Elephants in the Room
Is Donald Trump ‘Leader of the Free World?’
Trump could take a number of steps in his first 100 days to align himself with his predecessors and American foreign policy traditions.
Since the early days of the Cold War, some have referred to the president of the United States as the “leader of the free world,” reflecting the country’s role in a world divided between free nations and those living under the domination of the Soviet Union. According to public perception, the U.S. president, as the commander-in-chief of the strongest military among democratic nations, is a protector of democracies, but also a moral beacon speaking on behalf of those fighting for democracy and advocating for democratic ideals globally. Although the Cold War ended long ago, the “leader of the free world” epithet persists amidst an international landscape of authoritarian leaders and lawless nonstate actors, and remains an idea foundational to American foreign policy.
From Jimmy Carter to Barack Obama, each president has used his inaugural address to embrace this role, expressing solidarity with those seeking freedom and articulating the United States’ clear commitment to leading the global fight for democracy and human rights. President Donald Trump’s inaugural address marks the first such speech in forty years to omit any reference to the leadership role of the United States in promoting freedom around the world. This is not surprising after a campaign in which foreign policy broadly, and the promotion of democracy and human rights more specifically, were underserved, and during which Trump regularly expressed disdain for conventional American foreign policy positions.
Trump now has an opportunity to reconsider this reversal of a long-standing American approach, and to pursue his foreign policy while respecting the foundational cornerstones of his predecessors.
Promoting democracy has, indeed, long been a bipartisan, shared objective. The remarkable unity among both Republican and Democratic presidents in expressing this commitment is notable. “The passion for freedom is on the rise,” Carter said during his 1977 inaugural address. “Tapping this new spirit, there can be no nobler nor more ambitious task for America to undertake on this day of a new beginning than to help shape a just and peaceful world that is truly humane.” Just four years later, President Ronald Reagan embraced America’s leadership role in the world, saying, “We will again be the exemplar of freedom and a beacon of hope for those who do not now have freedom.” The four presidents who followed were no different in this respect.
While this decades-long commitment remained in place, each president pursued a distinct democracy promotion strategy. Each chose a unique path with its own mixture of incentives and punitive, coercive, and rhetorical measures. So Trump needn’t feel that adherence to this American tradition would dictate his policy options.
Likewise, the shared commitment to leading the fight for freedom was not reflective of particular sets of domestic or international circumstances. Each president faced a unique constellation of domestic challenges and external security threats, along with differing mandates from the American people on how to prioritize these issues. And, yet, each president chose to embrace and articulate the importance of American leadership of the democratic world. Trump needn’t feel that the uniqueness of the current policy environment precludes the promotion of democracy.
This consistent embrace of American leadership of the free world has not been a softhearted foreign policy flourish, added onto speeches the way presidents tack on “God bless America.” It has been a thoughtful policy driven by a shared recognition that promoting democracy globally serves American interests by cultivating a global landscape in which U.S. security and economic growth are best protected.
Democracies are the best partners for the United States in terms of long-term security interests, economic growth, trade partnerships, and international structures that provide a level playing field for U.S. interests. Stable democracies consistently protect the human rights of their citizens and do not perpetrate genocide or other actions that produce mass casualties and refugee crises. Democracies transfer power peacefully and regularly, precluding the need for people to adjudicate their political view through force. Democracies adhere to international security norms and refrain from aggressive behavior toward neighbors. They do not tend to misuse or proliferate dangerous weapons systems. The United States has not gone to war against another democracy in modern history, and the major threats that the United States faces emanate from countries with autocratic governing systems (or no government), not democratic governments. Democracies are strong partners in international institutions, allowing for the continuation of a liberal world order that has served American interests. While international institutions have been disparaged of late — and have room for improvement — they have also provided rules of the game for U.S. economic expansion and development. In short, democracies provide an environment in which U.S. security and economic interests can advance.
Nothing in Trump’s inaugural speech — which addressed American economic woes, called for a policy of “America first,” and promised that the U.S. would fight “radical Islamic terrorism” — precludes U.S. leadership on global democracy promotion. This responsibility has never stood in the way of putting America first. In fact, promoting democracy is a traditional, core component of U.S. efforts to ensure that open markets are guided by the rule of law.
Like Trump, President George W. Bush faced daunting international threats as he took the podium for his second inaugural address, three years after the devastating attacks of September 11. Rather than presenting the fight against terrorism and the fight for democracy as mutually exclusive, Bush clearly intertwined his commitment to protect the United States and his acceptance of his role as leader of the free world. The entire address is worth rereading, but these words make that commitment clear:
For as long as whole regions of the world simmer in resentment and tyranny — prone to ideologies that feed hatred and excuse murder — violence will gather, and multiply in destructive power, and cross the most defended borders, and raise a mortal threat. There is only one force of history that can break the reign of hatred and resentment, and expose the pretensions of tyrants, and reward the hopes of the decent and tolerant, and that is the force of human freedom.
Trump could take a number of steps in his first 100 days to align himself with his predecessors and American foreign policy traditions. First, he could state publicly that while the United States will partner with nondemocratic countries to advance its interests — as we know it will do with Russia under Trump — it will do so in parallel with its commitment to criticize and name their violations of human rights and international standards. Every American president has found the need to collaborate with authoritarian leaders at times for short-term security purposes. Doing so without recognition of their shortcomings is unwise, inconsistent, and damaging in the long-term. Second, Trump could recognize and publicly state that even as he reviews and eventually revamps U.S. engagement in multilateral alliances, he will not jettison the values that underpin the alliances, even if he chooses to jettison some operating procedures or relationships. The values that led to the creation of these institutions are as valid today as they were when the institutions were created, even if operating procedures and policies have ossified overtime. Third, Trump could appoint foreign policy experts and officials who reflect this commitment, and empower them to promote the values and policies that his predecessors did.
Although an inaugural addresses is but one moment in a president’s tenure, it is a clear indication of a president’s direction. Hopefully, Trump will reconsider his significant divergence from other inaugural addresses and live up to the role of leader of the free world, just as his predecessors sought to do. This is one thing that has made America great in the past, and will help him as he seeks to “make American great again.”
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