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John Hughes: New faces to head major nations soon

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By 2008, some of the most influential nations in the world will be represented by new faces.

Four of the "Big Five," the veto-wielding nations on the United Nations Security Council, will have new presidents or prime ministers. Conceivably two of them could be women. The four with new leadership will be the United States, Britain, France and Russia.

The fifth member of the "Big Five" is China, whose president Hu Jintao seems firmly entrenched. Indeed, one of China's problems today is that the upcoming generation of would-be leaders seems more interested in business than politics.

President Bush of the United States will end his term, and his successor will come from a long list of already declared candidates which could yet grow longer.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair has announced his impending departure and, unless his Labor Party faces a surprise overturning by the Conservatives, will almost certainly be succeeded by his long-term comrade-in-arms, George Brown.

President Vladimir Putin of Russia is supposed to leave office at the end of his term but after a series of autocratic political moves may be tempted to pull the strings of a near-puppet successor.

President Jacques Chirac of France will step down and a French electorate rattled by economic drift, uncertainty about France's role in the world and integration of a substantial Muslim minority, is looking for new faces. One of them is Segolene Royal, a woman socialist, whose campaign has been slipping a little lately against her principal opponent, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy. She remains, however, a formidable popular candidate.

Should Hillary Clinton win her race for the presidency in the United States, and Ms. Royal hers for the presidency in France, two of the "Big Five" would be led by women. A woman, Chancellor Angela Merkel, already holds leadership office in Germany, which aspires to make the "Big Five" six on the Security Council. But though there has been continuing talk of reform and expansion for the Security Council, there is little prospect of the veto-wielding five opening their ranks to a newcomer, be it Germany or other nations with similar ambitions.

Of all the possible new faces, perhaps the most intriguing change in style, though not policy, would be the replacement of Tony Blair by George Brown. Blair has a charming, outgoing personality which has gone down well with American leaders, starting with Bill Clinton and continuing with George Bush. He has also been a stout ally of Bush in the Iraqi war, even though it has been unpopular with Britons and cost Blair political support. But Blair has argued persuasively that for him the contest with evil and terrorism is a question of principle, not politics.

In the current issue of the magazine "Foreign Affairs," he writes that the clash with Islamic extremists is not a clash of civilizations; it is a clash about civilization. "It is the age-old battle between progress and reaction ... between optimism and hope, on the one hand, and pessimism and fear, on the other." The war, he says, can be won "only by showing that our values are stronger, better, and more just than the alternative."

Brown, by contrast, is something of a brooding Scot without Blair's charisma. He is unlikely to make major change in policies either domestic or foreign, and is a strong supporter of the Atlantic alliance. However, his attachment to it may be less emotional than Blair's.

What can we expect of a Putin successor? That depends on whether he or she is a clone of Putin. President Putin may just have revealed his true feelings about the United States in a searing weekend denunciation. Citing what he termed the unilateral, militaristic actions of the United States, he said the world had become a more dangerous place than at any time during the Cold War.

He has made it clear that he intends to be a force in Russian politics after he is obliged to step down. The question is whether he can orchestrate the election of a successor who exhibits similar hostility toward the United States.

Who the new U.S. interlocutor will be with Putin's successor we do not yet know. Time was when the two major political parties used to strive for common cause in foreign policy. The Iraqi war has changed that. There would be sharp disagreements about the projection of American force abroad between, for example, a President McCain and a President Clinton.

New faces emerging. Perhaps new challenges. Perhaps new hopes and solutions.

John Hughes teaches journalism at Brigham Young University. He is a former editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News, and a former editor of the Christian Science Monitor, which syndicates this column.