The 10 Most Powerful People in the World
First published: Friday May 7th, 2021
1. Xi Jinping
This one is a no-brainer. Not only is Xi Jinping the world's most powerful person, he is the most powerful person the world has seen for decades, if not longer.
Xi Jinping is not merely the leader of the world's most populous country, the world's largest economy, and it's third largest nuclear arsenal, he does so with nearly unquestioned obedience. His philosophy, "Xi Jinping Thought" has been incorporated into the Chinese constitution. Over 100 million people have downloaded an app on their phone to study it. Where Xi Jinping goes, so goes China. And increasingly, so goes the world.
1½ Xi Jinping's wife, Peng Liyuan
2. Vladimir Putin
Another easy choice. While Russia might not be the great power it once was, it still has the world's largest nuclear arsenal and its sixth largest economy. Furthermore, as the world's largest country by area, Russia has unimaginable natural resources, and is virtually impossible to conquer. Putin has ruled Russia like a tsar for two decades, tightly controlling the government and economy of this vast and powerful nation. And while Putin may not have the cult of personality that Xi Jinping enjoys, he is widely popular and will likely remain in power until he chooses to step aside.
3. Joe Biden
As U.S. President, Joe Biden is commander and chief of the world's most powerful army, its most powerful air force, and by far its most powerful navy. But his power has pretty firm limits. In terms of ability to dictate policy, Biden is tightly constrained by his own political party, by the rules of the U.S. Constitution, and by elites within the business community and media. But even though there's a lot he can't do, he is still, by quite a wide margin, the most powerful person in the United States.
4. Narendra Modi
Narendra Modi is like a poor-man's Xi Jinping, which is actually quite the compliment. Both men lead a country over 1 billion people. And both men have led their country for quite a long time, with increasing personal control over time. One fun thing about powerful people is how they can make arbitrary decisions that affect millions of people. On 9 November 2016, people in India woke up to learn that all paper money above $5 in value was no longer valid. They had to stand in long lines to redeem their old currency, with a very small daily limit. Many people died in the rush to exchange cash. Imagine having the power to dramatically affect a billion people! Not too shabby.
5. Donald Trump
This is a tricky one, and a little controversial. Surely, Mr. Trump has a wide following of deeply devoted fans. At his peak, they might have represented as much as 40% of the population of the United States. However, his fans, despite their large numbers, have very little political or social influence. How many CEOs, celebrities, journalists, and professors support Trump? Very few. One of his most prominent supporters was the CEO of a pillow company.
Trump's power is much more subtle. In fact, you could say it is an anti-power. Because Trump, more than anyone else, dictates what is socially unacceptable in the the western world. A large percentage of the elite population takes it as axiomatic that whatever Trump says is wrong. I firmly believe that if Trump had appeared on television in February 2020, wearing a mask, and calling for lockdowns, that the entire trajectory of the pandemic would have changed. Masks and lockdowns would be considered not only wrong but racist. A single man changed the world. And that is true power, even if Trump himself is unable to actually harness it.
6. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan
The modern nation of Turkey was born from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire in 1923. The founder of the nation, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, wanted Turkey to become a secular democracy modeled after the great powers of Europe. But the population of Turkey is almost entirely composed of conservative Muslims. This posed a problem. A true democracy would quickly end when voters voted to establish an Islamic state. So Atatürk built Turkey into a country with some democracy, but not too much. This precarious balance was maintained by the military, who overturned democratically-elected governments in 1960, 1971, 1980, and 1997.
Erdoğan has upset this balance. He has led Turkey since 2003, first as Prime Minister then as President. When he grew too powerful, many observers expected the military to overthrow him. But when the long-awaited coup finally came in 2016, it failed to topple Erdoğan. Some people even think that the failed coup was staged by Erdoğan himself. But whether the coup was real or not, Erdoğan used is as an excuse to crack down on his opponents in the military and in the media. For the first time, the leader of Turkey had broken the power of the military. Today, some people refer to Erdoğan as the new "sultan" of a reborn Ottoman Empire.
7. Elon Musk
If we ever do make it to Mars, it will probably be in large part due to Elon Musk.
At times the world's richest man, depending on what Tesla stock is doing on a given day, Elon Musk is by far the most visionary capitalist alive today. Musk built Tesla into the world's most valuable automobile company, starting it at a time when electric automobiles were all but non-existent. In the mean time, his other company, Space X, has revolutionized the satellite launch industry and made real progress towards human spaceflight, arguably making more advancements in the last 10 years than NASA has made in the last 40.
What else is he doing, you ask? How about Starlink, a system of over 30,000 satellites which is capable of delivering high speed internet anywhere on the planet. More speculative technologies include NeuraLink (an interface which connects the human mind to computers) and the Hyperloop (a vacuum-sealed train system meant to carry passengers at speeds of over 1000 km/hr). In an era when technological advancement has slowed considerably, Musk is paving a path to the future.
8. Nicolás Maduro
Some people are powerful because they can do great things. They can build companies, create wealth, commission great works of arts, inspire the masses. Other people are powerful only because they can keep people in misery. Nicolás Maduro is one of those people. Nicolás Maduro has been President of Venezuela since 2013. He has
continued the economic policies of his predecessor, Hugo Chávez. And
these policies have a been a disaster. Today 53% of Venezuelans live in
extreme poverty, defined as an income of less than $1.90 per day. Over
6 million people have fled the country. Maduro has the power to end this. He could step aside to a comfy retirement on the French Riviera. All he has to do is resign, and let the opposition party lead Venezuela back from starvation.
9. Boris Johnson
I don't have a lot to say about this choice only that Boris Johnson is currently the leader of the United Kingdom, one of the most powerful countries on Earth, culturally, economically, and militarily.
10. Angela Merkel
Another default choice based on Ms. Merkel's position as leader of Germany.