What Does the "Leader of the Free World" Mean?

Venus D.
Venus D.
The American flag.
The American flag.

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.

The "leader of the free world" can mean the United States as a whole and its ideals.
The "leader of the free world" can mean the United States as a whole and its ideals.

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.

Map of the world.
Map of the world.

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.

The president of the United States is sometimes referred to as the leader of the free world."
The president of the United States is sometimes referred to as the leader of the free world."

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
Though powerful, the U.S. president must still have any treaties he negotiates approved by the U.S. Senate.
Though powerful, the U.S. president must still have any treaties he negotiates approved by the U.S. Senate.

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.

Truman Doctrine

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.

At the same time, the World Bank was started with a mission to support developing countries by reducing poverty and providing opportunities for prosperity and sustainability.

United Nations

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.

Marshall Plan

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.

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Discussion Comments

anon1001437

As an American, I also find the term arrogant and offensive. Of all the developed nations, America has some of the lowest and worst conditions.

We spend more on health per GDP than any other OECD nation, but have higher infant mortality rates and lower life expectancies than they have. We have more income disparity and unemployment than other nations. We are the only OECD nation that has no laws to give paid parental leave to new mothers after labor and delivery (my company graciously gave me six weeks and 70 percent pay under the long-term disability coverage umbrella. I saved up my 2 weeks of vacation to round it up to 8 weeks).

Americans work 130+ more hours per year (on average) than other nations, but there is no mandate on guaranteed paid vacation time or cap on hours worked. Many office jobs offer about 10 paid holidays (Christmas, Thanksgiving, etc), 10 days paid vacation, and 10-13 paid sick days per year. As a worker, I often used my sick leave for medical appointments and days I had to watch my sick kids. When my mother-in-law was sick and I had to take her to the hospital I was not allowed to use my sick days because she wasn't considered my immediate family.

The US also ranks fifth in our spending on education, per student, but we score below the PISA math mean and ranks lower than many other OECD nations. I was in high school when I met a foreign exchange student from Brazil. Paola was breezing through 11th grade math while I struggled to keep up. When I asked her how, she told me that US math was behind and she had already mastered Algebra II in school in Brazil. It was an eye-opener for me to realize that a nation I always assumed would be behind the US in development could be ahead of us.

Since that day, I've looked at the US very differently. Is it a horrible place to live? No. Does it have it's issues? Yes. Is it a leader? Yes. America is huge and wealthy, which means we often dominate other nations in culture.

To say we are the leader of the free world, however, is pretentious and negatively impacts us as a nation and how we are perceived by other nations.

anon997113

The USA is not the leader of the free world and the President of the USA is not because they do not lead the way. They dominate and domination is not the same as leading.

anon992029

The irony that a self-appointed "leader" of people not electing them is a dictator is lost apparently on these Americans.

But where do they lead? Morally? (US was one of the last in west to giving vote to women, in abolishing slavery, in giving black people equal rights, and just recently gay rights.)

In war mongering: Maybe but did not lead the world in Vietnam, or Iraq?

Nope just American arrogance/ignorance shown as in sports, where they are "world champions" or "dominate" in everything,

anon988045

@anon351681: In a democracy everybody has a vote in all things if they desire it. What you described is capitalism, not democracy. Huge difference.

anon988044

I believe "leader of the nation of lies" is more fitting these days.

The US government says they fight terrorism while terrorizing people and smaller nations.

The US government says US citizens have full access to information while heavily censoring it, according to their own laws.

The US government says people are free while stripping rights from its citizens with more changes to laws that violate their own bill of rights.

The US government says you can trust its police force while civil forfeiture laws state that police can literally rob you without so much as charging you for a crime.

The US government says data on US citizens are being kept secure while keeping their title as the most vulnerable nation for cyber crime and identity theft by installing more vulnerabilities in the stuff available to US citizens.

The US government says their nation's economy is improving while it sinks farther into uncontrollable debt.

I can go on but, well, you get the point.

anon981017

I find the term,"leader of the free world,'" arrogant and offensive.

I live in Canada, which is part of the free world, and we elect our own leaders. I'm sure people in Australia, England, Australia, France, and the rest of the world feel the same way.

