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LONDON — Leaders of the summit countries have been changing. Gerhard Schroeder, the German Social Democratic chancellor of Germany, was the first to go. His replacement, Angela Merkel, is a Christian Democrat but leading a coalition with the Social Democrats.

The next was Japan’s Junichiro Koizumi. His successor Shinzo Abe does not represent any radical change from the past.

President Jacques Chirac in France was replaced in May by Nicolas Sarkozy, who came from the same party as Chirac but has made it clear that he wants to shake up France.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair is due to step aside for Finance Minister Gordon Brown later this month. Expect a change of style, but policies will probably not change radically.

U.S. President George W. Bush has only about 18 months left in office. There will surely be major changes in U.S. policies under any successor.

President Vladimir Putin remains in Russia. He may try for a constitutional amendment allowing him to stay on for a third term. If not, he is likely to choose a successor in his own mold.

International policies are generally made in response to events, but strong personalities can make real differences. For instance, if Sarkozy’s party comes out strongly in the forthcoming French parliamentary election, significant changes could be made in France.

All the leaders who are retiring or have been forced out have spent much time trying to establish their historical legacy. But politicians should remember English author William Makepeace Thackeray’s reflection on the Book of Ecclesiastes: “Oh, Vanity of Vanities! How wayward the decrees of Fate are; How very weak the wise, How very small the very great are!”

Chirac, who is said to have millions of dollars stashed away in Japanese Bank accounts, may be indicted for corruption.

Bush will be remembered as the president who failed to bring democracy to the Middle East and increased the threat of terrorism by his inept policies.

Blair hopes he will not be implicated by the police inquiry into the “cash for honors” allegations. Despite his having declared there would be no sleaze in his government, there have been just as many cases as under the previous Conservative government.

He would like to be remembered as a war leader who stuck to his principles and friends despite public opinion and casualties. But history is unlikely to endorse such an adulatory self-assessment. He is more likely to be remembered for the Iraq failure just as Prime Minister Anthony Eden is nowadays remembered for the Suez fiasco of 1956.

Blair emphasizes the achievements on his watch: peace in Northern Ireland, the relatively successful British interventions in Sierra Leone and Kosovo, and the upholding of the Anglo-American alliance.

But the process of bringing peace to Northern Ireland began with the previous Conservative government and was largely due to the belated recognition by the parties involved that violence would not succeed in establishing a united Ireland.

Prime Minister Harold Wilson kept Britain out of the Vietnam War without sacrificing close relations with the United States. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher argued strongly and effectively with President Ronald Reagan, but the alliance was strengthened rather than weakened by their differences.

Close relations between Bush and Blair did not lead to Bush’s engaging in serious efforts to find a solution to the problems of Israel and Palestine. Nor did Blair get Bush to move more than marginally over climate change.

Blair may not have been Bush’s poodle, but his public stance has left an impression of sycophancy. With regard to Iraq, it will be asked whether British casualties were worth what little was achieved. Budgetary stringency meant that British forces did not always have the proper equipment or manpower for the tasks that Blair expected them to perform. Intelligence was edited to suit government policy and was in part false.

When no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq, the invasion was justified on the grounds that regime change was essential for peace. Al-Qaida, which had not been active in Iraq before the invasion, took advantage of the chaos caused by the invasion. Life under Saddam Hussein was cruel and hard for most Shiites, but law and order in Iraq has largely broken down and 3 million Iraqis have fled the country.

Blair’s attempts to manipulate the media through his media guru, Alistair Campbell, and the way in which the government machine and the civil service were undermined will be remembered to Blair’s disadvantage.

Blair boasts of domestic achievements in education, health, and law and order issues, but there are widespread doubts about whether the government has extracted adequate value for the resources provided. Blair has made much of his efforts to deliver real improvements, but examples of wasted resources, failures to deliver and administrative blunders are publicized every day.

Public service morale has been damaged by ministerial carping and a plethora of new legislation combined with ever more targets. “Targetitis” has often forced officials to concentrate so hard on hitting prescribed targets that other humdrum but essential aspects of their work have been neglected.

Ever since Blair announced that he would be retiring, it has seemed to many that there has been a leadership vacuum. David Cameron, the leader of the Conservative opposition, has criticized Blair’s farewell tours as behavior like that of a retiring pop star.

The danger arising from the efforts of politicians to build up historical legacies is increasing public skepticism about politics and an inevitable decline in the prestige of democratic institutions.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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