Win McNamee / Reuters

The presidency of Donald Trump, and the prospect of a new and radically different vision of U.S. foreign policy, has raised the question of whether the United States is still the leader of the free world. The commentator Anne Applebaum, for example, concluded that the West might be nearing the end of its shelf life, and that “Under President Trump, we cannot assume that America is still the leader of the free world.” But what does the term even mean—and is it still useful?

Let’s start with the idea of a “free world,” which implies a divide between a democratic and a non-democratic bloc. This Google Ngram chart shows how frequently the phrase “free world” was used in books from 1945-2008.

Google Books Ngram Viewer

It was first widely employed in World War II to describe the countries resisting the fascist states. In 1941, the internationalist, and strongly anti-fascist, Free World Association published a monthly magazine called Free World. During the conflict, Frank Capra directed a series of U.S. government propaganda movies, Why We Fight, designed to explain the campaign to the American people. One of the films quotes Hitler: “Two worlds are in conflict … two philosophies of life … one of these two worlds must break asunder.” With animations produced by Disney studios, Why We Fight depicted in stark black a Nazi-Japanese slave empire in Eurasia, and in white, a free Western Hemisphere.

Yet from the start, the concept of a free world was ambiguous. After all, the epicenter of World War II was an apocalyptic clash between two totalitarian states: Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Around three-quarters of German fatalities occurred at the hands of the USSR, whereas only one-quarter were killed by everyone else, including the United States, the British, the French, and other democratic states.  

The idea of a free world peaked during the height of the Cold War, when the U.S. government depicted a Manichean struggle between a democratic alliance and a communist realm set on world domination. At a press conference in 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower said: “[T]he reason we call it ‘free world’ is because each nation in it wants to remain independent under its own government and not under some dictatorial form of government. So, to the basic ideals, all of us must subscribe.”

Once again, however, who exactly was a member of the free world lay in the eye of the beholder. What about right-wing dictatorships allied with the United States like Franco’s Spain? Moscow was also unimpressed with the term. Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev remarked in 1959: “The so-called free world constitutes the kingdom of the dollar.”

The use of “free world” declined in the publications tracked by Google NGram after the mid-1970s. People began to see the world cast in shades of gray, not the black and white of Frank Capra. After the Cuban Missile Crisis was peacefully resolved in 1962, the Cold War stabilized, and the two superpowers set up a direct hotline and signed the Partial Test Ban Treaty. Meanwhile, democratic countries were bitterly divided over the issue of Vietnam, with close U.S. allies like Britain and France opposing the American intervention. And the communist world also splintered with the emergence of the Sino-Soviet split.

By the time the Soviet Union collapsed, the concept of a free world had largely faded into disuse as a relic of the Cold War. The retreat of communism, and the wave of democratization in Eastern Europe and elsewhere, meant there was effectively no unfree world against which to unite. Efforts to put all the bad guys in a big bucket, like George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil” of Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, failed to resonate.

The concept of a leader of the free world implies that the United States (or its president specifically) provides direction to the foreign policies of democratic states. The first time the phrase “leader of the free world” appeared in The New York Times was in a November 1948 essay by the British economist Barbara Ward, which urged Western unity against the communist threat. With its unchallenged economic might, the United States was “potentially the political leader of the free world.” The term was commonly employed to refer to the United States from the late-1940s onward because of the weakness of the other democratic states (and possible candidates for leadership) like Britain and France, as well as U.S. direction to the anti-communist coalition, including Marshall Aid, the formation of NATO, and intervention in the Korean War.

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.

Can anyone else step up to the plate to lead the liberal internationalist project? In 2015, Time called German Chancellor Angela Merkel its person of the year and “Chancellor of the Free World.” But Germany, with a GDP less than one-quarter as large as that of the United States, and military spending only one-15th as big, is no Atlas, ready to carry the liberal order on its shoulders.

When Barbara Ward first used the term “leader of the free world” in The New York Times back in 1948, she feared that the world’s democracies were hopelessly divided. Enemies had no need of war, for the free world, “is destroying itself from within.” But in the subsequent decades, the West pursued a far-sighted containment policy and, ultimately, it was the unfree world that destroyed itself from within. Victory in the Cold War proved to be a double-edged sword. Without an unfree enemy against which to identify, the democracies were at liberty to squabble and fall out. Today, Trump threatens to redirect America’s cannon from defending the liberal order, to demolishing it.

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