Forbes released its annual list of the “most powerful” people in the world today, and for the first time ever, Vladimir Putin has taken the top spot. The Russian president takes the crown from U.S. President Barack Obama, who has been on top every time except 2010, when Chinese president Hu Jintao briefly took his place.
Let’s begin by saying this: The list is right, Putin is clearly the most powerful person in the world right now. However, the Forbes list shouldn’t be a shock — it’s correcting itself.
The shift in Forbes’ rankings seems to come from a perceived increase in Putin’s use of his power on the world stage; offering a home to NSA leaker Edward Snowden, for example, or his hard line approach to Syria talks. While some, such as Ian Bremmer, have cast doubt on the true significance of these victories, it’s hard to deny they’re at least a PR coup.
Even if we trust this factor, however, it seems to be a misunderstanding of how true power works — it’s about ability or capacity, rather than actual use. When you consider that, it seems obvious that Putin has been the most powerful man for years, with far more power than his U.S. counterpart, where a complicated system of checks and balances on the executive branch of government limits Obama’s true power. Look no further than the government shutdown and the recent debt ceiling controversy for evidence of that.
The United States is clearly a far larger economy than Russia, with greater military strength, and more impact on world culture. However, Putin has much more control over Russia than Obama does over the U.S. — who else could have the richest man in his country jailed despite international condemnation, or be the subject of (not completely incredible) rumors of a $40-$80 billion personal nest egg?
Meanwhile, China may be an autocratic state, and Xi Jinping (and predecessor Hu Jintao) may have the same title as Putin, but his power is severely limited by the nine-person Standing Committee of the Politburo, on which he is only first amongst equals. “[A Chinese president’s] power is far less than the power of the U.S. president,” Cheng Li, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution told Bloomberg last year: By deduction, that’s far less than Putin.
There have been serious challenges to Putin’s power in recent years, but he has remained at the top of one of the world’s most powerful countries for 14 years, outlasting many autocratic leaders from older generations (Qaddafi, Chavez, etc). It seems safe to assume that not only has Putin been the most powerful person for a number of years, but also that he will probably remain in that position for some time.