It was hard not to imagine Benjamin Netanyahu’s knickers bunching up as he watched Pope Francis pray for peace at the Israeli wall that segregates three million Palestinians from the outside world. While in Bethlehem, Francis celebrated the Vatican’s good relations with the “state of Palestine,” a gesture to Palestinian yearnings normally resisted by VIPs fearful of offending the imperial power next door. Francis also invited representatives from Israel and Palestine to negotiate peace in his Vatican apartment - certainly a doomed effort but at least a sincere one, unlike the cynical box-checking that stands for Middle East peacemaking in Washington.
Since his elevation just over a year ago, Francis has spoken out in favor of a more progressive and transparent Catholic Church and he has outmaneuvered some of the Vatican’s more unsavory cadres with subtle reforms. His tour of the Holy Land, however, offered a rare occasion of statesmanship which, in case you’ve forgotten, is what happens when leaders of integrity speak truthfully and act decisively in response to the desperation, venality, or ineptitude of others. It wasn’t just American and Israeli fecklessness that Francis exposed with his unscripted appeals for reason and humanity; rarely has visionary leadership been as broadly and pitifully lacking as it is today.
Nowhere it that more obvious than in Europe, where parliamentary elections this week turned out a slate of insurgent, ultra-right nationalists who would dissolve the European Union, end immigration, and inter its citizens into gated nation states. Blame establishment elites on both ends of the political spectrum. Having failed to anticipate the economic and social impact of the 2008 financial collapse, they indulged themselves with expedient cant over meaningful reform. The result was years of stagnant growth, chronic unemployment, and an abundant harvest of bigoted populism.
Meanwhile, Asia, having leveraged its post-war peace to raise living standards and democratize its politics, is now savoring its own acid brew of nationalism. In India, voters this month elected as prime minister Narendra Modi, a charismatic strongman with a Muslim problem; Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who enraged the entire Far East by lionizing Class-A war criminals, is pushing constitutional reforms that would allow Tokyo to involve itself in conflicts abroad - the first step, many Japanese fear, towards remilitarization. China, meanwhile, is reviving its own regional hegemony with such ham-fisted imperiousness as to make war with its neighbors - beginning with Japan, a U.S. ally - all but inevitable. In Thailand, years of political unrest and economic malaise erupted last week in a military coup that was particularly un-Thai for its nastiness. Having received an endorsement from the Thai monarchy, coup leader Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha warned his fellow citizens against criticizing the new regime or “creating problems.”
And speaking of overweening brass-hats, Egyptian putschist Abdel Fatah al-Sissi was elected president this week in a landslide victory made hollow by a papyrus-thin turnout. Having ousted Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood-led government in a coup last April, Sissi presided over a bloody crackdown on Islamists, many of them political innocents, in a country known for extreme piety. Sissi has expressed his admiration for Gamal Abdel Nasser, another Egyptian coup-leader who bled his country white with misbegotten wars over Yemen and Palestine and whose decision to nationalize the economy pauperized the nation for much of the post-war twentieth century. Given Egypt’s drearily predictable history, within a year Sissi will be cutting back-room deals with a resurgent Brotherhood to stay alive - a sure sign of his imminent betrayal.
Finally there are the Czarist delusions of Vladimir Putin and their ghastly toll on the people he presumes to lead. To paraphrase an old Irish saying: if the Dutch controlled Russia, they’d rule the world; if the Russians under Putin’s stewardship controlled the Netherlands, they’d drown. (All except the oligarchs, of course, who’d be following the disaster on Sky News from their hideous London piles.) Despite the powerful writ and bountiful natural resources at his disposal, the best Putin can deliver is a per-capita income level that ranks just above that of Malaysia and below Croatia. The Russian economy is staggering into recession, the consequence of Putin’s double-header with the West over Crimea, which he won, and Ukraine, where he has clearly struck out.
To make matters worse, Putin - who insists on carpet-bombing the world with publicity stills of himself bare-chested, like some aging Filipino film star - appears to be getting plastic-surgery referrals from Silvio Berlusconi. The horror.
It has come to this: the most prolific expression of political courage comes not from democratic republics or constitutional monarchies but the Vatican, which despite the Pope’s hopeful first year remains one of the most hierarchical and corrupt institutions on Earth. Perhaps his example may positively inspire our ruling establishment but given its small-minded, tactical sensibility my money is on Frank.