Surrendering America’s Most Precious Mantle, “Leader of the Free World”

Perhaps the most precious, most honored mantle conferred on America — -conferred by virtue of its own prodigious effort and the fortunes of History — -has been that of “Leader of the Free World.”

As the big victor of the Second World War, America emerged as the pre-eminent military and economic power. Wisely, rather than beggaring its vanquished enemies, the U.S. saw to the establishment of a historic New Day in the postwar world, one anchored in a rules-based, free-market, collective-security system.

When, then, our erstwhile wartime ally the Soviet Union transformed into a communist dictatorship, inaugurating the Cold War, international politics was dramatically reconfigured into two camps, divided explicitly over the concept of freedom: The Soviet Union represented un-freedom, the U.S., freedom. This new reality, combined with our role as guarantor of the newly-organized liberal Western order, earned America the mantle “Leader of the Free World,” which mantle we have worn proudly for the intervening 70 years — -although for the last half of this span we have not borne it especially responsibly (about which, more later).

Now, with our 45th president Donald J. Trump, this mantle looks to be surrendered — -and traded in, by our president no less, for cheaper hardware.

If there is any doubt about Trump’s pro-autocratic and anti-democratic tendencies, they were put to rest by the one-two performance in early June, with his sneering performance toward our allies at the G-7 summit in Canada, followed by his fawning performance at the Singapore summit with North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong-un.

Of Kim, whose coercive methods include having his opponents (including family) killed off and ruling through a “personality cult based on ruthless indoctrination,” Trump admiringly called him “the strong head” of his country: “He speaks and his people sit up at attention,” adding “I want my people to do the same.” Later he said he was joking, but for the autocrat-ish Trump, it was Freudian slip. This adoration of Kim follows Trump’s embrace of other autocrats around the world — -Russia’s Vladimir Putin, China’s Xi Jinping, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte. The title of a recent column by Thomas Friedman of The New York Times states it exactly: “Trump to Dictators: Have a Nice Day.”

At the same time, Trump serves up insults to our allies, not to their face, of course, but by after-tweet from Air Force One — -Germany’s Angela Merkel, France’s Emmanuel Macron, England’s Theresa May — -the summation of which can be encapsulated in the insult he flung at his host for the Canadian summit, Justin Trudeau: “weak.” From the autocrat’s point of view, to be perceived as weak is the worst.

But what’s going on here is far worse than bad manners. Trump’s astonishing actions — -unilaterally imposing trade tariffs; unilaterally bailing out of the Paris climate accord, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Iran nuclear agreement, and now bailing out of the Human Rights Council of the United Nations; constantly bashing NATO — -all signal a dramatic break with the rules-based, free-market, collective-security system that has kept the world in basic equilibrium since World War II.

In reaction, many in the commentariat, conservative as well as liberal, have sounded the four-bell alarm (here, here, here, and here), including The Atlantic’s editor Jeffrey Goldberg in a jaw-dropping post titled, in a direct quote from a senior Trump administration official, “We’re America, Bitch.”

(And now we learn Trump’s minions are actively working, in Germany, to ensure Chancellor Merkel loses her upcoming election. What a falling-off: America, who partnered with its former mortal enemy, enabling it to become Europe’s economic powerhouse and one of its staunchest allies, now betrays this ally. For shame.)

Equally dangerous, though less commented on, Trump’s penchant for autocrats and his antipathy for small-d democrats also signals a rupture with the American ethos of freedom itself.

Since forever we Americans have seen ourselves as “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” “Don’t fence me in,” “Don’t tread on me” — -we have marched under these banners since our foundation. Trump’s flirtation with autocrats is heresy to the American ethos of the free individual — -or should be. Trump’s base supporters say they want America to cease being the world’s policeman and focus on America first, but America getting cozy with tyrants who threaten world peace — -is this really what they wanted? Stop!

Those to whom Trump’s heresy should be most blasphemous are the congressional Republicans. In theory, they pose the best possible counter-force to one of their own (putatively), Trump the Proto-Autocrat. After all, Republicans are the party traditionally screaming about freedom, that every proposal Democrats serve up, including Obamacare, impinges on their not-to-be-messed-with freedom.

But so polarized is the political moment and so enmeshed are the Republicans in their Faustian bargain with Trump — -sacrificing everything to keep power, including principles and their long habit of saluting freedom — -that nary a peep has come from their quarter. Sticking it to the Dems apparently is more important than defending American freedom from perhaps the most dangerous threat to that freedom yet: the confidence man operating out of the White House. Republicans, who once mocked Democrats for “flying the white flag of surrender,” have surrendered on freedom, keystone of the Republic. Lord, forgive them, for they know not what they do.

Fortunately, there are mighty forces mobilizing within the American public, who are fully “woke” to this president’s dangerous turn toward un-freedom, who are running for elective office in unprecedented numbers to secure the badly jolted democratic project, who recognize that America is going through a grand reckoning on myriad fronts — -racism, sexual assault, guns — -and are out in the streets to demand a new New Day. Especially encouraging: the powerful public pushback to Trump’s policy of separating migrant children from their parents — -pushback powerful enough to force Trump to reverse himself. Well done, Immigrant Nation.

Can America ever again be Leader of the Free World? Perhaps the more proper, less self-serving question is: Can the world withstand and push back, with or without American leadership, at the forces of un-freedom pulsing in every corner? Ominous signs are everywhere: Angry populist, anti-democratic forces are trending in Europe (Germany, France, Holland, Hungary, Poland, now Italy), in Asia (India, Myanmar), in Latin America — -all to the benefit of the world’s aforementioned autocrats.

Americans don’t often ponder international politics — -which disregard is possible only for the Leader of the Free World, guarantor of the rules-based, free-market, collective-security system that’s been our norm for decades. But more than Americans might guess, it makes an enormous difference what kind of power is dominant in the world — -if that power demands the citizen “sit up at attention” (as the autocrat does) or views the citizen as sovereign; if it resorts to force (as the autocrat does) or to the law to settle differences; if it seeks to control, even jail, the press (as the autocrat does) or protects freedom of speech. In sum, if it guarantees un-freedom or freedom.

Thus, as it matters enormously what kind of power is dominant in the world, and as it would be calamity if the world went fully autocratic, America still presents a good case. But the mantle isn’t decided by nomination. Short of conquest, it is economic and military might that determine which power dominates. On these grounds, America, with its booming economy and booming military, qualifies.

But, properly speaking, and for the world’s sake, it needs to be a reformed America: less arrogant, with a less booming military, more collegial, more responsible. For in these last decades we have wielded our immense power irresponsibly — -with the war in Vietnam, the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and unending war there, the descent into torture in 2004, the Wall Street-driven financial crash in 2008 that wrecked markets around the world, our anything-goes pop culture that pervades the globe.

Centuries ago the Greek philosopher Heraclitus wrote, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” The world keeps changing, so do circumstances, so do the players. But: If America can reform itself at home by reversing the Trump-driven lurch to un-freedom, and if, by this prodigious example, we help ensure that the river Heraclitus spoke of remains free of the autocrats’ pollutant, then America might once again claim the mantle most honored, Leader of the Free World.

But: The world must remain free, or the question of who’s the leader doesn’t matter.

Photo: Gaelle Marcel, Unsplash