1. VLADIMIR PUTIN, PRESIDENT OF RUSSIA
Forbes is very proud of their choice: “Russia looks more and more like an energy-rich, nuclear-tipped rogue state with an undisputed, unpredictable and unaccountable head unconstrained by world opinion in pursuit of its goals.”
But at what cost and for how long? Sanctions over the Ukraine question were biting hard before the floor fell out from under oil prices. Interest rates are soaring, and the ruble is crashing so badly KHL hockey teams can’t afford to pay their players. An economic crisis can take all the fun out of being a ruthless dictator. It also seems apparent Putin doesn't have more power than Obama, Merkel, and Xi. He’s just more willing to use what he has in flagrant disregard for the consequences.
2. BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE US
This seems like rarified air for a lame-duck President with a hostile Congress. The brutal terrorists of ISIS not only seem to defy him, they are challenging all of the so-called ‘gains’ of the Iraq war in which 4500 Americans died.
At home, a series of racially-charged incidents of police brutality have left American more racially divided than it has been for some time. On the economic side, markets were flying to record highs before the Oilpocalypse, and unemployment hit its lowest level since 2008. Forbes says of Obama's place on this list: “One word sums up his second place finish: caution. He has the power but has been too cautious to fully exercise it.”
3. Xi Jinping, GENERAL SECRETARY OF CHINA
Xi Jinping has been called the most powerful Chinese ruler since Deng Xiaoping. He talks tough on the country’s endemic corruption. He also talks tough on his own people and has been criticized for a ruthless crackdown on dissidents, artists and religious minorities including Christians.
Not a fan of free speech, he shut down Hong Kong pro-democracy protests and frequently shuts down social media sites. But it’s his stewardship of the massive $18 trillion Chinese economies by which his power will be measured at home and around the world. For a top Communist, he seems awfully fond of capitalism, an enthusiastic proponent of more privatization.
Last year, China’s economy grew at its slowest pace in 24 years and 2015 opened with weak manufacturing sector numbers causing investors and policymakers everywhere to pray Xi can cure the economy on which the world depends for growth.
4. POPE FRANCIS, HEAD OF THE ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH
The spiritual leader to one-sixth of the world's population, more than a billion people. He said he chose the name of St. Francis of Assisi because “he brought to Christianity an idea of poverty against the luxury, pride, vanity of the civil and ecclesiastical powers of the time. He changed history.”
This Holy Father seems to have similar ideas in mind, living far more modestly than his predecessors (though still far more lavishly than many of his flock could ever dream of). His early efforts to recast the Catholic Church’s image with a softer, more tolerant, compassionate image have received rave reviews. He has accepted evolution and the Big Bang and asked, "Who am I to judge?" on the issue of sexual orientation. He talks about a greater role for women. He could transform one of the world’s largest institutions and lift exclusion and prejudice from millions.
5. ANGELA MERKEL, CHANCELLOR OF GERMANY
It’s Angela with a hard 'g' for the Chancellor with the hard line. She not only runs Europe’s true powerhouse economy; she has done so since 2005 making her the EU’s longest-serving elected head of state.
Merkel has vowed to squeeze Russia with sanctions over Ukraine. She broke the post-war taboo of German involvement in military actions by arming Kurdish Peshmerga fighter against ISIS. Her reflection of the deep German aversion to debt drove her to almost single-handedly imposing harsh austerity measures on stumbling economies like Greece.
She has taken Germany into the leadership role in Europe that its economic muscle would dictate. On her office wall is a portrait of a German princess named Sophie von Anhalt-Zerbst, who would become better known as Empress Catherine the Great of Russia
6. JANET YELLEN, CHAIR OF THE BOARD OF GOVERNORS OF THE UNITED STATES FEDERAL RESERVE SYSTEM
One of just two women on the list, Yellen is the first woman to head the most influential central bank in the world and its $4.5 trillion in assets. As Fed Chair, Yellen controls the monetary policy - that is, the money supply and interest rate levels - of the world’s most powerful economy.
The fates of everyone from Wall Street bankers to unemployed Greek teens depend largely on her actions. She has said the Fed will keep short-term interest rates near zero but her top priority is to somehow remedy the gap between rich and poor. “The extent of and continuing increase in inequality in the United States greatly concern me.” That goal might be back-burner as she turns to nurture the tremulous recovery of the U.S. through the gale-force winds of cratering oil prices.
7. BILL GATES, CO-CHAIR OF THE BILL & MELINDA GATES FOUNDATION
America's richest man and history’s most generous philanthropist bill gates are using his wealth to improve lives, change outcomes and effect social change. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has given away $30 billion since 2000. He recently announced the Foundation will “double down” on initiatives to promote major breakthroughs for people in poor countries. The Foundation is funding programs to develop affordable technologies to reduce child mortality, improve agricultural efficiency, spread the use of digital banking and revolutionize education through software.
Those topics dominate his extremely active Twitter account - he has 20 million followers. One of his pet causes is recycled drinking water. He was on The Tonight Show fooling Jimmy Fallon with glasses of what he calls “water made from poop”. The Gates are effecting change that governments are unable to.
8. MARIO DRAGHI, PRESIDENT OF THE EUROPEAN CENTRAL BANK
No pressure, but Draghi spends his day tiptoeing through monetary minefields. One false step from this powerful man and the European Union and global economic growth for the foreseeable future could be threatened.
