Resolved: Vladimir Putin is the most powerful man in the world

January 4, 2015

Affirmative: Sabrina Williams

  • Restored pride in Russians
  • Defies American interests and international institutions
  • Outmaneuvered foreign leaders

Negative: Alexi Stocker

  • Sphere of influence limited to close regions
  • Lack of social and cultural influence
  • Economic power decaying
  • Alternatives: Obama, Xi, Merkel, Pope

General points of discussion

  • How much is a leader responsible for his nation?
  • How important are different spheres of power?
  • How to measure power?

Initial vote: 4 affirmative, 7 negative, 13 abstain

Final vote: 11 affirmative, 15 negative, 1 abstain

For a word commonly thrown around, power can be notoriously hard to measure. But the Political Union tackled the task anyway, with regards to Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Sabrina Williams presented an image of Mr. Putin as leading Russia in an upward trajectory. She noted Mr. Putin’s success in expanding Russia’s borders amidst opposition from the United States and a succession of international organizations. Mr. Putin’s ability to carry out his plans with little effective pushback cemented his place as the world’s most powerful man.

Whether Mr. Putin faced significant pushback became a matter of debate, but it was quite clear that Ms. Williams’s argument was received with plenty of rhetorical pushback. Alexi Stocker pointed out that Mr. Putin’s sphere of influence was mostly limited to regions nearby Russia, such as East Europe and Syria. He contrasted that with an absence of Russian activity in Latin America or Africa. He then charged that Mr. Putin’s Russia lacked social or cultural influence, while economic power was also in decline due to Saudi Arabia’s superior control over oil. Finally, he presented several alternatives for the title: American President Barack Obama, Chinese President Xi Jinping, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and Pope Francis.

The discussion immediately turned to the extent of Mr. Putin’s ability to control Russia. Some pointed out that domestic dissent exists. But others responded that Mr. Putin’s power significantly outweighed that of leaders of other large nations. For example, Mr. Putin does not face the Congress that Mr. Obama does.

Mr. Stocker steered the discussion toward alternatives. He chronicled Mr. Xi’s success in purging the Communist Party of corrupt officials with little opposition. And he demonstrated Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen’s influence on the economy.

These choices were met with criticism. Some argued that Ms. Yellen’s power was limited to monetary policy and thus not influential enough. And others pointed out that some of Mr. Stocker’s criticisms of Mr. Putin – that the Russian does not exert truly global influence – was even truer of Mr. Xi.

The spotlight then turned to Mr. Obama. While many acknowledged that Mr. Obama’s governing power is neutered by an obstructive legislature, some argued that this actually a demonstration of his power. If he could get Congress to focus all of their conservative fury on him, the reasoning went, he had demonstrated enormous influence on Congress’s activities. Mr. Stocker added that other nations preferred to cooperate with the United States over Russia. But others, among them Ms. Williams, suggested that Mr. Obama could not take all of the credit for America’s considerable cultural and soft power.

The final topic was military power. Those arguing for Mr. Putin’s power put forth that Mr. Putin had effectively done as he’d pleased in Ukraine and Russia. Opponents demonstrated that the United States had far greater military potential, and that Russian influence in the Western hemisphere (as in Cuba and Venezuela) had fallen in recent months. But Ms. Williams responded that for all of America’s military might, Mr. Putin had accomplished more of his goals with less available firepower. She added that Mr. Obama’s indecisiveness had eroded his power.

Whether Mr. Putin’s influence truly exceeds that of any other person in the world is debatable, but here it was met with a roadblock. The negative side managed to persuade a greater proportion of the unusually large number of abstainers to downgrade Mr. Putin’s power.