When it comes to measuring a nation’s power, what do you think is more important: military might or economic strength? Throughout history, the destiny of nations was often decided by who had the most chariots, soldiers, and swords. Today, many leaders embrace the value of diplomacy and use it to prevent physical fighting; it goes without saying that money truly is power on the world stage. As a result, rulers often look more like business celebrity Donald Trump than France’s emperor and military general Napoleon Bonaparte.
If we were to turn back time to when a nation’s leader led their troops into battle, however, who would come out on top today? Would the United States still be considered among the most powerful nations if we had to depend on our leader to physically stand up to our adversaries? How might our world’s power dynamics shift if a leader’s physical strength was more important than his or her nation’s GDP?
To find out, we started by choosing the leaders of the world’s 50 largest countries. Then, we showed 1,000 people photos of those leaders and instructed them to rank them by physical strength. We also asked them to determine which leaders would dominate in a boxing match: Would Donald Trump win in a fistfight against Joe Biden? How would Kim Jong Un measure up? And on the world stage, which countries are led by the “strongest” people? Take your own guesses and then continue reading to see how 1,000 others voted.
Imagine if instead of lining up at the polls to choose a president, we cheered on our favorite candidate in a head-to-head boxing match for the Oval Office. Who would win the 2020 election? A little more than half of respondents gave the win to Democrat Joe Biden, despite Donald Trump’s “big, beautiful hands.”
Biden has great chances of become the Democratic presidential nominee to run against Trump, and the two have certainly had an antagonistic relationship already. Recently, Biden lambasted Trump for his coronavirus response, and Trump has long since nicknamed Biden “Sleepy Joe.”
Things were more clear when we pitted Trump against Bernie Sanders in the hypothetical boxing ring. Sanders may not be what we would call stiff competition in the physical arena. This political veteran is a heart attack survivor with five years of age on Trump. A majority of Democrats even favored Donald Trump in a boxing match against Sanders.
Most also thought Trump would win against Elizabeth Warren, Michael Bloomberg, and Amy Klobuchar. The only candidate people thought could stand a chance in the ring against Trump was Pete Buttigieg, a military veteran who served in Afghanistan – and who’s 36 years younger than Trump.
Crossing the Line
Next, we took the fight to North Korea to learn what would happen in a physical match between Donald Trump and leader Kim Jong Un. It’s a relief that our international diplomacy doesn’t depend on our leader’s fighting shape. If it did, our freedom might be at stake: More than half of respondents believed Kim Jong Un would be able to dominate the president in a boxing match.
People thought that despite Kim Jong Un’s 5-foot-7-inch stature (even with his “special shoes”), he could easily overcome Trump, who stands 8 inches taller. Perhaps, the recent images of Kim Jong Un looking regal and strong on his white stallion lingered in the minds of survey-takers.
Trump’s imaginary world boxing tour also included a match against Vladimir Putin in Russia. Despite their enduring, unique relationship, this fight wouldn’t end in a draw. An overwhelming majority (78.7%) chose Putin to win in a boxing match against Trump.
In reality, Putin seems to enjoy projecting a strong, masculine image to the rest of the world. He’s often photographed while participating in a number of athletic activities, such as ice hockey and horseback riding. He even has trained with Olympic judo fighters. By comparison, Trump’s ivory tower upbringing and penchant for Big Macs may seem less intimidating.
Only the Strong Survive
After cherry-picking the most interesting matches, we blew the fight up on a global scale. Each of our survey respondents was asked to look at pictures of the world leaders from the top 50 largest countries by population and then rate them on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being “not at all strong” and 5 being “very strong.”
Speaking in strictly physical terms, most of North and South America’s leaders were thought to have pretty feeble skills in the boxing ring. Canada’s Justin Trudeau led both continents in terms of perceived strength, receiving an average score of 3.15 on the strength scale. However, Trump was perceived to be physically weaker than both Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. The physically weakest of all leaders was thought to hail from Iran, though. Ali Khamenei is over 80 years old, which might make him appear frail in comparison to younger rulers.
Abdel Fattah al-Burhan of Sudan was perceived as the strongest leader overall. Not only is he the president, but also he is the Sudanese army lieutenant general who is often featured in his military garb. If this was meant to project a certain level of physical strength, it’s certainly working. He received an average score of 3.71 on the strength scale, which was higher than any other world leader we studied.
Stars, Stripes, and Strengths
Stateside, we also wanted to see which political party had physically stronger presidents throughout America’s history. On average, the two parties were neck and neck, but Republicans won compared to their Democratic counterparts. But who is holding down the fort for each party?
