The phrase “leader of the free world” is anachronistic yet stubbornly evocative, hearkening back to a Cold War paradigm of Manichean struggle between free and authoritarian nations. It conjures a United States President who does double duty as an elected political leader at home and an anointed moral defender of free nations and freedom-loving people everywhere. While the performance of U.S. presidents in this shadow role as global standard-bearer for democracy and liberty has waxed and waned, the moniker has mostly stuck. A New York Times article shortly after Trump’s unexpected 2016 victory describes foreign leaders dialing Trump Tower trying to reach the soon-to-be “leader of the free world.”
But even if he wins in November, Joe Biden will not be crowned leader of the free world; or at least not as reflexively as were his predecessors dating back to Franklin Roosevelt. The role of leader of the free world had unquestionably become more nebulous—and even dubious—in the years after the Cold War receded. Vestigial colonialism had retreated in shame and the United States’s own credibility endured the hard, mostly self-inflicted knocks of Vietnam, Iraq, and Syria. But like the parking lot that paves over paradise, Trump’s inversion of the United States’s leadership position has made vivid what is missing and why the losses are consequential. When he was first elected, critics doubted whether the reality show star had the character, credibility, or determination to rally the world’s democracies, some suggesting that the mantle should pass to German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The ensuing four years have revealed that Trump lacks both the will and the capability to rally allied nations or inspire freedom seekers. Whether he willfully set out to dismantle the relationships and infrastructure that has undergirded U.S. leadership for decades or whether the damage was a result of his reckless disregard for these underpinnings of American identity and influence may not matter much in the long run.
Trump’s repudiation of any duty to unite the world’s democracies derives from his basic lack of appreciation of why ideological affinities in geopolitics matter. Going back to the founding of the republic and the United States’s bond with Great Britain, Washington’s global role has been grounded in the sense that certain other governments are to be trusted, consulted, and assisted more readily. They hold this special status because their values—and their corresponding interests and aims—align most closely to the United States’s own constitutional precepts, including democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. While the composition of the grouping has evolved over time, every U.S. administration has counted other leading democracies among its closest allies. As someone manifestly unmoved by democratic ideals, Trump’s priorities in terms of international relationships follow a different logic. He has concluded that consorting with strongmen like Russia’s Vladimir Putin or the Philippines’s Rodrigo Duterte makes him look more potent. He believed personal rapport would enable him to pull off a historic deal with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, only to be bedeviled by the same evasions that confronted his predecessors. Meanwhile, world leaders in Ottawa, Berlin, Paris, and elsewhere have felt spurned, browbeaten, and dismissed as Trump has withdrawn from the Iran nuclear deal, scuttled climate negotiations, and acted unilaterally on a slew of matters that were longstanding subjects of close consultation.
Trump’s ignorance-cum-indifference about the significance of the nations and ideas that have animated the free world extends to the institutions that have undergirded it. He has withdrawn the United States from the UN Human Rights Council and allowed Washington’s relationships and influence at the UN Security Council to fray to the point where the U.S. delegation is now routinely isolated, including in an effort to restore sanctions on Iran. While he was not wrong to insist that fellow NATO members increase defense spending, his relentless flogging of the issue and repeated threats to withdraw from the pact have damaged the alliance. By the time Trump exited the World Health Organization amid an unprecedented global pandemic, the world’s sense of shock over outlandish and self-defeating moves out of Washington was all but exhausted, making for a muted response. Meanwhile, other countries, including most notably China in relation to the United Nations and the WHO, have seized on U.S. retreat to expand their influence, raising the question of whether the institutions built by the free world are increasingly at the service of those who seek to undermine it.
While the Trump Administration has not entirely lost its voice on human rights issues, their highly selective, self-serving engagement has laid bare the most extreme contradictions of America’s longstanding policy of balancing rights concerns against other strategic considerations. The President’s blasé attitude toward the fate of butchered Saudi newspaper columnist Jamal Khashoggi, nodding approval for the barbaric internment by China of up to two million Uighurs, silence as democracy in Hong Kong is snuffed out, parroting of the Kremlin’s evasions on the poisoning of Alexei Navalny, and general imperviousness to democratic backsliding have cut U.S. credibility to the bone. When Washington does take a stand on human rights issues, including on Venezuela, and by enacting individual sanctions against foreign rights abusers under the 2016 Global Magnitsky Act, the measures end up being dismissed as self-serving efforts to deflect pressure for more assertive action, or the work of a dwindling band of bureaucrats whose principled initiative hasn’t yet been snuffed out.
At the same time, the luster of the United States’s example—always a potent ballast of American global leadership—has flickered and dimmed. The rise of white nationalism, heightened polarization, soaring economic inequality, and—above all—the disastrous malfeasance in managing the COVID pandemic have tarnished our reputation in terms not just of conscience, but of competence.
Buffeted by the Trump Administration’s indifference and hostility, the free world has meanwhile been in free fall. Indicators measuring respect for rights and liberties worldwide have now trended steadily downward for more than a decade. Once-promising rising democracies including India, Brazil, and the Philippines are veering toward elected populist authoritarianism. The European Union has been hit by Brexit and democratic retreats in Hungary and Poland. China is using its global economic might to export Beijing’s approach toward surveillance and centralized ideological control. Beijing uses direct muscle to call the shots in its near abroad, mercantilist leverage among the clients of its Belt and Road Initiative, and foreign investment to make its influence felt in European and American tech sectors, universities and, increasingly, cultural and entertainment outlets. Meanwhile, China and Russia both are waging sustained campaigns to interfere with and thwart democratic elections.
All this raises the question of whether, post-Trump, there will be a free world left to lead. With Merkel slated to leave office next year, the post of leader of the free world remains unfilled, a vacancy that Beijing and Moscow hope will be permanent. Even to the extent they are willing to rally, leaders and peoples will not be able to unsee the depredations of the Trump era. They have always known the United States was capable of hypocrisy and gross misjudgments, but the depth of the betrayals of the last four years will cast a long shadow over Washington’s role in the world. If a future President seeks to retake the title that Trump spurned, he or she will need to earn it.