'Super Mario' has recently lived up to his nickname. Finally, someone heeded the screams of agony from debt-ridden countries crippled by austerity policy and sky-high unemployment rates. Draghi announced a massive bond-buying program of a trillion Euros to resurrect the European economy. It worked in the U.S. He apparently has the clout to radically change policy direction, acknowledging that stringent austerity is not working and offering a glimmer of hope to basket-case economies like Greece, Spain, and Italy.
9. NARENDRA MODI, PRIME MINISTER OF INDIA
The leader of the world’s most populous democracy, of course, wields a huge amount of power on an international scale. Forbes calls Prime Minister Modi India’s newest rock star. Modi has the cred of leading his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJB) to a landslide victory over the incumbent Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.
He is also the leader of more than one people in what experts predict will be the world’s strategic epicenter in the 21st century: the Indian Ocean.
Modi will perhaps be the most sought-after ally on earth as U.S. foreign policy looks for help containing the rise of Chinese influence. Modi will manage the emerging Great Power challenge with China, a country that is at once India’s political rival and trading partner. Indians look to him to re-create, on a national scale, the economic growth he brought to his home state of Gujarat.
10. SERGEY BRIN AND LARRY PAGE, COFOUNDERS OF GOOGLE
It’s such a dominant brand it’s a commonly used verb. Perhaps the most influential company of the post-industrial era, or at least a member of the Holy Trinity of the digital age with Apple and Microsoft, two-thirds of all online searching is done on Google.
It continues to eclipse all competitors and appears to be extending its lead in next-generation apps like Google Glass and self-driving cars. CEO Larry page has recently been behind a string of acquisitions while Brin running the top secret, futuristic Google X.
Even after a 2014 stock split, shares in Google trade at over $500 each.T he company has net earnings of $13 billion on a revenue of $60 billion. Theirs is the power to shape how the world works and plays - and make a huge chunk of change.
11. DAVID CAMERON, PRIME MINISTER OF THE UNITED KINGDOM
The feisty U.K. Prime Minister had quite a year in 2014. He almost lost Scotland in a referendum vote on independence in September. The normally mild-mannered PM urged the British Parliament to approve airstrikes against what he called the "psychopathic terrorists," of ISIS. He risked a falling out with China by publicly backing the pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.
The thoroughly modern Cameron is big on Twitter with almost a million followers and has a penchant for selfies. But who would ever think the leader of Britain still has more power than the absolute monarch of the world’s largest oil producer in 2018?
12. SALMAN BIN ABDUL-AZIZ AL, SAUD KING OF SAUDI ARABIA
The person in charge of the two holiest cities in Islam, not to mention oil reserves of 300 billion barrels, is going to have more than a little influence. Perhaps the newly-crowned Saudi King Salman subscribes to Warren Buffett’s charitable creed. His first action was to give $20 billion in bonuses to state employees and students.
He has said that because of tribal rivalries, democracy should not be encouraged in the kingdom. The king is considered to be conservative, and he has given no suggestion of imminent change to the regime’s hard line on pushing down oil prices. Neither does he seem to be making significant moves to right the kingdom's wretched human rights record.
13. WARREN BUFFETT, CEO OF BERKSHIRE HATHAWAY
At the age of 84, Buffett (AKA The Oracle of Omaha) is the oldest person on this list. He has given away over $20 billion in his lifetime, a reported $2.8 billion in July 2014 alone.
He converts other ridiculously wealthy people to join his philanthropic crusade. Considered the most successful investor of the 20th century, he has built his wealth buying and selling shares in companies at the right time and price, more often than not.
One share in his company, Berkshire Hathaway, will set you back $200,000. He is a genius but has no tangible innovation like, say, the Model T Ford, penicillin or Apple to his credit.
Buffett's major contribution is his ongoing effort to give capitalism a makeover. He accuses the rich of waging class warfare on the poor. 'I've worked in an economy that rewards someone who saves the lives of others on a battlefield with a medal, rewards a great teacher with thank-you notes from parents, but rewards those who can detect the mispricing of securities with sums reaching into the billions.' And that Don Quixote-like quest to combat the ever-growing income inequality will likely be his legacy.
14. LI KEQIANG, PREMIER OF CHINA
Li has risen steadily through the ranks since being named Outstanding Individual in the Study of Mao Zedong Thought. That was during the mandatory rural labor of the time when he left high school. He is now the Number Two in command of China's Politburo. As a trained economist and loyal Communist in the 21st century, he is an astute politician somewhere between pragmatic and reformist, a combination that makes him a definite, if discreet, force on the global scene.
He is known for advocating policies to advance green energy, create jobs and decrease income inequality. Li makes investment deals with Germany and at the same time promotes China’s burgeoning alliance with the less-than-angelic nuclear state of Pakistan.
15. CARLOS SLIM HELU, HONORARY CHAIRMAN OF AMÉRICA MÓVIL
Slim and Warren Buffett are tied as the second richest men in the world, both worth just over an estimated $73 billion. His telecommunications monster, America Movil, operates in 18 countries in the Americas, including the U.S.
He also has holdings in the banking and construction sectors, as well as Philip Morris, the New York Times and Saks Fifth Avenue. His mantra is "Competition makes you better, always, always makes you better, even if the competitor wins." He is also a renowned philanthropist.
But Forbes says nothing about Carlos using his power and influence to promote political stability in a country riddled with corruption and drug lords, suggesting that the power of wealth has its limits.