When Leaders Radically Remake Their Countries

Brazil's Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva comes to the U.N. this week as arguably the world's most popular leader—Barack Obama thinks so, at least. Lula's popularity stems from the huge changes he has made to Brazilian society, especially in bringing greater socioeconomic equality, and stewarding the economy. But he isn't the only leader to reinvent his country's political and national culture in a relatively short time. Here are some postwar leaders who wrought drastic social, economic, or political change during their time in office.

Leader: Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva
Country: Brazil
Years in office: 7
Lula's own remarkable journey—from destitute childhood to labor rabble-rouser to "the most popular politician on earth"—parallels the momentous changes he has brought to Brazil as the country' first leftist president since a military dictatorship took hold in 1964. (Democracy returned in 1985.) His Workers' Party has strong support among the poor, a result of Lula's programs to correct entrenched inequalities in Brazilian society, including a minimum wage safely above inflation and a grant program for poor families. Unlike his fellow leftist and Venezuelan neighbor Hugo Chávez, however, his stewardship of the economy has weathered the financial crisis well. Brazil was only grazed by the collapse, and it no longer looks like the little sibling among its BRIC brethren, Russia, India, and China.

Leader: Kim Dae-jung
Country: South Korea
Years in office: 5
Kim is sometimes known as the Nelson Mandela of Asia, and like Mandela he received Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of his work. For years the most prominent opposition leader against the authoritarian South Korean government, Kim ran for president twice and lost, during which time he escaped an assassination attempt and a death sentence. Yet in 1998, he made a Nixonian return to politics, overseeing the first peaceful transition from a ruling party to its opposition in South Korean history. He immediately addressed himself to pulling the nation back from the brink of catastrophe in the Asian economic collapse. Kim won the Nobel for reaching out to North Korea in the "Sunshine Policy" that opened up communication channels and allowed families on either side of the border to meet for the first time since the Korean War. He left office in 2003 and died in 2009.

Leader: Alvaro Uribe Velez
Country: Colombia
Years in office: 7
Colombia's president has seen his approval ratings shoot as high as 91 percent as he has scored repeated victories against the left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels, who had plagued the country for decades, taking over as the main agent of violence after the demise of the major drug cartels. The high point for Uribe was a dramatic rescue of 15 high-profile hostages in summer 2008. He has also worked to dismantle the right-wing paramilitaries who have alleged to have been condoned by his administration. These actions have made him so popular that his supporters were able to change the Constitution twice to allow him to run for a second, and—if a referendum greenlighted by Colombian legislators passes—possibly a third, term.

Leader: Margaret Thatcher
Country: Great Britain
Years in office: 11
Thatcher wrested Britain's Conservative Party from former prime minister Edward Heath and then proceeded to wrest the nation out of the hands of the Labour Party, rolling back many welfare-state reforms instituted after World War II. As prime minister from 1979 to 1990, she privatized major companies, including British Petroleum and British Airways, while sharply reducing the power of trade unions. Just as influential in foreign policy, she rode a wave of popular support for the Falkland Islands War to her reelection in 1983; with her American analog, President Ronald Reagan, she helped to shape the final decade of Western Cold War policy. Although she was forced out of office by the deeply unpopular poll tax and questions about her Euroskepticism, the Conservative Party remained in power for another seven years, and her vision for Britain is still influential.

Leader: Helmut Kohl
Country: West Germany, Germany
Years in office: 16
If any one person deserves credit for making Germany the economic and political powerhouse of Europe and the European Union, it's Kohl, whom former President George H.W. Bush once described as "the greatest European leader of the second half of the 20th century." He became West German chancellor in 1982, but he truly hit his stride at the end of the decade. With the Soviet Union crumbling, Kohl flew to Moscow to receive assurances that Mikhail Gorbachev would not object to reunification. Kohl then brought together East and West Germany, often over objections from both sides (and from Thatcher. East Germany was abolished in October 1990, and Kohl was reelected in the first unified German elections. Until his fall from power in 2000, he continued to advocate strong integration with Europe.

Leader: Gamal Abdel Nasser
Country: Egypt
Years in office: 14
Although most of his ideas have fallen out of favor, Nasser remains by far the most influential Arab leader of the 20th century. In 1952, at 34, he led a group of young nationalist Army officers in toppling King Farouk, the last member of a corrupt, profligate monarchy that had ruled Egypt—often under foreign direction—since 1805. He began a rapid modernization program for Egypt's economy, including the Aswan Dam. When Britain and America withdrew loan promises in 1956, Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, planning to use the revenue to build the dam. Although a British, French, and Israeli attack was militarily successful, Nasser was able to marshal international opinion—including the United States, Soviet Union, and the Non-Aligned Movement—diplomatically to turn back its results. Nasser then transformed himself into the standard bearer for pan-Arabism and Arab unification and later still created the concept of "Arab socialism," meant to adopt socialist ideas to the Arab culture. He died of a heart attack while in office in 1970, leaving a changed Egypt but also many frustrated ambitions.

