In 2014, following the Russian invasion of Crimea, The Washington Post published the results of a poll that asked Americans about whether the US should intervene militarily in Ukraine. Only one in six could identify Ukraine on a map; the median response was off by about 1,800 miles. Those respondents who favoured intervention were the ones who could not identify Ukraine on a map. Those who thought Ukraine was in Latin America or Australia were the most enthusiastic about using military force.
The following year, Public Policy Polling asked a broad sample of Democratic and Republican primary voters whether they would support bombing Agrabah. Nearly a third of Republican respondents said they would, versus 13 per cent who opposed the idea. Democratic preferences were roughly reversed; 36pc were opposed, and 19pc were in favour. Agrabah doesn’t exist. It’s the fictional country in the 1992 Disney film Aladdin. Experts in national security couldn’t fail to notice that 43pc of Republicans and 55pc of Democrats polled had an actual, defined view on bombing a place in a cartoon.
Increasingly, incidents like this are the norm rather than the exception and this is not restricted to what people don’t know about science or politics or geography. The bigger concern today is that Americans and in other democracies have reached a point where ignorance is seen as an actual virtue. To reject the advice of experts is to assert autonomy, a way to demonstrate independence from nefarious elites and insulate their increasingly fragile egos from ever being told they’re wrong.
Today the USA is led by Donald Trump who many would say has an exceptionally fragile ego. I’m sure like me you have read a lot about him and his quotes such as “I was a great student. I was good at everything”. He has famously name-dropped Wharton 52 times between June 2015 and January 2018 saying, “I went to the Wharton School of Finance, the toughest place to get into.” He’s called Wharton “super genius stuff.”
In the UK Boris Johnson who after reading Classics at Balliol College in Oxford University spent a large part of his career as a journalist. He began at The Times but was dismissed for falsifying a quotation. He was then hired by the Daily Telegraph where in 1989 he became Brussels correspondent. At the end of his time in Brussels his distorted stories had damaged his credibility among his peers in Europe.
Thereafter he became assistant editor and chief political columnist for the paper although he privately confessed to a colleague to not possessing “any political opinions”. He also acquired a column in the Spectator, which he littered with such terms as “piccaninny” and “puffing coolies”.
In 1999, at 35, he became editor of the Spectator on the understanding he would drop his political ambitions. Within two years he became a Tory MP promising his electorate he would step down from the Spectator, but he stayed on for four years.
It was not just his employers and voters whom he thus betrayed but also his second wife Marina, whom he had married while still in Brussels. One of his longest liaisons was with columnist Petronella Wyatt, but he lied about the affair to the Tory leader’s communications chief Guy Black. When sacked for dishonesty, he insisted that it was acceptable, even desirable, to lie.
He then became London Mayor in 2008. The shine wore off almost instantly when it became clear he had virtually no plans. Many appointments made in indecent haste ended in sackings, resignations, accusations of lying and racism and even a criminal conviction.
Xi Jinping was 10 years old when his father was purged from the Party and sent to work in a factory. The Cultural Revolution cut short his secondary education when all secondary classes were halted for students. His mother was forced to publicly denounce his father, as he was paraded before a crowd as an enemy of the revolution before being thrown into prison when Xi was 15. Unable to stand rural life, he ran away to Beijing where he was arrested during a crackdown on deserters from the countryside and sent to a work camp to dig ditches.
In the 1970s he studied chemical engineering at Beijing’s Tsinghua University as a “Worker-Peasant-Soldier student”. In 1985, as part of a Chinese delegation to study US agriculture, he stayed in the home of an American family in Iowa. This trip, and his two-week stay with a family, is said to have had a lasting impression upon him and his views of America. In the late 1990s he studied Marxist theory and ideological education in Tsinghua University, graduating with a doctorate in law and ideology in 2002.
French President Emmanuel Macron studied philosophy at Paris Nanterre University, later completing a master’s degree in public affairs before graduating in 2004. Macron is not a man with a modest vision. “I will convince our compatriots that France’s power is not in decline, but that we are at the dawn of an extraordinary renaissance,” he told the country at his inauguration as president.
Aged just 30 he joined Rothschild bank recommended by powerful alumni of the École nationale d’administration and also François Henrot, a longtime Rothschild partner. At Rothschild he found himself at the heart of French business intrigues, acquiring the codes and jargon of a world where careers largely depend on having attended the right elite university.
Former Rothschild colleagues and clients who worked with him describe a hard-working, ambitious beginner who learnt fast and had a “gift for empathy” with clients. “He was the guy who would constantly say ‘thank you’,” a former colleague said. “He didn’t know what ebitda [earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation] was. He didn’t try to hide it. And instead of looking it up in a corporate finance book, he asked around.”
According to a 2018 opinion poll, 72pc of French people perceive Macron as a “president of the rich,” whose policies are more right – than left-wing. “What you’ve got is a narrative beginning to take hold in France that this is a president acting on behalf of the rich,” said Sophie Pedder, Paris bureau chief at The Economist.
Born in Hamburg in 1954, Angela Kasner was only a couple of months old when her father, a Lutheran pastor, was given a parish in a small town in East Germany. She grew up in a rural area outside Berlin in the Communist east, and earned a doctorate in quantum chemistry, later working as a chemist at a scientific academy in East Berlin.
After the Berlin Wall came down, she got a job as East German government spokeswoman and briefly served as a deputy spokesperson for the first democratically elected East German Government.
Two months before Germany’s reunification in 1990, she joined the Christian Democrats (CDU) and the following year took the job of minister for women and youth under Chancellor Helmut Kohl. When Kohl was caught in a slush fund scandal, she called for his resignation and in 2000 was chosen to lead the CDU. She became Germany’s first female chancellor in 2005.
After Europe’s financial crisis in 2008, she became the symbol of fiscal austerity, prescribing sweeping budget cuts and tight supervision as the cure for southern Europe’s chronic debts.
Critics say her initial reluctance to resort to bailouts weakened the eurozone’s credibility but as Germany became the biggest paymaster for the eurozone bailouts she became the driving force behind the EU’s efforts to restore confidence in the euro.
Her crown began to slip in 2015 as the backlash sparked by her open-door refugee policy helped fuel the country’s far right and led to her party’s worst electoral performance in almost 70 years in 2017.
The five leaders above rule over a total population which is just under 25pc of the global population of 7.8 billion. The five also lead countries that account for 51pc of the global GDP. There is no doubt they are very important people who should be the best for the positions they hold.
They should see themselves as the servants of the people they lead and recognise the impact their decisions have on the rest of the world. To be truly effective those they are responsible for must equip themselves not just with education but also with the kind of civic virtue that keeps them involved in the running of their own country. Laypeople cannot do without experts and experts must accept that they get a hearing, not a veto, and that their advice will not always be taken.
This is very evident as the world struggles with the impact of the coronavirus showing us all that the bonds tying the system together are dangerously frayed. Unless some sort of trust and mutual respect can be restored everything becomes possible including the end of democracy itself.
Today more than ever we need the best leaders possible who are trustworthy, competent and leaders the rest of us want to follow.
Gordon is the former president and chief executive of BMMI. He can be reached at