Agora’s Top 10 Most Influential People of 2014

Robbie Travers led a project of young people to discuss who were the most influential people in society at Agora, this piece is a result of their deliberations.

Foreword from the Executive Director

It has been my absolute pleasure to be a contributor to Agora’s most influential people list. As an organisation, we have set ourselves many ambitious goals for growth and development. I won’t be shy, and say that often I am pushing my departments to their absolute limits. Running an organisation full of young people with multiple other commitments means that you have to be flexible, however, and projects due for release sometimes have to be postponed due to the increasingly busy lives of our staff. However, seeing all their work come to fruition here is both highly rewarding for those who have written for us, and for myself, because giving young people a platform to share their views and their abilities may be something I do in my spare time, but it is a passion that I will always have.

In terms of contributions, we have a range of contributors who have provided thought provoking and stimulating contributions detailing why each of Agora’s figures have received a place on our list of the most influential people of 2014. Notable absences from this list are the President of the US and UK Prime Minister, who have both made little impact on the world stage this year. Taking their place are leaders of ascending powers like India, China and established powers like Germany and Japan. Yet Agora felt it would be disingenuous and far too focused on the politics of the state to not include individuals who have used social media to bring their message to the masses.

In terms of contributions, I have covered our top-spot and why Merkel is the defining political leader, and most influential person of 2014. Abe Silberstein then offers his insight into why Hillary, Obama’s potential, and presumptive, successor continues to influence US and global politics. Hadiza Bala Usman used twitter to raise awareness of #bringbackourgirls, and Steven Male writes eloquently about how she influenced the world in 2014. Bryan Nelson takes a look at Putin’s exploits and their lasting impact. Ash Lawton Dharmasingham examines how Pope Francis has influenced the world in 2014 and possibly reshaped the image of the Vatican. Then Thomas McNally analyses the influence of Xi Xing Ping and Shinzo Abe, and how the tussle between these far eastern powers has reshaped the political agenda. Eliza Lindsay then considers the case of Charles Kennedy and Georgia Hughes examines how Emma Watson influenced the globe through more than her UN speech. We conclude with a debut turn from Harry Lewis detailing the political challenges facing Narendra Modi.

Enjoy responsibly.

-Robbie

1. Merkel-Raute: How Angela came to run the world

By Robbie Travers

25 years previously to 2014, Angela Merkel was a recently divorced, impecunious, East-German physicist, whose situation in 1989 meant she had more knowledge and specialisation in quantum chemistry than she had in German politics. Yet today, Angela Merkel is acknowledged by multiple organisations to be the world’s most powerful woman, and ranks highly on many of the world’s most influential people lists. Merkel earlier this year became the first German leader to address both chambers of British Parliament post-World War 2, a symbolic occurrence denoting how far her leadership has taken Germany in her last three terms. As one German satirical publication joked, much like another influential German world leader, Merkel’s signature hand gesture, the Merkel-Raute, or in translated into English, the Merkel Rhombus, has its own Wikipedia page. What is undeniable by even her most vocal critics is that Merkel has truly risen to the top, from relatively little. But one question remains.

Why is Angela Merkel so popular on both the global stage and domestically within German politics? 

Perhaps it is simply because Merkel is objective, a leader who doesn’t make decisions on inflamed tensions forged in moments of political anger or conform to the trendiest of opinions. She instead seeks to balance long-term trends in German opinion with practicable government policy. In the 4 years between 2009 and 2013, Merkel commissioned over 600 classified public-opinion surveys taking the pulse on Germany’s feelings on multiple issues. Germans feel that not only does Merkel reflect them, but that they have a leader who listens to them. Many call Merkel “Mutti”, or in English “Mummy” precisely for this reason.

I may be a Merkel enthusiast and supporter, but Merkel is certainly not the most exciting of orators, nor the most charismatic of political performers. However, she possesses an incredible amount of knowledge and intellectual substance that makes many other politicians envious. When this year Merkel indicated Germany needed to be more involved in international humanitarian affairs, despite doing so in her usual, calm and assured, possibly even dull oratory tone, she managed to send shockwaves across Germany and the diplomatic political circle. Merkel knows she has elevated Germany to being a world-leading nation, economy and power again, so it is unsurprising that with this, she sees Germany’s role in the world as one that must grow. Merkel realises that Germany cannot simply stand back and let global issues of security and defence be dealt with by other nations. Crucial issues that have tangible political effects on Germany should have a German voice representing their interests, and where Germany can help with military operations and humanitarian intervention, it should no longer be constitutionally deadlocked into non-combat. Combatting growing threats to global defence and security, such as radical Islamism, extremism and terror is something Merkel understands more than any current world-leader in my view.

