Prayers for the presidents

Manila is currently at a standstill to accommodate the hosting of this year’s Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit. Twenty-one world leaders, including United States President Barrack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping, are in town to discuss various issues, chiefly trade and economic relations. Work and classes are suspended, roads are closed, and security is at its tightest, all so the delegates can move seamlessly from their hotels to the summit venues.

Not everything has been all pomp and glitz, however. There’s already widespread criticism of the preparations undertaken to host the summit, viewed by many as “excessive”, “anti-people”, and “hypocritical” for the amount of disruption and inconvenience they have caused the public. Even foreign leaders are hounded by crises in their home country–Nieto by a worsening drug problem in Mexico, Xi by maritime disputes in the South China Sea, and Obama by every other major geopolitical conflict in the world.

All these make one wonder what it must really be like to be a national leader in a globalized world. These men and women are among the world’s most powerful, and collectively, their day-to-day decisions affect billions of people. It’s often so easy for ordinary citizens like us to find fault in their actions–we whip them for the smallest infractions, and blame them for problems that have preceded, and will outlive, their terms in office.

The truth of the matter is that national leaders are confronted by complex and interconnected issues that are sometimes very far removed from their citizens’ daily lives. A simplistic understanding of the powers they wield–that they can make problems disappear in one fell swoop “if they will just choose to”–can be misguiding, and will often lead to disappointment and blind anger.

We have to understand that these men and women juggle complex roles–they manage cabinets whose members may not always agree with them; they command armies whose generals may have little regard for civilian law; they must constantly make themselves available to personalities who have brokered their rise and perpetuity in power, even if it’s against their better judgment; they must make alliances with each other and endlessly worry about their positions in the global pecking order; they must look after their families, who, by extension, are vulnerable to the same security and reputational risks.

One wonders if these leaders don’t often catch themselves wishing that they can just be one of us, the nameless multitude who never have to think beyond our own backyards, and who still have the luxury to ridicule government leaders whenever we get stuck in traffic.

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