It pains me to be rude, but FrogFriend's post suggesting that only people "who live in a country with absolute propaganda from a fascist government, don't believe America is the leader of the free world" is astoundingly arrogant and stupid. --A happy and free Canadian

anon939503

You guys are kidding yourselves if you think the rest of us consider America to be the leaders of the free world. If you are Native Americans, I might take what you say seriously, but until you return the country to its rightful owners, you are just another country that has oppressed its indigenous people and stolen their wealth.

Native Americans live in an occupied country where they are forced to assimilate to their oppressors rules. I don't see a Native American as president or a majority of them in leading positions of power and wealth. They get by on what their captors grudgingly bestow on them.

anon351681

I actually watched a news report calling the current president "the leader of the free world." I was shocked to hear this so decided to check up on it and came to here. I think I am less angered by the post than the comments that followed.

The free world is an ideal. Americans aren't free, you're just not publicly oppressed in the way communists are. No one, nowhere is free. "Freedom: Noun; The power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint." Those of you who are truly free can go out and do whatever you want whenever you want to. The difference between communism and democracy is that communism has one man calling the shots based on his own interests, and democrats band together to call the shots of the interest of the highest bidder. If you have the money and want a bill passed, it will be. That's reality.

As for the rest of the world, I believe in a way they are more free as we are -- free from the egotistical patriotism instilled into us from an early age that makes us believe we are better than everybody else.

In a democracy, you are free to do what you are allowed to do. Freedom is only a matter of perspective.

anon347498

Please keep your freedom to yourself, and stop sending your oppressive army to kill people.

anon250437

I came to this site seeing if anyone had any specific understanding on what the free world is.

After reading the article and the comments I might add I'm from New Zealand (living in Australia). Our country was the first true, modern democratic country in the world allowing votes to all citizens (gender and race). We are a dominion with a Westminster government, while. America is a presidential republic.

Our way of life has not been, or is influenced at all by American ideasls, values or government. We are largely agricultural not industrial (So define free world?) The so-called free world I understand is confined to the USA and western Europe, (against the Warsaw pact) though when I went to Europe, it didn't seem they had any more civil liberties than we do. (If that's what being "free" means). If America is the "leader" why can't Europeans vote on the next US president?

Maybe I'll go to the US and see what all this freedom is all about because strictly speaking, I'm not in this world. Better be good I'm going to wreak havoc.

anon141842

The leaders of the free world are just little boys throwing stones.

FrogFriend

America could be considered a great leader of the free world. When you're the prime example of an excellent democracy in this world. What other nation, has demonstrated absolute ability to have the longest running true democracy on earth. While other forms of democracy have excellent operations and definitely do well in governing their people, I think that America has actually strived and shown its worth as a world leader.

It's fairly obvious to me that most people in the world except the United States as the dominating player in the industrial nations on earth. Because of this I think it's a given that we are considered the leader of the free world. Unless you live in a nation where there is absolute propaganda from a fascist government, only then do I think could you consider American not the leader of the free world.

JoseJames

Many people have mixed feelings about America's role as leader of the free world. I think because the term comes from the era of the Cold War, we can come up with new academic principles and ways to describe our actual position in the world. Instead of looking at ourselves as the dominator or leader I think what we need to consider ourselves as a partner of the rest of the world. Only when America sees itself as on a level playing field with other countries in the industrialized world, can we truly accept what our brothers feel.

Is this elevated an elitist way of thinking that leads to other people not liking us and especially liking this from a position above and or what others perceive as a leadership role.

Either way we need to take responsibility for our reputation and also for the capabilities that we have helped everybody that is on this planet.

jeancastle00

I think it is absolutely critical that we do as Americans look at ourselves as leaders of the free world period the reason for this is because people look to us strength as well as stability and military protection. Because people do idolize our abilities in this sense we must take responsibility for them and act that way.

Often our foreign and international policies do not represent our need to take up the leadership position of the free world needs. Sometimes we get selfish and desire our own personal wealth and well-being over the fact that our whole globe can be sick around this. What is the point of living in a free country of the world around you isn't free. We should always strive to help create more free world that way we can ensure the safety of our own free living.

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