Merkel has not been dealt with an easy task in leading Germany of recent either. 2013 saw her leading Europe’s largest economy, and after seemingly single-handedly steering the Eurozone out of economic stagnation and avoiding a long term damaging recession, Merkel seems to have to deal with this threat again after German growth has stagnated. Furthermore, Ukraine is a conflict close to home for Merkel. Interestingly, instead of POTUS and the Whitehouse being the defining transatlantic partner in negotiations with the Kremlin and Putin, it has been Merkel from whom other nations have sought leadership and have covered as the defining world leader on the NATO side of chasm dealing with Putin. 

As for myself, it came as little surprise that Angela Merkel almost unanimously topped Agora’s most influential people list of 2014. Merkel is nothing short of a ruthless political machine that even those who oppose her, struggle not to admire. Brilliant, objective and rational, Merkel’s leadership is globally revered, and unusually in an era where politicians are reviled, she receives strong political acclaim domestically, with 67 percent of the German populace approving of the job Merkel is doing, 67 percent of Germany wishing her to serve a fourth term and an astonishing 45 percent of Germans already wanting her to serve a 5th term.

Merkel may be politically modest, but her achievements are ones that any other leader would openly boast of.

2. The Hope of Hillary

By Abe Silberstein

Hillary Clinton is up by double digits against her prospective primary opponents. It has almost been pre-emptively decided that there is hardly a GOP candidate who can defeat her in the general election. What can possibly stop her from reaching 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue?

Many pondered these questions in the spring of 2007, as the race for the Democratic Party’s nomination for President began. The same “air of inevitability” circling around the 2016 race is troubling for those of us who would like to see the former Secretary of State and twice-elected United States Senator from New York shatter the world’s largest glass ceiling.

Yet, on consideration, there are many reasons to believe she will succeed this time. There is no one in the Democratic Party with the skill, youthfulness and acumen of current President Barack Obama. The most named presumptive challenger, Elizabeth Warren, has unceasingly insisted she will not run. Jim Webb, former U.S. Senator from Virginia, is another possible candidate; however, with limited fundraising options compared to Hillary’s already established campaign, a much-needed victory in the centrist state -and defining state- of New Hampshire is unlikely for Webb.

On the GOP side of affairs, things don’t look much more optimistic as Clinton continues to hold what can only be described as a commanding lead over establishment and Tea Party Republicans alike. The Republicans’ safest pick may well be Jeb Bush, a political scion whose last name holds far less favor than the one of his likely Democratic opponents.

Who can blame Americans? After a decade of intense partisan hostility, they have perhaps forgotten that a President Clinton was the target of a political impeachment trial and countless conspiracy theories, one of which was a calumnious accusation of assassination in the case of Vince Foster: a victim of depression who tragically committed suicide. The racially motivated attacks on President Obama’s legitimacy and citizenship (or “Birtherism”) are hardly unprecedented, at least in terms of abject maliciousness.

Yet memories of economic growth, job growth, and budget surpluses have created a hunger for the past. Clinton appeals to “Middle America,” a part of the country where Democrats have struggled in recent years. If there is anyone who can ride the tide of populist anger over income inequality, it’s Hillary Clinton, and not Elizabeth Warren.

It is often said on cable news shows that President Obama disdains politics and is frustrated by the lack of legislative progress in Congress. It’s fanciful to believe that Hillary Clinton will heal the nation of the partisan wounds that have created the legislative gridlock. It is, though, my hope that she will deliver what Americans liked so much about the last Clinton administration: a love for politics and a stunningly swell economy.

3. The Woman Behind 2014’s biggest political trend: Hadiza Bala Usman

By Steven Male

A horrific act of terrorism took place in April 2014 in the town of Chibok, Nigeria. Boko Haram an extremist group cruelly kidnapped 276 teenage girls waiting to sit exams. Yet despite the nature of this attack on utterly innocent children the Nigerian authorities were negligent and the response of the wider world was somewhat limited. Until Hadiza Bala Usman created the most prominent social media campaign to come out of Africa, ‘#BringBackOurGirls.’

This action of Boko Haram, which most often translates as “Western education is forbidden”, reflects a growing atmosphere of tension between conservative and progressive opinions particularly concerning education for women in the Islamic community.

