Leadership in Crisis Times; Who is your Wallfacer?

22 Comments

In Cixin Liu’s sci-fi trilogy (The Three Body Problem), humanity is under attack by a more advanced alien civilization. The aliens have sent sophons (modified photons) that can read/see/hear everything that is outside our heads, but they cannot read minds (apparently the Trisolarians have not solved the mind-body problem either), so the UN selects some people to be “wallfacers”; selected humans who are given free rein to develop a strategy to stop the aliens; they keep their strategy hidden inside their own minds, while using whatever resources humanity can put in their hands. In some sense, charismatic leaders are a bit like wallfacers; we trust their leadership without necessarily knowing what goes on in their head. As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to rage, we have the organized (relatively transparent) commissions and committees of the world hard at work, trying to figure out the best possible strategy. But much is unknown about the pandemic and how it will play out, especially in economic and political domains; in such times, leadership matters more because sane people disagree and no algorithm can decide who is right. The leader really has to lead, to make difficult decisions, to take original initiatives, to look for fresh answers. So who, out of the current crop of world leaders, is likely to do something above (or well below) “normal” handling?

  1. Trump. My view is not a secret. He is a corrupt narcissistic conman and a disaster. That does not mean he is wrong about everything and his critics are correct. In some cases his instincts may turn out to be better than those of the bureaucrats and traditional politicians, who maybe fighting the last war with yesterday’s methods (and whose own corruption and blind spots gifted us Trump in the first place). But he is batshit ignorant, he does not want to learn, he is not interested in anything beyond his own welfare. I expect nothing from him. I don’t even think he is seriously thinking about what to do, other than what he can get for his own re-election (see how he has managed to discover that stopping immigration is an anti-viral move at this time). That said, I am aware that there are sane people who like him and I encourage them to tell us more in the comments section 🙂
  2. Xi Jinping. Comrade Xi and his team are a black box to me. Please add your opinion in the comments section. I do think he is a Chinese patriot and I think China has many competent people at high levels of government and they have high standards of professionalism in midlevel people; I expect them to do some things very well, but it is also a dictatorship; dictatorships breed yes men and sycophants. Which brings us back to Xi, who I dont know anything about. So please comment..
  3. Putin. The Czar of all the Russians is clearly an intelligent and capable man. He has been in power for a long time. That breeds overconfidence and limits reality testing. Also, his country has less money than the first two. But the list of outsiders who paid the price for underestimating Russians is a long one; they are an amazing people, regularly screwing up on a massive scale and then regularly performing well beyond expectations.  What do you think it will be this time?
  4. Merkel. She seems highly intelligent and Germany can never be underestimated, but while I expect her to do a competent job, I do not expect unexpected miracles. No big “out of the box” moves. Which may be a good thing.
  5. Modi. His fans love him the way Trumpists love Trump; he is their only hope in an elite that otherwise does not have their pet projects as priority number one. Unlike Trump, he is not a conman, he is probably sincerely trying to make India stronger (whether he is succeeding or not is a separate question). But other than thinking he is sincere, I remain almost completely ignorant about his qualities as an individual. To hear his opponents say it, he is a bigoted non-entity, a “small man”, neither intelligent, nor well informed and certainly not well-intentioned. Supporters have a different view, but I am not sure how much of that is based on any real knowledge of the person, as opposed to his carefully cultivated persona (and their own projections/hopes). As far as i can tell, he is surrounded by yes men, doesn’t take criticism well and keeps his private thoughts to himself (in this at least, he is the polar opposite of Trump). So the bottom line is, I don’t know if he is capable of something above and beyond whatever capabilities the Indian state has collectively. Those abilities may be good enough (or better than nothing), but that does not seem to hold out the hope of any “out of the box” brilliant moves. Conversely, it also means they will not do crazy stuff.
  6. Imran Khan. The less said, the better. I will be happy if his regime turns out to have done about average. I fear they may do worse than average.
  7. Bojo. Baby Churchill may not be Churchill. Lets hear it in the comments.

What else? who is your wallfacer? and why? (I clearly know nothing about the leaders of South Korea, Taiwan or Japan.. feel free to tell us more about them in the comments section)

Just to be clear, I am not talking about “routine” response to the pandemic. That is important and it follows protocols and plans developed by bureaucrats and public health professionals, for better AND for worse. The thought here was that there may be an opportunity here for some nation to go beyond that level (or to significantly sink below it). IF that happens, who is likely to outperform the herd, who is likely to underperform? (e.g. I am guessing that Trump will under-perform, by American standards).  For the purposes of this post, I am thinking more about the economic and political consequences, not so much the caseload and death rate. 

