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Opinion

Opinion: Perception is politics, Mr. Obama

The Forbes list of the "world's most powerful people" is misleading. Ranking Vladimir Putin before Angela Merkel and Barack Obama as the top leader underlines a worrisome shift in global politics, says Michael Knigge

Let's get this straight right away: No, Russian President Vladimir Putin is not the world's most powerful person. The country he is leading is in the midst of a crippling recession and skyrocketing inflation. Life expectancy rates remain dismal, and the country is facing a huge demographic crisis. Even Russia's much-hyped military ranks only fourth globally in troop size, and its low-tech arsenal is no match for that of the US. All of those hard indicators clearly show that Russia - and thus Putin's room to maneuver internationally - is declining, not rising.

Putin tops the Forbes list for the third year in a row because he is not shy to use the limited power he really has in a very effective way, for instance in Ukraine and Syria. And of equal importance is that he is a master at convincing others of his and Russia's supposed political and military prowess. That's why the "world's shrewdest and most active leader" would be a more apt title for the Forbes list – and for Putin's pole position.

Merkel catapults Germany onto global stage

Similarly, in terms of real power, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is not more powerful than US President Barack Obama. But Merkel has used the power she holds very decisively in the international arena, first in the Ukrainian and Greek crises and now again in the refugee crisis. Particularly on the refugee issue, Merkel has single-handedly catapulted Germany into the top leadership role on the global stage. This has rightly won her international acclaim, which is reflected in her climb to second position in this year's Forbes' ranking, behind Putin and, for the first time, ahead of Obama.

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DW's Michael Knigge

Obama undoubtedly remains the world's most powerful leader. He successfully steered the world's biggest economy through its worst period since the Great Depression. He fought tooth-and-nail to pass a historic health care reform that finally enables millions of Americans to get medical insurance. Against tremendous domestic and international opposition, he also pushed through the historic nuclear deal with Iran.

Lackluster and late

The accord with America's longtime nemesis Tehran is also the perfect example showing what US power can accomplish globally if applied with a clear goal and utmost determination. Unfortunately, Obama has lacked the same sense of direction and dedication when it comes to several other key international problems, especially the Syrian crisis and the fight against Islamic extremism.

On both issues he has dithered and waffled. And whenever Obama has finally decided to act, it has always been haphazard - too little too late. That is not only deeply disconcerting, it is also not good enough for the world's most powerful political leader. The US may no longer be the country that can unilaterally determine global outcomes, but Washington remains indispensable to solving any of the major international problems.

Particularly on Syria, Obama himself has repeatedly created the impression through his rhetoric and policy that he isn't all that interested in really tackling the issue. This perception may be right or wrong, but it has political consequences. In Syria, Obama's perceived passivity created a vacuum that has allowed a political opponent with a lot less leverage but a clear agenda - Putin - to project his comparatively limited power with maximum effect. It has already and will continue to have a negative impact on how the US is being viewed globally, not just by Russia and China but, more importantly, by its allies.

With the Iran deal, Obama has proven that he can harness US power on a protracted global issue wisely and decisively. It's time do it again on Syria.

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