Yet Hadiza Bala’s determination has been instrumental in raising the profile of this story as well as continuing the momentum gained by Malala Yousuf-Zai.  The ‘#BringBackOurGirls’ campaign is based on freedom and standing up against the oppressors. The campaign gained more than a million tweets in a single week and included a picture of Michelle Obama with the Twitter hashtag, notably helping the campaign to draw attention around the world from all levels of society and religion. This helped highlight a brutal conflict which has been prevalent in the north eastern region of Nigeria since 2009.  The Nigerian authorities have failed to deal with the terrorist group and looked as if they did not want to deal with the abduction of the school girls. The government lacked a plan and conviction, refusing to negotiate or use force. In essence they planned to do nothing: a policy which Bala Usman criticised heavily. Despite global support Bala Usman has been criticised by the Nigerian government and press, yet her determination signals her desperation not only to free the hostages but to create fundamental change in Nigeria and the Muslim world beyond human rights and education.

However, it seems that despite the mass awareness raised by Hadiza Bala Usman, people are already forgetting Nigeria and Boko Haram, as they are estimated to have killed 2,000 people in the second week of 2015 alone. However, as a progressive Muslim, Hadiza Bala Usman represents optimism for the future of the Islamic world in a year in which Islam has unfortunately been represented predominantly by radical Islamists.

4. Placating Putin: Is Crimea the New Sudetenland?

By Bryan Nelson

Of all the things to look back on from 2014, Vladimir Putin was perhaps one of the most important (if not the most important) figure of 2014, going into 2015. Putin’s regime just popped up out of nowhere to steal Crimea from Ukraine in what was a blatantly rigged referendum. Following this, the whole world was in an uproar over what Russia was going to do next. Putin’s actions caused the United States and other Western nations to place sanctions on Russia that, while slightly effective, did not change Putin’s policy a single bit. Putin is in this for the long haul, and it seems as if another Cold War is on the way. Putin is already known for his hard politics and his questionable rise to power as Russia’s President; but his advances on Crimea and Ukraine are disturbing. Let’s go back to when Hitler took the Sudetenland from the Czech Republic.

Noticing the similarities? Good.

Vladimir Putin has put all of the Western World on watch following its Crimea takeover, and now Putin seems as if he is targeting Ukraine itself. Putin definitely deserves a spot on our top ten of most influential people of 2014 as the biggest aggressor. His actions could push the West and Russia into another Cold War, dragging in China and Brazil with their new BRICS agreement finally beginning to take shape. Putin has stood out among world leaders as someone who isn’t afraid to go the extra mile to see what people will do. And right now, he’s pushing the West the farthest he ever has. In his efforts to move away from relationships with the West, he’s also pushing them closer to war.

5. He Found the Church Made of Bricks, Will he Leave it Made of Marble? Pope Francis

By Ash Lawton Dharmasignham

Pope Francis has clearly been one of the most influential figures in the world in 2014. Not only has he modernised the Catholic Church, bringing it into touch with modern society and the poor, but he has also increased the Vatican’s importance on the world stage to a degree not seen for decades.

Recently, Pope Francis played an instrumental role in improving US-Cuba relations, bringing about the release of the imprisoned American aid worker, Alan Gross. Not content with only improving relations bilaterally between nations, Francis has continued his efforts to bring about peace to the world. Earlier this year the pope hosted a prayer meeting with former Israeli President Shimon Peres and Chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation Mahmoud Abbas, just weeks after the last round of US – backed peace talks collapsed.

Furthermore, according to Twiplomacy Study 2014, Pope Francis is the most influential Twitter user on the planet. Although the Pope is only the second most followed leader on Twitter after Barrack Obama, his tweets are retweeted far more often. While Obama’s tweets are only retweeted an average of 1,400 times, the Pontiff is retweeted an average of 17,000 times, and have a larger impression.

This year, Francis plans to take crucial action on climate change and directly influence a UN climate meeting in Paris. He will issue a detailed message on climate change to the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, address the UN general assembly and call for a summit of the world’s main religions. The Pope will publish an encyclical on climate change, urging all Catholics to take action. This document will be sent to the world’s 5,000 Catholic bishops and 400,000 priests who will then distribute it.

6. Made in China: Xi Jinping

By Thomas McNally

With a ten-year term, Chinese Premiers tend to get dusty rather quick. 2014 was a complex and interesting year in international politics. China, in this regard, has done very well. As covered in my article “China: Surpassing History,” China passed the U.S in terms of macroeconomic output, the first time in 150 years that the world has had a new economic power.