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22 Replies to “Leadership in Crisis Times; Who is your Wallfacer?”

  1. Modi isn’t dumb, nor is he great at execution but what really keeps him going and why he is good against a pandemic is the fact that nation listens to him. People follow him, when he says stay home, a lot of them do. He is also willing to try out-of-the-box solutions but they don’t always pan out.

    Pros and Cons of Modi as a Wallfacer

    Pros – People listen to him; he can elicit a response from the masses. When he says stay home, huge number of people do stay home. Willing to try out crazy things without worrying about consequences – DeMo, GST, Article 370 Abrogation. He announced a lockdown well before most major nations, which might have saved lives.

    Cons – Too many Yes Men, bad at implementation (hindered by the red-tape and babudom of Indian state), doesn’t take criticism well. Doesn’t think things through, as evidenced by the migrant crisis.
    Also, his so-called ‘fascist’ tendencies don’t really materialise on the ground. Practically had to send NSA to beg Maulana Saad.

    Conclusion: Lockdown was a good move, but Modi is no global Wallfacer. Probably the best bet for India right now though. India will come out better than most nations thanks to a host of things, but Modi’s only true contribution will be a pre-emptive lockdown.

  2. After reading this, the first question to any sane mind, in this horrible pandemic, would be….

    “UN selects some people to be “wallfacers”; selected humans who are given free rein to develop a strategy to stop the aliens; they keep their strategy hidden inside their own minds, ”

    …. how come this hasn’t been turned into a movie franchise yet?

  3. Modi has a flair for the dramatics and a record of doing things that are ‘out of the box’, but the issue is that those things are invariably awful. The prime example of this is demonetization, an overnight out of the box move that ruined the economy. The thing is, even if he takes India back to the stone age through his response, he will still win the Hindu vote by insulting Muslims and promising to rearrange some stones to look like a Ram temple.

    Imran Khan is very predictable — he will beg for money. Rain, sleet, hail, snow; pandemic; alien invasion… the one thing you can count on is Imran Khan shamelessly begging. His begging bowl is like a bottomless pit.

  4. Modi has a flair for the dramatics and a record of doing things that are ‘out of the box’, but the issue is that those things are invariably awful. The prime example of this is demonetization, an overnight out of the box move that ruined the economy. The thing is, even if he takes India back to the stone age through his response, he will still win the Hindu vote by insulting Muslims and promising to rearrange some stones to look like a Ram temple.

    Imran Khan is very predictable — he will beg for money. Rain, sleet, hail, snow; pandemic; alien invasion… the one thing you can count on is Imran Khan shamelessly begging. His begging bowl is like a bottomless pit.

    (Sorry if double post)

  5. modi is a small town sort of man. he is more of an improviser and project executor rather than an ideas man.his lack of university education shows.
    he should take two issues a year and make them workable say like toilets, piped water to all, indigenous defence production, Varanasi, ganga cleaning, etc. we cannot get broad ideas and policies from him.

    in my view, the party should push nitin gadkari to be his next in line.

    1. modi is a small town sort of man. he is more of an improviser and project executor rather than an ideas man.his lack of university education shows.

      Brown…..I see your statement as a “lack of credentialism” argument. This was indeed the Lutyens view at the beginning of his first term in 2014. Partly this is also down to his aversion to sharing his life experiences. I was surprised to learn that he spent more than a year travelling as a private citizen in the US in the 1990s. This was long before his administrative experience. Ditto for China, apparently he has travelled for 3 months on the the road there.

      One area where he is under-appreciated is Fintech. India is miles ahead of either EU or the US in payments innovation with Government backed interventions.

    2. Modi’s lack of (good on-campus) university education does show sometimes. At the heart of it, Modi(+Shah) are professionals at winning elections and swaying (manipulating?) discourse. After Swaraj and Jaitley’s death (maybe count Parrikar too) they have picked lackluster Sitharam, a grateful Jaishankar and a lame Rajnath (who isn’t a big shot even in his home state UP). Gadkari is a doer and perhaps BJP’s most competent leader still alive. I don’t think he will get a shot as he has the raw potential to outshine Modi+Shah but is not as competent at winning elections. Gadkari needs a Shah(maybe in JP Nadda?). In am predicting that Modi will win another general election and rule till he is 78(currently 69) and retire just in time for Shah who will by then be 64 ready to take the mantle.