Leader: Lech Walesa
Country: Poland
Years in office: 5
Walesa began his meteoric rise from shipyard electrician to vanquisher of Communism when he became involved in trade-union organizing in Gdansk, culminating in a 1980 strike that forced the government allow independent unions outside of government control. For a year afterward, he enjoyed international exposure as head of the Solidarity Movement, but the government soon clamped back down. Walesa's selection as winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983 gave Solidarity new life, and throughout the 1980s, as the Polish economy worsened, the Communist regime weakened and Solidarity grew stronger. When the country held its first direct presidential election ever in 1990, Walesa was elected president. He we was unable to translate his organizing success with Solidarity into a successful presidency. Critics found his style coarse, brash, and mercurial, and he was defeated in a 1995 election. But even before he ever ran for office, the force of his personality—and Solidarity's protests against Moscow—had weakened Soviet control of Eastern Europe forever.

Leader: Deng Xiaoping
Country: China
Years in office: 8
Mao Zedong will always be the face of the Chinese Communist Party, but Deng shaped China into the emerging superpower it is today. He rose to prominence as one of Mao's lieutenants during the Great Leap Forward, and when that policy brought economic disaster he was left to pick up the pieces. Mao purged him during the Cultural Revolution, but Deng was restored by Zhou Enlai, then purged again. After Mao's death, Deng clawed his way back to the top of the Communist Party, welcoming capitalists into the fold and introducing elements of the market economy into China. Throughout the 1980s, he led the country in a push to increase international trade. As China's economic power grows, the party leadership seems more open to tools that are not strictly communist. That's a product of Deng's pragmatic approach, which he summed up in a famous 1961 quote: "I don't care if it's a white cat or a black cat. It's a good cat so long as it catches mice." He gradually relinquished power following the Tiananmen Square protests, but was thought still to exert significant control until his death in 1997.

Leader: Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan
Country: United Arab Emirates
Years in office: 33
Although he was born in a tent at an isolated oasis on the Arabian peninsula in 1918, Zayed created the blueprint for the United Arab Emirates as a modern, relatively tolerant regional economic powerhouse. Born into the ruling family of Abu Dhabi, he worked with the British overlords of Trucial Oman to depose his older brother and take power in 1966. He then convinced rulers of the other emirates in Trucial Oman to unite after the British withdrawal, forming the United Arab Emirates in 1971. As president from independence until his death in 2004, he liberalized policies on women's rights and religious tolerance, which still lagged behind much of the world but improved on other Persian Gulf countries and which laid the groundwork for the UAE's large population of Western professionals and rise as an international business center.

Leader: Nelson Mandela
Country: South Africa
Years in office: 5
The dean of transformative leaders, Mandela is South Africa's "national liberator, the savior, its Washington and Lincoln rolled into one." A lawyer by training, he joined the resistance to the governing National Party in 1948. He was tried for treason but acquitted in 1961 after a five-year trial. He was again arrested for sabotage bombings in 1962 and sentenced to life in prison—famously, on Robben Island—but he was released in 1990 and declared his commitment to peace and racial reconciliation. He became leader of the African National Congress the following year and embarked on negotiations for multiracial elections—for which Mandela and President F. W. DeKlerk were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. The following year, Mandela was elected president and used the post to promote social harmony, especially through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Leader: Jomo Kenyatta
Country: Kenya
Years in office: 15
Something of a prototype for Mandela, Kenyatta was founding father of the nation from which he took his name. As a young man, he traveled to the colonial power center in London to demand the return of African land, but he ended up enrolling in university and writing a book that made him a de facto spokesman for Kenyans. After adopting a more strident approach to independence after World War II, he was convicted for being part of an extremist group—the charge is considered dubious—and sentenced to jail in Kenya. Upon his release in 1961, Kenyatta became leader of the independence movement. He negotiated independence with the British and was elected prime minister in 1963. After independence in 1964, he became president, advocating for capitalism, foreign investment, and engagement with the West. Although his legacy is somewhat tainted by a move toward autocratic one-party rule prior to his death in 1978, his leadership made Kenya into the anchor of East African stability.

When Leaders Radically Remake Their Countries | Analysis