The puzzle, however, is why people continued to use the term “leader of the free world” after the Cold War, when the notion of a “free world” had fallen out of fashion. After all, how can you lead something that doesn’t exist?
Partly the continued popularity of the phrase reflected American power. With the United States emerging as the sole global superpower in the 1990s, and leading interventions into Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq, it seemed odd to question whether it was the foremost democratic state. Washington was clearly leading something.
The term “leader of the free world” had other uses as well. At a time of ambiguity about America’s role in the world, some Americans were comforted by the idea of continued U.S. initiative and authority. The concept was also a handy stick with which to beat sitting presidents. In 2007, for example, Barack Obama said “for the last six years the position of leader of the free world has remained open. And it’s time to fill that role once more.” In 2015, the conservative commentator Mark Levin castigated Obama for the Iran nuclear deal and described Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as the true “leader of the free world.”
And the term is a way of capturing the awesome responsibility of office. Dan Pfeiffer, an advisor to Obama, recently commented: “after you stand out there in the weather and take the oath of office in front of an adoring crowd, you walk into that building and you are in charge of the free world.”
Yet the concept had a hollow ring after the Cold War. What exactly was the United States leading? In 2003, the Belgian prime minister described how the end of the communist threat widened the gap between the United States and Europe: “As long as Soviet divisions could reach the Rhine in hours, we obviously had a blood brotherhood with our cousins overseas. But now that the Cold War is over, we can express more freely our differences of opinion.”
Should Americans just retire the notion? The era of Donald Trump suggests that the free world—and its leadership—still has meaning. If the free world refers to a community of countries committed to democratic values, leadership of the free world captures the effort to build or maintain a global liberal order based on international institutions and reduced barriers to trade. For decades, the United States cooperated with fellow democracies to boost world trade, spread prosperity, weaken totalitarianism, and diminish the incidence of war, by setting up a whole alphabet of organizations like the UN, the EU, the WTO, and the IMF.
But Trump has signaled that he could bring the edifice crashing down by raising tariffs barriers, criticizing the EU and NATO, castigating allies, and offering remarkably consistent praise for the illiberal Russian leader Vladimir Putin.