In our globalized age, vast impersonal forces are supposed to determine events. Globalized markets, unfettered trade, militant Islam, China's awakening: these are the things historians and strategists usually portray as the key forces shaping our destiny. But most people don't see things this way.
Instead, most people still instinctively look at "great men" as the agents of history, the men and women who seem to forge events through their political vision, personal charisma and the force of their moral claims. By sheer force of conviction and personality, such figures, many of us believe, can carry the day, bringing a glimmer of hope to an otherwise detached and impersonal universe.
This yearning for providential men or women in our global age results from at least three factors. The first concerns the complexity and vulnerability of our world. The second, paradoxically, reflects our growing cynicism towards politics and politicians. And the third is the result of our media culture, obsessed as it is with putting a "face" to events.
Confronted with the problem of bringing about positive changes in a domestic or international environment that seems to defy the power of "normal" leaders, one looks for new Alexanders to untie the "Gordian knot" and transcend complexity by sheer force of will and dynamism. For example, structural reforms in Europe are thought impossible to enact unless imposed by some reincarnation of Margaret Thatcher. In the Middle East, everyone waits for a new Anwar Sadat to arise among the Arabs.
Disillusion with politics and politicians also is a key element of our yearning for providential leaders. In France for example, the overly flattering commemoration of President Francois Mitterrand's death a decade ago primarily reflects widespread disillusion with his successor, Jacques Chirac. Indirect criticism of the present is usually a key element in idealized views of the past. The less we expect from a "normal" politician, the more we look for a hero.
With the world becoming a global stage, the media's role in fueling the appetite for providential leaders is essential. The public demands quick answers to complex problems that, unsolved, risk endangering the planet. They need figures with whom they can identify, immediately recognize and, above all, trust.
The emergence of an embryonic "world civil society" heightens demand for universal and charismatic figures, holding out the hope of global accountability, but also carrying populist overtones.
In a world searching for providential leaders, the case of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is both symbolic and paradoxical, for this universal man remains one of the most controversial figures of recent decades. He has become a nearly revered figure in his country, and large segments of Western public opinion believe that his political demise represents a potentially fatal blow to any hope of progress in the region, even as he remains hated in large parts of the Arab and Muslim world.
Sharon's transformation from villain to hero within the space of a mere few years is a source of fascination for his people, the region, and the world -- all the more so because his ultimate intentions will remain a subject of endless dispute among historians tomorrow and among politicians claiming to be his faithful heirs today.