As most people around the world grow increasingly concerned about the erratic tweets, threats and general behaviour of the new president of the U.S., it interests me – actually, it astounds me – that in the midst of articles and speeches voicing these concerns, they continue to refer to the president as the leader of the free world. In articles in the Washington Post or the New York Times, or online at CNN – articles that Trump would call evil fake news, the refrain is that we expect more from the leader of the free world. I just read an article about the debate underway in the U.K. as to whether the invitation of a state visit for Trump should be rescinded, and those who believe the invitation should remain in place based their argument on the fact that he is the leader of the free world. In the U.K. Wow, old habits die hard.
According to the Cambridge Dictionary, and similar to other definitions, all of which stem from the Cold War era, “free world” means:
“Those countries whose governments have been chosen in fair elections and whose people have full human rights, usually used to refer to the Western world in contrast to other countries, for example countries that have a Communist government: Wherever tyranny, oppression, and brutality have threatened the free world, our countries have stood for the triumph of good over evil.”
I think we can all understand why the U.S. would have been considered the leader of that group of countries during a time of Democracy versus Communism, when every country in that “free world” block was more or less on the same page, fighting the same enemies and sharing common values and needs. And, by and large, in that context it makes some sense to consider the U.S. president to be the leader, or main – or major – player within that block of countries. But let’s be clear: nobody outside the U.S. votes for the U.S. president, and they certainly did not vote for Donald Trump. He is not the leader of the current block of “free world” countries; that label does not come with the job. It is not part of the job description; Donald Trump didn’t ask for it or campaign for it. And, although most former presidents would have seen that as part of their role, the current president clearly does not. He has gone out of his way to aggravate or confound many “free world” countries since becoming president. So, someone please tell me, why are people who are utterly dismayed by the current political chaos in the U.S. still referring to Trump as the leader of the free world? What am I missing?
Part of my issue with the continuing use of this label is that the values he espouses through the policies he is trying to pursue are not values shared by most of the other countries in the “free world” block. Quite the contrary. So how is this supposed to work? He appears to be favouring communist countries over former U.S. allies, for starters. The other part of my issue with the term is the “leader” part of “leader of the free world”. Implicit in the definition of “free world” above, these countries strive to advance and protect a society that values human rights and the triumph of good over evil – for all. In the context of those aspirations and expectations, a leader is supposed to embrace those principles and lead by example. I’m extremely sorry to say that this simply is not the case with this president. And so, once again, why are we meant to consider him to be the leader of the free world?
Let’s take a look at what the U.S. has brought to the table for the past 70 years that has earned them – and their president – this title. Until now.
- Military might, used to fight tyranny and oppression. (I know, there is self-interest involved, but the U.S. military strength has been an accepted and welcomed presence in this regard.)
- A welcoming place for people in need. The first country in the modern world to be able to call itself a country of immigrants. If people would cast their minds back they would remember that most new waves of immigrants were looked upon as not fitting in … until they did.
- Moral authority. The U.S. Constitution has been a hallmark for what the aspirations of a democratic country should be since 1787. Freedom of religion and freedom of the press are among the many freedoms in the Constitution that the president swears to uphold. The grand vision continues to be a work in progress, as it does in all countries where human rights are embraced in principle but not always in spirit, but once your leader stops even talking the talk if not walking the talk, you are in for scary times.
- Ethical expectations. It is difficult for the rest of the “free world” to understand how such astounding conflicts of interest are suddenly allowed to continue regardless of the message it sends. (It’s even more difficult to understand than the vast amounts of money that a few hugely rich people are legally allowed to donate to political campaigns, but that’s another issue.) How can Trump’s businesses be allowed to continue to pursue new opportunities in foreign countries while he is president? How is he able to use his private club as a “winter White House” where people spend gobs of money to his private company to be able to gain access? The Trump brand name is suddenly approved in China after a decade of trying? Sorry, but I cannot believe that this type of behaviour – or the fact that it is tolerated by others – helps make the U.S. the beacon of light that it has been considered, or at least aspired to. I won’t even bring up being a responsible protector of the environment.
- Science and innovation. The U.S. has arguably been as supremely successful as it has been (1) because of its immigrants, who come for a better life for their families and renew the country’s work ethic and (2) because of its enormous success in scientific breakthroughs and the innovations that take that scientific output and develop new technologies. The direction the new administration is taking to marginalize or even demonize science (and climate change) just doesn’t compute in any way, shape or form. It seems that at every turn they are biting off their nose to spite their face. The scary thing is that these counterproductive policies (I am being kind here) will affect every American, and not in a good way.
Let’s stop here for a minute and look at how intertwined immigrants are with the science and innovation story (from Globe and Mail’s Why Donald Trump needs immigration, by Matt Lundy):
This article makes the point that immigrants help grow the U.S. economy and that they are driving innovation. This one chart, showing the foreign born share of employed residents in two counties in California, illustrates the point that by closing your borders to people with names that you aren’t comfortable with (which at one point were Italian, Greek, and Polish names) you are going to shut down critical sources of doctors, engineers, scientists, and technology workers, none of whom will be replaced by domestic workers, as well as all kinds of service workers, including the people who care for your children and old folks. And in the process of doing so, you are empowering hatemongers and bullies.
Foreign-born share of employed residents
Over age 16, in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties in 2014, by occupational category
Purple = All Ages, 16+
Pink = Ages 25 to 44
- Strong leadership skills. A representative sample of what we look for in effective leaders:
- Well-informed and articulate
- Respect for differences of opinion, appreciates that he/she is a leader for all the people
- Works to earn the trust and respect of his/her constituents, employees, partners
- Empowers people to be the best they can be
- Known for his/her integrity
- Willing to make the tough decisions when needed, basing those decisions on the best information available and in consultation with others.
Based on this analysis, Donald Trump is taking the United States down a very different path than has been taken since World War II. He is sending confusing, conflicting, and concerning message to allies and traditional enemies alike. He is showing by example to all the young people in his country that bullying, rudeness and vulgarity are fine. He is pitting ethnic and special interest groups against each other. He is working at dismantling the beacon on the hill. This is not the profile of a leader of the free world.
Sadly, unless things change quickly and dramatically, it may be time for the rest of the free world to figure out how to continue to preserve our values and our collective security without the U.S. taking its historic leading role. We wish it were otherwise, and wish the great country of the United States well. But, please, for now at least, leave out the references to “leader of the free world”. That is a title that is needs to be earned.