Who is the leader of the free world? Important as the question sounds, I’m beginning to wonder if it’s better left unanswered.
The U.S. president is no longer the obvious choice. Even the new U.S. National Security Strategy, filled with bombastic statements such as “the whole world is lifted by America’s renewal and the reemergence of American leadership,” acknowledges growing competition among powers. And of course “America first” is the slogan of a national, not a global, leader.
So who, if not Donald Trump, qualifies for the job? Let’s first consider its history.
The origin of the term “leader of the free world” is somewhat uncertain. Dominic Tierney of the Atlantic tracked it back to a 1948 New York Times article, in which British economist Barbara Ward called upon the U.S. to lead the West in fighting the Communist threat. But a Google Books search suggests the title was first used during World War I and has made regular appearances in English-language books since the late 1930s. In any case, its use surged at the peak of the Cold War in the early 1960s (when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev began referring to “the free world” with heavy irony), declined toward the detente of the mid-1970s, then gained again through the Soviet Union’s collapse and up until its last peak in 2007, just before the global financial crisis.
Typically applied to the U.S. president, the title has acquired a bitterly ironic flavor since the election of Trump, who studies suggest is broadly mistrusted in democratic countries. As a result, some pundits have been discussing whether a more globally respected politician, such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, could take over the role. As recently as September, Hillary Clinton called her “the most important leader in the free world right now.”
Merkel, however, probably doesn’t fit the bill. Weakened by the last election, she has found herself embroiled in the longest coalition talks in Germany’s post-World War II history. Even if she’s back on top by Easter, global leadership will be pretty far from her mind as she settles into what’s likely to be her last term in power. She doesn’t even have an obvious successor in her party. Besides, she has always shown much more interest in shaping the European Union to Germany’s benefit than in leading the world, free or otherwise.
Other European leaders don’t qualify, either. Almost all lead precarious, painstakingly built coalitions with domestically-focused agendas, while others — mostly in Eastern Europe — aren’t interested in being part of any liberal order. The only notable exception is French President Emmanuel Macron, mockingly called “Jupiter” and compared to the Sun King by his compatriots. But, at 40 and in his first year as an elected official, he’s unproven. Also, France has been in the doldrums for too long and has too many institutional and economic problems to be a credible global leader.
Top EU officials could take a shot. The European project unites most established democracies, is the world’s biggest trade bloc and has a consistent track record of defending liberal values. But European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and European Council President Donald Tusk, besides being something of a comical pair, have proven powerless even to bring the EU closer together. They’re negotiators and compromise makers, not leaders. And the EU, for all its economic power, is a peace project, so its role in resolving global conflicts will remain minimal.
One could make a case for Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. He’s a liberal favorite, branded “the free world’s best hope” by Rolling Stone. He acts the part, stressing his differences with Trump on immigration, climate change and gender equality. He has also boosted Canada’s military spending. But it wouldn’t be easy for Canada to emerge from the U.S. shadow, and Trudeau isn’t particularly popular with Canadians (his approval rating just slipped below 50 percent).
There still is a free world, in which citizens elect political leaders rather than tolerate authoritarian succession like in China or Russia. It doesn’t, however, appear to have a credible leader — one who would be both powerful and committed to clear, attractive values.
Moreover, it’s hard to see where one would come from. The U.S. will be eyed with mistrust after Trump. Its values are in flux and hard for outsiders to understand, and its military power is not necessarily relevant to modern conflicts, as Europe’s Middle Eastern refugee crisis has demonstrated. Germany, for its part, is weighed down by its history and held together by a rebuilt communitarian tradition, in which leadership-hungry politicians are unlikely to flourish.
The question, then, is whether the free world needs a leader. Perhaps the path forward requires collective decisions and compromises, inclusiveness and consensus, negotiation and civilized debate. It sounds boring, even weak, and the outcomes may often appear suboptimal, but freedom and strong leadership have always been a little at odds. Quiet, soft power as practiced by European nations, Canada and Japan might work better as an advertisement for democracy than U.S. assertiveness has since the end of the Cold War.
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