Saturday 24 August 2019

'Forbes' list of the powerful shows it's not just world leaders who govern our lives

Russian President Vladimir Putin topped the list
Russian President Vladimir Putin topped the list

James Downey

Everybody loves lists, and everybody wants to know who sits where in the global pecking order. But when it comes to the 'Forbes' list of the 73 most powerful people on the planet, you have to suspect that the compilers relied, at least partly, on guesswork.

You also have to wonder whether the same compilers were influenced by their opinions as to the prospects of powerful people in the next phase of their careers.

At the top of the new 'Forbes' list stand Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel and Barack Obama. Russian president Mr Putin is probably the right choice for first place, and perhaps US president Mr Obama should have come second in view of the office he holds. But Mr Putin seems immortal, whereas Mr Obama is on the way out of office.

German chancellor Ms Merkel? I don't know. Several important German politicians are not on good terms with one another, and Wolfgang Schaueble is growing old. Still, Angela rules Europe, no doubt about that.

Pope Francis comes in fourth, Xi Jinping fifth. Maybe these placings should have been reversed. Once the Chinese have sorted out their current difficulties -which admittedly may take quite some time - Chinese president Mr Xi will become the second most important figure in the world and a challenger for the top ranking.

Much further down on the list, and on the other side of the globe, a married couple figures.

Does Bill Clinton deserve his ranking at No 64, or any ranking? And is his wife far enough above him at No 58?

Bill's power will continue to decline. Hillary's depends on events which will take place a year from now. If she wins the US presidency, as everybody expects, she will immediately take first place, ahead of Mr Putin and everybody else.

The joker in the American pack is Donald Trump, at the bottom. Does he merit inclusion at all? He may not even get the Republican nomination for the presidential campaign. If he does, he will not win. It is pretty safe to say that no Republican can win in 2016.

So much for the politicians. What about the media?

Aside from Jeff Bezos (who strikes me more as a hi-tech than a media figure) the list features only one gigantic media owner, Rupert Murdoch (No 35). His presence brings up difficult and intriguing questions. How does 'Forbes' assess power? How do you and I assess it?

Assessing rulers of large countries is relatively easy. Not so when it comes to media owners, especially Mr Murdoch.

He must have some influence, probably huge influence, over his readers' and viewers' opinions. But does he influence the way they vote, the factor that confers real power on those they vote for?

That certainly happens in England. One of the most famous headlines ever appeared in one of his newspapers: "It was the 'Sun' what won it." And it was. But elsewhere, I'm not so sure.

Naturally, the stars of the 'Forbes' galaxy include heads of great corporations, often young people typical of the digital age, who have amassed huge fortunes in a short time. However, more traditional types make their appearances too.

At No 28 we find the name Akio Toyoda. We have all heard of Toyota cars. Millions of us drive them.It's a fair bet that their impact on the market will continue indefinitely while more glamorous models rise and fall.

It's no surprise at all to find Janet Yellen (No 7) and Mario Draghi (No 11) high on the list. Ms Yellen heads the US Federal Reserve, Mr Draghi the European Central Bank. We may have doubts about the extent of the power enjoyed by, for instance, the Arab billionaires who also make their appearance here, but of Ms Yellen's and Mr Draghi's power there is no question. Their decisions affect all our lives.

And so do - or rather, will -decisions by people whose names are less familiar. 'Forbes' has done well to include two of them.

Ali Hoseini-Khamenei (No 18) rules Iran, once a great empire. It hardly conceals its ambition to become the dominant player in the Middle East. Is that possible in a country whose people are Shia Muslims, at odds with the Sunni Muslims of neighbouring states? It has many assets, including oil and a highly educated middle class. But can it really flourish unless the next stage in its progress is democracy?

Finally, 'Forbes' reminds us of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (No 57). In case you have forgotten, he founded Isil, which became Isil and is now called Islamic State.

He did not spark the flames now consuming the Middle East - they began with the invasion of Iraq - but he has contributed enormously to the violence and breakdown in the region. In so far as he wields real power, it is the power to engender further havoc.

His rise, and the chaos, have been due largely to dithering and incompetence on the part of the West, and that brings us all the way back to Barack Obama.

Mr Obama's presidency began in a condition of what W B Yeats called "ignorant goodwill". He has learned a great deal since. His recent agreement with Iran on nuclear issues was a triumph.

But in the short time that remains to him, can he initiate the daunting and complex moves necessary to bring peace to the Middle East? The answer to this question may determine whether he will still merit a place on the 'Forbes 'list after he leaves the White House.

Irish Independent

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