One of the most important issues facing the world is the growing vulnerability of political elites. This problem makes effective public and private leadership much more difficult, which is why the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Geopolitical Risk has selected it as a focus for 2014. 

As the dust of the global financial crisis finally settles, it might appear that things have begun to normalize. The United States is finding its economic footing with a return to modest growth. The eurozone has put existential threats behind it. Emerging markets such as Brazil, China, India, Turkey and others continue to rise, although at a slower pace.

At the same time, however, political elites face formidable new challenges as citizens use new tools to make new demands, coordinate protest, and pool their collective power. Governments of all kinds are scrambling for short-term solutions to help them through to the next business cycle, the next election, the next political transition. The result is a global crisis of legitimacy.

In the United States, gerrymandered congressional districts and interest groups with an increasingly narrow set of economic and ideological interests have driven intense partisanship. A growing number of Americans tell pollsters that too many of their elected leaders do not represent their interests or their values. In Europe, many citizens complain that crucial policy decisions are made by unaccountable officials who govern from beyond national borders. In emerging-market democracies such as Brazil, India, South Africa, and Turkey, leaders face expanding and restive middle classes even as slowing growth constrains their ability to spend their way out of political trouble. In authoritarian states such as China and Russia, demonstrations over economic and environmental issues, or the corruption and incompetence of local officials, risk spilling over into broader outpourings of dissatisfaction.

The leaders of all these states suffer from a “deficit of legitimacy.” Those who would pull their countries toward recovery or through the next delicate stages of development find themselves with a shortage of good options. The problem is not limited to political leaders; corporate decision-makers face their own sets of risks as the companies they head face new scrutiny from both consumers empowered by new communications tools and from increasingly embattled political officials.

The first point of pressure, particularly for political leaders of emerging-market countries, is the rise of increasingly demanding middle classes. Growth has slowed for most of these countries, and policymakers now face the dangerous combination of more modest economic prospects, rising public expectation for higher standards of living, and tougher economic tradeoffs than they have faced in many years. Volatile protests in 2013 in Turkey and Brazil were triggered by local events -- an aggressive police response to demonstrations against a plan to cut down a grove of sycamore trees in central Istanbul and a nine-cent fare increase for public bus service in São Paulo -- but they ignited a broader response from citizens who feel entitled to a more accountable government and higher-quality public services. In both cases, a noteworthy number of the protesters were members of their countries’ newly expanded middle classes. It is also clear that the increasingly broad availability of modern communications tools makes it easier for frustrated citizens to share their anger and organize protests. To manage that vulnerability, some political leaders will try to divert public fury toward other targets. 

Leaders in developed states, meanwhile, are also finding themselves under pressure from nonstate actors with the tools to enforce a greater degree of transparency than the political leaders themselves might like. Leaks by Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor, have badly undermined U.S. credibility with many of its allies. The transparency organization WikiLeaks closed the year by leaking negotiated draft text of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an enormous trade deal involving a dozen Pacific Rim countries including the United States. Given the ease with which information is now shared, and the difficulty of plugging every leak, the number of world leaders who will face these sorts of challenges will only grow. Governments, companies, even large media organizations, are ill-equipped to handle the “tyranny of real time.” More than ever, knowledge is power -- and more than ever, knowledge has been democratized.

This trend extends to China, which, traditionally, has had a more opaque government. China’s citizens cannot yet directly elect their country’s senior political leaders, but they have other means of exerting pressure for change and greater transparency. When a highway accident in northern China in 2012 left 36 people dead, Yang Dacai, the head of the Shaanxi Provincial Bureau of Work Safety, was the first to arrive to survey the damage. An image of him smiling at the scene of the accident went viral.

China’s so-called human-flesh search engine, a collection of Chinese Internet users dedicated to embarrassing corrupt or incompetent officials, then found and began to disseminate photos of Yang attending public functions wearing a variety of expensive wrist watches that were well beyond the financial means of a provincial safety official. Yang was dubbed “Brother Watch,” and, in September 2013, was sentenced to 14 years in prison for graft. A half decade ago, it is unlikely that anyone outside his office would ever have heard his name.

In short, political leaders around the world now face extraordinary pressures that will both increase their accountability and limit their room to maneuver. In addition, coordination among political leaders of different countries is now more transparent, and therefore more challenging, than ever before. As a result, the world’s increasing problems without borders -- from climate change, financial market vulnerabilities, and cyber-risks to global terrorism, weapons proliferation, and traditional competition for power -- are less likely than ever to be successfully resolved.

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