One tiger amid the bleakness
This is the Year of the Tiger in the Asian tradition, a time in which natural leaders with vigor, courage, and imaginations are supposed to do great things.
Unhappily, not many tigers are roaming the capitals of the United States and Asia as the year begins, at least not with the stature and statesmanship of those leaders after World War II who had a sense of mission and strategic vision that went beyond everyday politics.
An exception: Lee Kuan Yew, founder of his island nation in Singapore, prime minister from 1959 to 1990, an organizer of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, and now, aptly, Minister Mentor of his country.
Lee, who is 86, once said Singaporeans needed "to find a niche for ourselves, little corners where in spite of our small size we can perform a role which will be useful to the world. To do that, you will need people at the top, decision-makers who have got foresight, good minds, who are open to ideas, who can seize opportunities."
Not that Lee's rule has been without controversy. His critics, at home and abroad, have pointed to his authoritarian ways, accused him of nepotism in getting members of his family appointed to powerful positions, and lamented his repression of the opposition and the press.
Even so, when Lee was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1994, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said: "He has become a seminal figure for all of us. I've not learned as much from anybody as I have from Mr. Lee Kuan Yew. He made himself an indispensable friend of the United States, not primarily by the power he represented but by the quality of his thinking."
Today, President Obama is finishing his first year in office without having proven, despite his Nobel Peace Prize, that he belongs in a class with Democratic President Harry Truman or Republican President Dwight Eisenhower, often considered by historians to have been among the top ten American presidents.
In China, General Secretary Hu Jintao is seen as a competent technocrat but lackluster bureaucrat not in a league with the brutal but charismatic Mao Zedong and the brilliant statesman Zhou Enlai.
Russian President Dimitri Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin do not measure up to President Mikhail Gorbachev, who ended the tyranny of the Soviet Union, closed out the Cold War, and won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, an economist, is given credit for prodding India out of the economic doldrums but few would elevate him to the political levels of Prime Ministers Jawaharlal Nehru or Indira Gandhi, who led India onto the world stage after independence in 1947.
Among U.S. allies, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama of Japan is floundering, which has led to speculation that he is on his way out. President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea has been distracted by financial investigations. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo of the Philippines sits atop a corrupt, nearly failed state. Thailand's turmoil has left it nearly paralyzed.
Australia's Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has enjoyed approval ratings between 60 and 70 percent for two years but has not risen to the level of Sir Robert Menzies, who set Australia on its feet in the 16 years he served as prime minister until 1966.
Elsewhere, the legacies of Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam, Mahathir Mohamad in Malaysia, or Sukarno or Suharto in Indonesia, who were authoritarian but fervent nationalists, have not been replicated although President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia has gotten good marks for fostering political democracy and economic progress.
In sum, other than the formidable Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, Asian-Pacific capitals today sit atop a bleak landscape bereft of tigers.