Xi Jinping came to power in October 2012 and started his new policy of the “Chinese dream” which combines neo-Confucianism and historic Chinese values such as integration and economic prosperity. A new era of ideas into the old communist party. Slogans with the famous (or infamous) red paint have gone across all of rural China in an attempt to materialise this “National revival”. However some critics have pointed out that Jinping’s plans seem like a glossy version of the usual one-party state narrative: Obey the status quo.

Xi Jinping has been causing trouble abroad too: the very recent crude oil price crash forced Russia and China to trade in their own currencies, rather than the U.S dollar. Xi has also been moving closer to Putin, as Russia has been gradually pushed out of Europe due to the invasion and annexation of Crimea.

While we are still in the early years of the Chinese premier’s term, 2014 may have been the year in which Xi Jinping reached his peak of political activity and international influence.

7. The Land of Rising Sun: Shinzo Abe

By Thomas McNally

On a very cold 14th of December, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (pronounced: Ah-Bay) won a general election victory, in a vote held almost exactly two years after the previous one. Japan, in recent decades, has been a victim of economic stagnation and Abe’s economic plan, or “Abenomics,” initially gave the markets hope that change was coming.

Abe has announced two new policy goals for Japan in his new term. One is to commit Japan to international peacekeeping by strengthening its military. Many commentators, including myself, are sceptical and see it simply as a means to fulfill a longstanding goal of Abe’s wing of the Liberal Democratic Party, that of eventually changing Japan’s pacifist constitution.

The second plan is to drag Japan out of its deflation by increasing purchasing power and postponing future plans to increase the VAT (Value-added tax). Abenomics is the last bastion of Keynesian economies, whereas most first world economies have done away with it and embraced neoliberal, pro-market reform. Abe is still focusing, and rightly so, on public sector investment and trying to make credit more widely accessible. Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party has an uphill climb if it wants to radically improve Japan in such a short amount of time.

Abe must still deal with long-term challenges, which must be solved quickly if Japan is to defend its title as one of the largest economies per capita. The number of active workers in its economy is shrinking, and this has caused huge demographic swings. Japan needs urgent reform in the realm of its technology sector, seeing the decline internationally of well-known brands such as Sony or Nintendo, despite domestic markets showing promising results.

8.  Run the World, Girls! Emma Watson

By Georgia Hughes

Who runs the world? Beyonce’s “Gender Equality is a Myth!” essay proved that, whilst the sentiment behind the 2011 hit was all well and good, the reality is that women in certain parts of the world do not have it as easy as the song once suggested.  The feminist movement has certainly rallied in 2014, and Miss Watson has been a huge contribution to the cause. From Hermione Granger, to UN Women Goodwill Ambassador, Emma Watson has truly challenged the world’s perception of the average Hollywood actress; maturing and defining herself as a whole lot more than that title. Emma Watson has, in the past year, become synonymous with feminism, and the fight for making a real difference to women rights. She has become a child star that shall not be associated with drugs, nude photos, or binge drinking, but instead with elegance, sophistication, and bravery.

Emma’s passion to advance gender equality, which was first manifested in her humanitarian work in Bangladesh and Zambia, was how she achieved her role in the UN, rather than her star status. Whilst Watson eagerly tried to dismiss her association with Hermione Granger, (for fear that she will not be taken seriously in such an important role) her long-lasting reputation as ‘the Harry Potter girl’ has in fact allowed Watson to engage with a young audience likely to be highly influenced by such a universally loved figure. In case you missed the memo, this year has revolved around boosting girl power and, in September, the actress gave a speech to launch the #HeForShe campaign that fit the cut just perfectly.  The pro-women speech focused on creating equal opportunities for girls by calling on 1 billion of our male comrades to fight with their female allies against the inequalities that women face globally, whilst also re-defining the ‘man-hating’ misconception that lies within the word ‘feminism’. Watson’s speech encouraged thousands of people around the globe to pledge their support for gender equality, including a cluster of famous (and very male) feminists: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Douglas Booth, and Russell Crowe. However, the response was not all positive, and after a malevolent reminder by both threats of and actual posts of naked photographs of over 100 famous women, the need for feminism has never been more apparent.

Watson has not only used her role as UN ambassador to humiliate the sexist Turkish Deputy Prime Minister, but also to criticise the pressure that is put on girls to look perfect, by quite ironically twisting feminist Queen B’s “I woke up like this” to “I did NOT wake up like this”, whilst pictured in a backless dress. The fight for women’s rights did not stop at the end of the campaign speech, and with the backing of equality-hungry feminists like Miss Emma Watson herself, not only will feminism grow but it will become even more ‘cool’ to support the rights of women in 2015.