      Sometimes I seriously think all of us are killing time by not going into politics. Especially now with a non-dynastic/cult party like BJP where a complete commoner can become the PM. Hopefully AAP will be big someday and have space for non-Sanghis. Nothing short of winning a Noble prize/curing Alzheimers can outweigh the good that can be done in 5 years as even a minister of state.

      1. University education? Is this the political equivalent of “Nate Silver”? BA in economics and a statistics masters from LSE. Goes on to make the famous “Hillary Clinton has 99% chance of winning the Presidency” call.

        Manmohan Singh had all the university degrees in the world. An average inflation rate of 11.8% in the final years, exploding CAD and at least 6 major strategic mistakes.

        1. My dislike for Modi is not visceral and rather passive/muted. But here are a few reasons:
          1) Demonetization
          2) Exit of people like Urjit Patel, Raghiram Rajan, Arvind Panagariya and inflow of ‘multi-talented’ yes men like Sanjeev Sanyal, Shaktikant Das. Other than this somewhat competent people like Prabhu, junior Sinha were dropped while Shorie was almost thrown out. And for all this trouble what do we get in the end? Normal Sitharaman!
          3) Jingoism that behooves people like me but not the prime minister.
          4) Most importantly institutional degradation, think General VK Singh, Judge Gogoi, dilution of Lokpal, open use of CBI to poach opponents like Mukul Roy. I know of many instances where IIT directors were dropped because they didn’t kowtow most famously when Kakodkar resigned in protest when IIT B director was hand picked.
          5) Misuse of power to unfairly take down state governments (Arunachal, MP, Karnataka, on and on..). Reinforcing dirty tactics(buying/luring/poaching MLAs) and in the case of J&K (governor dissolving the assembly just in time before others can form government) setting stunning new lows.
          6) Creating and feeding the worst news media in the world which runs on toxic
          public discourse. Just look at the silly interviews he gives to see how seriously he takes these spineless cockroaches.
          7) Willingness (eagerness?) to use muscle power on street.
          8) Earlier Uma Bharati and company now Giriraj and company.
          I can write a few more but the point I am making is that Modi is a regular power hungry politician who is not really thinking about the long term consequences of many of his actions. He has figured out how to use social media well and is an obviously strong electoral campaigner but his performance (except on civil aviation, corruption and toilet building) has not been great. His ‘street smart’, ‘earthy’ understanding of India that resonates with the masses has many limitations.

          1. Can understand all these points. In fact a few of them are articulated by BJP/RSS intellegentsia like Shourie and Swamy. The average Indian does not have a university degree and is not prone to intellectualizing things. Modi falls in the middle of the Overton window of worldview for most Indians.

            For example, the Indian intellectual politician of yore banned child labour in Parliament, adopted right to jobs and right to health. All these were just statements of intent and photo-op material. Absolutely nothing changed on the ground. Just ban it or condemn it and move on. Absolutely no change on ground. In 2014, 56% of Indians did not have access to toilets or cooking gas. Modi brought that down to sub-20%. The stats for bank accounts were even more marginal.

            I for one am willing to tolerate many of Modi’s shortcomings. MJ Akbar beautifully summarized it in a rural Indian sentence “A milch cow always kicks a little”

          2. “I for one am willing to tolerate many of Modi’s shortcomings. ”

            Yeah, the funny part is right leaning folks think they have a choice apart from Modi. Last few days seeing some criticism from these quarters on Modi. Perhaps they have forgotten how inconsequential the pre Modi BJP really was.

            We can have the intellectual right wing trioka of Gadkari-Shouri-Swamy to take on Manomohan-Chidu- (random mallu guy). Of course neither side can win a municipality elections on their own though.

          3. “Yeah, the funny part is right leaning folks think they have a choice apart from Modi.”

            Should keep hubris in control.
            Right leaning folks on the net are also generally well off and invested in markets and real estate.

            Chidambaram was a pretty decent crisis-time FM.

            When push comes to shove, money is what matters. If the economy goes belly up, no amount of social capital is going to do any good.

          4. Yeah perhaps, but if you have no/less social capital, everything else is irrelevant, including economy. Vajpayee realized it in 2004.

            The economy right can always go back to Chidambaram-Manmohan, and can always have reforms like retroactive tax and Land acquisition bill to kickstart the economy.

  6. Modi – I came to know about modi working as a power sector consultant to one of the state governments. Modi took a risky bet on an unique scheme – Jyotigram yojana. Other state governments even after knowing about the success of the scheme could implement it (due to massive initial fixed costs). Modi has ability to take risk and ability to identify the right areas for India, IMO – basic sanitation, housing, drinking water, GST, bankruptcy and instilling fear for rule of law for the elite.

