes, and limits the national budget. When protesters blocked highways, Alvarado said he had “an absolute desire for dialogue” but insisted: “The blockades must end.” They did, but not without damage to Alvarado’s popularity. He said afterward that Costa Rica had been “on the verge of bankruptcy,” and that his “difficult but necessary” reform will guarantee fiscal stability during the possibly jarring transition to a carbon-neutral economy.
My other favorite young world leader, President Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia, had the toughest year of the three. He plunged into his job with blazing energy, freeing political prisoners, assembling a female-dominated cabinet, legalizing opposition parties, naming a famous dissident to head the electoral commission, and pursuing both ethnic reconciliation at home and peace with neighboring Eritrea. Born to a Muslim father and a Christian mother, and seared by his experience as a peacekeeper in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide, Ahmed has sought to ease deep tribal hostilities. But ethnic nationalism, long repressed by brutal regimes, is spreading as democracy allows more freedom of expression. Last month a regional militia tried to stage a coup, leading to dozens of deaths, including that of the army chief of staff. Ahmed is hoping that the prospect of a brighter national future will counterbalance centrifugal forces threatening to pull Ethiopia apart. It’s far from a sure bet, and Ahmed’s next year will be turbulent.
Not only are the three intrepid new-generation leaders I singled out last year still doing well, but I am also scoping out a fourth to add to the list. President Nayib Bukele of El Salvador, who at 37 is about the same age as the other three, has been in office for less than three months but has shown himself eager to break with the violent paradigms that have torn his country apart. He faces enormous challenges, including dealing with pervasive gang violence and balancing his leftist base against his need to maintain good ties with Washington. But like Ardern in New Zealand, Alvarado in Costa Rica and Ahmed in Ethiopia, he is starting well.
One way to judge the success of a political system is to see whether it attracts the country’s most capable citizens into politics. Our system has manifestly failed to do that. Power to direct American government has fallen to the corrupt and nefarious. Amid this collapse, it is cold comfort to know that some other countries are doing far better.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.