9. From the Cold, Came the Warmth: Charles Kennedy.

By Eliza Lindsay

At the peak of a sweltering summer, the ALS ice bucket challenge flooded social media, dominating Facebook for the better part of two months. It was difficult to scroll down ones newsfeed without seeing one of the 2.4 million videos that were posted on the site.  Elsewhere on the Internet, ALS ice bucket challenges have been viewed over one billion times on the video site YouTube, with Bill Gate’s being the most popular. Furthermore, beating Facebook, 3.7 million ice bucket challenges have been uploaded to Instagram.  It is clearly visible that ALS Ice Bucket challenges are something that most people would have seen, heard of, or done themselves but where did the desire to pour freezing water over ones head in aid of ALS research originate from?

This is where Charles Kennedy enters the picture. Ice bucket challenges have been in existence for a few years now but it only went viral this summer. On July 14th, Kennedy was nominated to do the ice bucket challenge. Within 24 hours he had to dump a bucket of ice-cold water over his head or donate $100 to a charity of his choice.  He chose the ALS association as his cousin’s husband is a sufferer of the disease and when challenging his chosen nominees he requested that they too donate to the ALS Association, and so began a domino effect that ended up with over $100 million being donated to the ALS Association. Aside from that particular charity a further $11.5 million has been donated to other, smaller charities that also aid ALS research and therapy.

Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) is a neurodegenerative disorder that causes neuron degeneration thus leaving a sufferer unable to control their movement and with a terminal disease leaving them with an average of four years before death. Sufferers of the disease have included Lou Gehrig, a famous American baseball player (hence ALS sometimes being known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease) and Professor Stephen Hawking who has a form of the disease. It is quite frankly a ghastly disease that very few people supported before the Ice Bucket Challenge went viral, let alone knew about. Through the fundraising efforts of the participants of the Ice Bucket Challenge the ALS Association was able to receive 3 times more funds over the 5-week summer period than in the entire year of 2013 and now over one billion people have been exposed to the fact that ALS exists and is a disease that is worth fighting.

This is all thanks to one man, Charles Kennedy, who decided to donate just $100 to the ALS Association in respect for his relative.  He had no idea of the impact and the influence he would have on social media and on the future of the ALS disease.

10. Narendra Modi – Tackling the Gordian Knot: Running the World’s Largest Democracy

By H. M. Lewis

Since 1947 India has been the largest democracy on Earth. Today, in the wake of free-market reforms after a near economic collapse in 1991, India’s exponential economic growth has brought many millions from poverty and the state ever further onto the world stage. Gone are the days of Nehru’s socialist autarky when the Subcontinent was insular and lacked any significant efforts at modernisation.

Breaking the endogamous political system in May of this year, Narendra Modi, an Hindu nationalist of the BJP party, took the helm with his hardline conservative views. Coming from an ‘Other Backwards Caste’ extraction, his mandate is to bring about India’s rise on the world stage. Namely by making her voice heard above China’s industrial roar and the buzz of American drones over her western neighbours.

However he faces a great many challenges.

The seemingly inherent inefficiencies of running a large agrarian democracy experiencing significant demographic shifts should not be understated. The Gordian Knot that so held Alexander the Great’s possession of Asia is now cut by Modi. But the problems that existed in that democratic structure are not so easily swept aside. India’s political system inherited by Modi is a highly inefficient one of devolved powers and often corrupt officials. Furthermore the urban-rural divide increases both wealth disparities and access to government programmes. In terms of votes, 550 million were registered in May by a broad mass of people with greatly differing views, religions, and needs.

Such problems are compounded by the Reservation system in which those deemed to be from backwards Castes or Tribes benefit greatly from positive discrimination. The system was meant to eradicate caste in ten years – yet has been renewed every ten years since independence. This has expanded and, since 1990, 49% of government roles are filled by those employed by virtue of their caste. It is often noted how such a system is anti-meritocratic and leads to a mass exodus of the Indian educated classes. This subject causes bitter divides between those who seek to expand and retain the system and those who see it as failing India’s poorest.

Yet in a country with pervasive class and caste differences, a slowing agricultural foundation, and an increasingly hegemonic northern neighbour; Modi’s India faces tough challenges. He must do away with the increasing Hindu nationalism that bifurcates the populace and attempt to stem the increasing economic divides that defeat any united Indian political will. Only then can India seek to address her systemic problems such as poverty, caste, and corruption to become the power its location and population warrant.

Mr. Modi’s task then is to bring India together; presenting a unified and strong state to the world who will trade and be treated on equal terms. Whether he can truly cut the Gordian Knot and break with India’s political past remains to be seen.

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