    The weakness as you correctly point out is inability to take criticism, being too political resulting in not taking hard decisions that impact his core supporters (i.e. social media activism), relatively low importance of HRD/Education (it might be a bias but Gujarity folks are anchored on business more than education).

  7. As a rule, in times of war and disease, the incumbent gets the benefit of doubt. Only an exceptionally incompetent persona will lose out on this support. Starting with the first leader who had the power to lock this down, but screwed up. Then by sequence to the epidemiological chain –

    Xi Jinping – Incompetence added to lack of accountability in an uniquely Chinese setting. I think more and more evidence is emerging that the first outbreak was in early November. Close to 3 months, Xi and his underlings spent time in batting down information flows and contributing to a RoW shock. I personally think, Xi has lost the”heavenly mandate” in the eyes of the Chinese elite. He will pay for it or will be terribly weakened by the compromises he will be forced to make.

    EU/Merkel – The next stop for the virus was Northern Italy (co-incidentally on the BRI path). The EU dithered and dithered in the early days by refusing to provide any support to Italy and by preventing critical medical supplies from reaching beleaguered hospitals. I think the good-faith of common Italians in the EU is shot to pieces. EU will not survive (may take 5-7 years to fully unravel). Unfortunately this will be Merkel’s baggage for the rest of history. She is a first rate chemist and like all professional scientists – she only understands first order effects very well. Second order and third order reactions are beyond her gaze.

    Trump (the next stop on the virus path) – Trump for whatever reasons, has been anti-China from Day One of the presidency. The liberal echo-chamber fails to understand this. He perfectly understands second and third order effects of the virus. Yes, he is not adept at first order tactics. He is playing 3D chess though. His actions will be seen in a better light by the electorate 1 year from now. He will also consolidate the coming anti-China establishment wave thats going to come.

    Modi – He has largely simplified the complexity of the viral effects to one parameter – social capital. He has successfully managed to convey to the public about the binary nature of the fight – lockdown (economic suicide) or loss of lives. This is the mark of a good orator. To convey very complex ideas simply. He has crested the first bow wave very competently.

  8. Trump: He looks foolish with most of the things he says but he has finger on pulse of Americans (or say large part of the population) since long time. Saw a video from long time back where he says if he did run for president it would be as republican because thats just easier. And I think he had better relations with Democratic leaders at that time. Same for the fact that he went after no one candidate as much as he did after Biden from the start. He will be a president that will be remembered for long time and he’s in for that. Pandemic is just a distraction that he would like to convert to an opportunity. No use of searching for a statesman there.

    Xi: Very difficult to decipher China still. A lot of people have predicted wrong in past even after having high certainty about their predictions.

    Putin: He is on way to make Russia land of steppe warriors having best horses (includes nuclear missile to social media) They might not have a great solution but they have power to destroy yours quite effectively.

    Merkel: Did a good job for long time being not aggressive but efficient. Just the way Germans like it after certain short mustached guy. However the run came to end after refugee crisis. She failed to understand the reaction of Germans down the line. She hanged her boots in aftermath. Regarding Covid19 she has been clubbed with EU response in a comment here. I dont think any leader can be put in that category. While all EU leaders know what they did like from Eu no one want to come out of their national outlook to pay the price for it. Covid19 made this even more obvious than before.

    Modi: He is audacious, likes to take risks, good at implementation but needs someone to give him good ideas that he can work on. Quality of this team decides what he will be expending his political capital on. Shah can make him win elections but he needs someone else to become wallfacer. So he will be half of a wallfacer with implementation part at best.
    Quote/ To hear his opponents say it, he is a bigoted non-entity, a “small man”, neither intelligent, nor well informed and certainly not well-intentioned./
    He is clearly not ‘non entity’ as much his opposition would like to believe. He can be viewed as small man since he takes no prisoners. Dont find him especially intelligent or informed. He is well intentioned from his shoes. Opposition has problem with those intentions being good in first place in their world view.

