Alexis de Tocqueville suggested that whereas aristocracies often exaggerate the importance of individual leaders, democracies tend to make the opposite mistake. In a democratic form of government, Tocqueville observed, the most flattering self-image is to assume that national leaders are entirely captive to broader popular and structural forces.
Today we live in an era of international politics where, as always, national leaders are subject to structural pressures and constraints. Yet to a remarkable degree, our times also showcase the sheer significance of individual leadership at the highest level.
Consider the current international role played by arguably the eight leading nations in the world: the United States, China, Russia, India, Japan, Germany, France and Great Britain. What makes these nations especially significant is that each of them have a range of economic and military capabilities well beyond that of most UN General Assembly members. It’s reasonable to refer to these eight nations as “major powers.” And even between them, you might say that some are more equal than others. For international relations scholars, this means we live in a global system that is somewhere between unipolar and multipolar. The United States is still the world’s most powerful country; China may be on track to match it; and there are a number of other major powers to be considered.