The term free world originated from the Cold War, when it was used to distinguish between democracies, specifically the United States and Western European countries, and the communist Soviet Union and its allies. As the United States led the war against communism, the President of the United States came to be known as the “leader of the free world.” This term is often used today because of the hegemony exercised by the United States and the power of the presidency itself. As president, a leader can begin a war, overturn legislation, and build diplomatic relations among countries.
Much of the power inherently understood within the term revolves around the president’s role as commander-in-chief of the military. The US army currently has over 1.4 million personnel on active duty. US bases are found in Japan, South Korea, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom.
The US also has the largest military budget in the world, which, as of 2012, is $680 billion US Dollars. This budget is much larger than that of China, the country with the second largest military budget in the world. The number of troops within the US military is not as high as that of other countries, simply because conscription is no longer used.
Referring to the president of the United States as the “leader of the free world” is debated by other countries that also fought for democracy during the Cold War. There are also concerns about the use of the word "free." During the Cold War battle between ideologies, African, Asian, and South American countries, which cannot clearly be defined as democracies and therefore "free," supported the United States and Western Europe. Currently, countries with non-democratic governments can be considered free.
Nevertheless, the term is still associated with the United States, although the international use of the term “leader of the free world” often refers to the country rather than the presidency. In addition to the military power that the United States has, the term also applies to the values and ideals for which the country stands: equality among all, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the right to pursue happiness. Therefore, the phrase refers not only to the president, but also to the people who maintain America’s loftier ideals, such as Martin Luther King, Susan B. Anthony, Ralph Nader, and Hillary Clinton.
Who Is the Leader of the Free World?
The “Free World” is a term most notably coined during the Cold War era. It broadly applies to non-communist countries that ascribe to the following ideals:
- Democratic and capitalist or moderately socialist systems
- Representatives of government are chosen by the people through a fair election process
- Citizens have full human rights including freedom of speech, a free press and the right to assemble
Traditionally, though, the “free world” refers to the United States and its closest allies, specifically countries of Western Europe, with the U.S. as the leader. By extension, the president of the United States is considered to be the leader of the free world. This designation has periodically been disputed as various points of America’s complicated history have come into question.
The Civil Rights Movement
In the 1960s, when the civil rights movement was gaining traction throughout the United States, its own citizens, particularly African Americans, noted a controversy in positioning the country as a pillar of freedom. Citing issues from slavery to segregation, members of the civil rights movement asserted that the U.S. could not claim such status until all its constituents were guaranteed equal rights.
The Vietnam War
U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War raised doubt about the country’s ability to remain a military and economic superpower. Costly mistakes were made that resulted in significant loss of life and a crippled U.S. economy. The war was deemed a failure as communist North Vietnam seized capitalist South Vietnam in 1975.
The Trump Administration
The bitter divisiveness that accompanied Donald Trump’s presidency caused issues surrounding the notion of free world leadership to resurface. Fellow democratic countries remained committed to global initiatives while the Trump administration withdrew from treaties, alienated allies and maintained a perceived admiration for Russian communist leader, Vladimir Putin.
During this time, attention shifted to Germany’s then-chancellor, Angela Merkel, as the next leader of the free world.
The popularity of the phrases “free world” and “leader of the free world” has waxed and waned over the years. The concept entered political conversations once again when President Joe Biden pledged to renew alliances to address threats to freedom by China and Russia.
The question of who is the leader of the free world may always be up for debate as global powers shift and history continues to unfold.
When Did America Become the Leader of the Free World?
Though its origins are attributed to the Cold War, the concept of America as the leader of the free world can be traced back earlier to World War II when the U.S. emerged as a superpower. The United States entered the war in response to the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. The military joined forces with the Allied powers to defeat the fascist regimes that comprised the Axis powers.
The role the United States played during the war and the subsequent Allied victory confirmed for many the idea of “American exceptionalism,” a term that describes the United States as an unparalleled nation with a duty to serve as an exemplar for the rest of the world. Post-World War II, the U.S. stayed active in international affairs, assuming the responsibility for securing enduring peace and freedom across the globe.
As a military and economic powerhouse, the U.S. influenced multiple policies and initiatives aimed at bolstering trade, democracy, economic growth and foreign relations.
American President Harry S. Truman delivered a speech to Congress in 1947 promising military and economic aid to any nation threatened by communism. This speech became known as the Truman Doctrine and is considered to have been a declaration of the Cold War.
International Monetary Fund and the World Bank
In 1944, the International Monetary Fund was established to oversee the global monetary system, monitor currency exchange rates and provide financial assistance to member nations experiencing economic hardship.
The United Nations replaced the League of Nations after World War II with a primary goal of promoting international cooperation and preventing future conflicts. The organization started in 1945 with 51 countries and has grown to 193 member countries as of 2022.
Designed as an economic relief program, the Marshall Plan offered U.S.-funded assistance to Western European countries recovering from the devastation of World War II. The plan was thought to be a success.
The United States’ ability to continuously provide military and economic aid to war-torn and poverty-stricken countries has contributed to its status as leader of the free world.