In Ireland, soft power is usually served up in a pint glass. World leaders visiting the country can expect to be treated to a Guinness by the Taoiseach (a.k.a. Prime Minister) during the obligatory photo op inside a genuine Irish pub. But when Ireland’s new Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, welcomed Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to Dublin in early July, he broke with tradition. Instead of clinking pints of the black stuff in a dimly lit bar, Varadkar invited fitness fanatic Trudeau to don his running shoes and go for a jog in a local park. The unorthodox meeting wasn’t just a photo op, the new Prime Minister insists, sitting in his Dublin office on July 7. The jog also allowed him to talk freely with his Canadian counterpart away from the note takers and photographers. “He was able to give me some advice on the experience of being a new head of government,” Varadkar says. “He was 18 months in office and I was 18 days in office, so he had a few tips to give me.”
When Varadkar ascended to his country’s highest office on June 14, he became, at 38, the youngest Prime Minister in Ireland’s history, and by far its least typical. Born to an Indian father and an Irish mother, Varadkar represents a break from the parade of aging white men who predated him, and from his own center-right Fine Gael Party and its center-left rival Fianna Fáil. His premiership also reflects a sea change in social attitudes in this country of 4.7 million, once a bastion of staunch Catholic values. In 2015, Ireland became the first country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage by popular vote. During the referendum campaign, Varadkar, then Minister for Health, came out as gay on national radio, a revelation that was greeted with surprise but little dismay. One of his first acts as Taoiseach was to lead a pride parade through Dublin. Few eyebrows were raised.
Varadkar wants to bring this spirit of millennial openness to how his country approaches the world (although he jokes that, being born in 1979, at the tail end of Generation X, he’s technically a “Xennial”). It was no accident that his first meeting with a head of state was with Trudeau. He and the 45-year-old Canadian represent a new and growing cohort of youthful world leaders who are defining themselves in opposition to an older order that is turning inward. He names Trudeau, French President Emmanuel Macron and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte as part of this generational shift toward a new centrism. “The traditional divide between left and right, capital and labor, small state and big state, high taxes and low taxes doesn’t define politics in the way it did in the past,” he says. “We see new divisions emerging.”
The problem for Varadkar–which may come to define his tenure in office–is that one of the most pressing divisions is between his country and its closest neighbor. The United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union presents a gigantic obstacle not just to Varadkar’s ambitions for Ireland but also for Ireland’s ambitions on the world stage. Membership in the E.U. has been central to the country’s growth from one of the Continent’s provincial backwaters to a major cultural and economic force. So while Britain may be content to turn its back on Europe, he says, “we are absolutely convinced that our place is at the heart of the European home that we helped to build.”
Read more at TIME.