  9. It is difficult to find praise for Trump since it seems obvious to most that he exaggerates or lies about many things. His understanding of Federalism is frighteningly wrong. He is petty and vindictive with the emotional range of a 10 year old.
    Yet, it says something about our time that his low character is in some ways more palatable than many of our so called leaders who seem untethered to quaint ideas like patriotism and loyalty.
    Much of the public does not trust our media elite who have become a mouthpiece for globalism and progressive ideals dangerously close to Marxist ideology.
    Although he is a buffoon, he is our buffoon whose childlike faults seem fairly harmless. His cabinet officials seem fairly solid and I suspect occasionally he even listens to them. I don’t see any grand ideas coming from his administration but I don’t think he will lead us to ruin either.
    As far as Putin and Xi, how do you realistically compare the leadership of dictators against those of Western democracies. They can be assumed to do what they’ve always done; protect their own self-interests untrammeled by the messiness of other opinions.
    Merkel and her fellow progressives have led us to this point in history. I expect nothing more from them than platitudes for the masses while they stay comfortable in their enclaves.

  10. I’d think a good “wallfacer” would be a non-politician. Someone like Bill Gates or even Mukesh Ambani should be made the pandemic czar.

    1. Yes makes sense! Doesnt have to be political leader.

      But dont use Ambani in same sentence as Gates. Maybe Ratan Tata.

      Ambani would sell water or air to Indians under monopoly if they could ensure the same with political patronage. BJP or Congress is irrelevant to them !

  11. ” I am not talking about “routine” response to the pandemic. That is important and it follows protocols and plans developed by bureaucrats and public health professionals, for better AND for worse”

    I would say almost all countries and leaders (apart from USA) have acted more or less on expected lines. No one is really ahead of the curve (yet). The EU countries tethered b/w open-ness and containment. Xi and Putin did what they do best, clamp down. India and rest also veered towards the latter since they dont have the health infrastructure of the west.

    I dont think any other leader in these countries would have done anything drastically different , given the circumstances. Apart from US of course 🙂

    P.S I think you undervalue some of the latent “advantages” (if we can call it that) having Trump being President gives. Had Obama/Hillary been the president i half expect the red states to not enforce the lockdown , while some in these states even Gherao-ing Govt buildings and all.

  12. I expect them to do some things very well, but it is also a dictatorship; dictatorships breed yes men and sycophants

    Personal/Dynastic Dictatorships breeds Yes men. China is not a Personal Dictatorship post Mao and esp post Deng.
    To use the badly translated text from the Chinese Party-State Constitutions, its a People’s Democratic Dictatorship.
    In practical terms what this means is, the Party is Supreme, what it says happens. Individuals are cogs and sometimes some cogs will have more peer relevance but they will still remains cogs fundamentally.

    Xi’s rise is Party led on account of what Party saw in its internal debates from late 90s to mid 2000s. They concluded internally unless Party was reformed their end is nigh (this despite the counter narrative in mainstream China field about Party being strong and having few good decades run in them). To reform the Party they needed more centralization because Reforms in such a system (in fact in general in any system really) can’t move forward without some sort of cohesion/purge/rectification.

    China is The oldest living State in the world. It invented Bureaucracy as we know it essentially. As the saying goes Bureaucracies Run the World.

    So from that angle Bureaucracy is the Wallfacer. Maybe predictable but also can mess things up royally so from that angle can suffice for a weak-wallfacer (if using strict TBP-lore conditions).

    This I’d say is more attuned with World’s Covid responses given that it didn’t turn into a Democracy-Authoritarian tussle in the end but a Competency of the Govt(no single person) & Bureaucracy.
    Even quality and scale of Medical or other forms of Infrastructure weren’t relevant. Western countries rank Top 10 in Health Security Index ratings and even China for a good while couldn’t make enough tests for their own population and had to rely on other countries help to keep up mask demand, even though half the planet’s masks were already made there even before this.

  13. Great use of the Wallfacer reference from the Three Body Problem Troligy, Omar! Loved the entire series, reading it has been one of the one good things that came of this lockdown.

    I don’t have a clear pick here, I don’t there’s a single (large) country that’s truly happy with how their leaders have handled the Covid crisis, and the grass will always be greener somewhere else.

    What I do find fascinating is the new-found concern that the Indian state has for the health and well-being of its citizens, even at the cost of a severe beating to the economy and a possible slide into an even more statist, socialist license raj-style scenario with increased taxes, etc. India wasn’t shutdown when pollution, poor sanitation, road accidents and malaria/dengue/take your pick have probably killed far more people than covid ever could. Is there a global fashion show of concern among national leaders going on? It seems global leaders are falling over each other in locking down their countries and appearing concerned for their masses. And Modi has taken this to the next level, that too with the willing approval of the overwhelming majority of people in the most argumentative nation on earth. And for this alone, hats off to the man.

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