Maybe one of geopolitics’ hoariest cliches is in need of revision. At least since the end of the Cold War, “The most powerful man in the world” has been a standard appendage for the President of the United States. Now, if Forbes is to be believed, that title belongs to the leader of America’s vanquished Cold War rival, the President of Russia.
For only the second time since the US business magazine began its practice of listing the world’s most powerful people in 2009, Barack Obama is not ranked No 1 this year. In 2010, the distinction went to Hu Jintao, the former Chinese President. Now it is the hour of Vladimir Putin, right.
Such rankings are entirely subjective; indeed their existence is merely evidence of the American obsession with lists, numbers and its eternal search for definitive truth in statistics. But they’re undeniably fun.
Nonetheless, Obama’s demotion and Putin’s promotion (from 3rd in 2012), underline a fundamental truth about the nature of power. In terms of objective “hard power”, America has long reigned supreme: a defence budget exceeding those of the ten next countries combined, a unique ability to project troops and colossal firepower to every corner of the earth, and (as the current NSA brouhaha only confirms) unsurpassed technology to boot.
But matters are not so simple. Power resides in the perception of power or, put another way, of the readiness of an individual or state to use it. Obama’s performance of late, not least over Syria, suggests he is uncomfortable in that role. No such doubts surround Putin.
Happily for the US and the rest of us, economic might counts at least as much as military might, if the Forbes list is anything to go by. That’s why Angela Merkel is at No. 5 – though Germany’s readiness to use military power is close to zero – ahead of David Cameron (11th) and François Hollande (18th), who both head nuclear powers and who both talked a fierce fight against Syria.
Even so, ranking the new pope at 4th might be pushing it. Pope Francis’ personal humility and moral example are indubitably inspiring, but the scandals that have plagued a hide-bound Catholic Church may be hard to overcome. By contrast China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, entering the charts at No 3, has clear upside potential, as stock analysts say.
In general, however, the US continues to rule. Of the 72 names on the list (each representing 100 million of the world’s population), 28 are American. The bulk of those are corporate bosses, plus the inevitable Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve, ranked at No 7. The high-tech contingent (the heads of Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Apple etc.) also attest to America’s enduring “soft power”.
Apart from Putin, only three Russians make the list, a more accurate reflection of the country’s modest economic ranking (around 10th, as measured by GDP). Finally, keep an eye on one dark horse – Sepp Blatter, 69th on the Forbes list. Who knows, when Rio 2014 rolls around, the head of Fifa could supplant Putin.
Top dogs: The people who really matter
1 Vladimir Putin; Russian President (3)
2 Barack Obama; US President (1)
3 Xi Jinping; General Secretary of China’s Communist Party (9)
4 Pope Francis; Supreme Pontiff (NA)
5 Angela Merkel; German Chancellor (2)
6 Bill Gates; Co-chair Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (4)
7 Ben Bernanke; US Federal Reserve Chairman (6)
8 Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud; King, Saudi Arabia (7)
9 Mario Draghi; European Central Bank President (8)
10 Michael Duke; Wal-Mart CEO (17)
11 David Cameron; British PM (10)
12 Carlos Slim; Chairman, América Móvil (11)
13 Warren Buffett; CEO, Berkshire Hathaway (15)
14 Li Keqiang; Vice Premier, China (13)
15 Jeff Bezos; Amazon CEO (27)
16 Rex Tillerson; Exxon Mobil CEO (22)
17 Sergey Brin; Co-founder, Google and Larry Page, CEO, Google (20)
18 François Hollande; President, France (14)
19 Tim Cook; Apple CEO (35)
20 Dilma Rousseff; Brazilian President (18)
And selected others...
33 Rupert Murdoch and family; Media dynasty (26)
46 Kim Jong-un; Supreme Leader of North Korea (4)
67 Joaquin Guzman Loera; World’s most powerful drug trafficker (63)
(2012 ranking in brackets)