Both Democrats and Republicans thought the photo they viewed of Ulysses S. Grant made him look like the strongest president, physically speaking. During his life, this president was able to lead the Union to victory against the Confederacy and worked to remove the many vestiges of slavery from our country. The silver trophy went to Theodore Roosevelt, who still holds the title for the youngest (and maybe one of the strongest) presidents in our nation’s history.
Jimmy Carter was voted the weakest president based on his appearance. Nearly 45% of respondents viewed the former president as “not at all strong.” Apparently, his 2002 Nobel Peace Prize and his work to advance human rights would not be considered helpful in a fistfight. Compared to Donald Trump, he was more than twice as likely to be seen as not at all strong.
Bringing in Backup
Lastly, we wondered how much a nation’s military and economic strength influenced perceptions of their leader’s physical strength.
Each country has a military strength ranking, based on Global Firepower’s estimations of a country’s “potential war-making capabilities across land, sea, and air.” Manpower, equipment, natural resources, finances, and geography are all evaluated in these rankings. We took these numbers and compared them to the strength score assigned by our respondents.
|Strength Rank||Leader||Country||Military Power Ranking||GDP Rank||GDP (millions)|
|1||Abdel Fattah al-Burhan||Sudan||46||47||$40,852|
|4||Cyril Ramaphosa||South Africa||27||26||$368,289|
|14||Abdel Fattah el-Sisi||Egypt||9||32||$250,895|
|18||Iván Duque Márquez||Colombia||29||28||$331,047|
|28||Recep Tayyip Erdoğan||Turkey||11||17||$771,350|
|29||Boris Johnson||United Kingdom||8||5||$2,855,297|
|31||Moon Jae-in||South Korea||6||12||$1,619,424|
|35||Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli||Nepal||53||48||$29,040|
|37||Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi||Yemen||45||50||$26,914|
|43||Andrés Manuel López Obrador||Mexico||30||14||$1,220,699|
|45||Donald Trump||United States||1||1||$20,544,343|
|46||Nguyễn Phú Trọng||Vietnam||21||33||$245,214|
|47||Mahathir bin Mohamad||Malaysia||36||27||$358,582|
|48||Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi||Iraq||39||34||$224,228|
|49||King Salman||Saudi Arabia||17||16||$786,522|
Female world leaders, despite their countries’ successes, were perceived as physically weak. For instance, Angela Merkel, who heads the 13th strongest army in the world, was thought to be the third-weakest leader. And Sheikh Hasina, the prime minister of Bangladesh, was considered to be weaker than King Salman of Saudi Arabia despite her younger age (not to mention her resilient outspokenness for democracy).
Recall that Sudan’s Abdel Fattah al-Burhan was voted the strongest leader (physically) on the planet. In spite of this perception, his country ranked 46th (out of the 50) for the strongest military. His nation’s GDP ranked as one of the lowest (47th out of 50).
Incredibly strong militaries, on the other hand, like Russia’s, didn’t necessarily help their leader rise to the top in our hypothetical fistfight. Putin was only ranked as the 19th strongest leader despite his No. 2 spot on the list of the world’s strongest armies. Other strong armies, like those of the U.K., South Korea, and Japan, also had world leaders who were most likely to be seen as “not at all strong.”
Get Fit to Lead
Respondents had opinions ready to go on how strong or weak they felt Trump and other world leaders were, physically speaking.
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A web-based survey was conducted with 1,023 respondents. 47.4% were women, 52.3% were men, and 0.3% were nonbinary or chose not to specify. Forty-six percent of respondents were Democrats, 27.5% were Republicans, 22.2% were Independents, and 4.3% were members of another party. Participants ranged in age from 18 to 82, with an average of 38.3 and a standard deviation of 12.6.
Participants were shown full-body-length recent photographs (without names) of the leaders of the world’s 50 most populous countries, as of January 2020. They selected how strong each person appeared to be on a scale of 1 (not at all strong) to 5 (extremely strong). This number was then averaged to form a strength score when comparing international leaders. They did the same for all American presidents throughout history, except those who did not affiliate with the Republican or Democrat parties. A few questions pitted two leaders or candidates against one another, and respondents selected who they believed to be stronger.
There were two versions of the survey created, each showing half of the world leaders and U.S. presidents. Both versions of the survey contained all of the 2020 U.S. presidential candidates in the race as of January 2020. Political affiliation was based on self-reported responses.
This report was based largely upon self-reported survey data, which has inherent limitations such as the possibility of telescoping, minimization, or exaggeration. Our analysis also might have revealed different findings if we included leaders of every country.
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