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Opinion | Scott Gilmore

Leader of the free world? Not anymore

Bits and Splits/Fotolia

Dear America,

We never thought it would come to this. You were always there when we — the free world — needed you. Sure, you showed up to the First World War right at the end. But, still, you made it, and that’s what matters. And, you really came through in World War II. And the Marshall Plan! That was your finest hour. Your generosity, your spirit of cooperation, and your vision for a strongly interconnected world meant everything to us.

During the Cold War, it was America who founded NATO, to guarantee our collective security. It was you who pushed for the United Nations, to champion the cause of global peace. You created the World Bank, the World Health Organization, and so much more that we value.


Sure, there were some bad times. Like Vietnam. We had to watch you get into bed with some ugly people. Pinochet in Chile? Papa Doc in Haiti? Suharto in Indonesia? Honestly, why did you have to back every dictator who flirted with you?

But it was mostly good times. Your own struggles over slavery and civil rights inspired us all. At the United Nations, we counted on you to fight the good fight, for human rights, for democracy, for the oppressed, and the hopeless. American aid helped lift billions out of extreme poverty, creating not only grateful allies, but new markets and trading partners. Sure, most of this was enlightened self-interest; you benefited the most from globalization, multilateralism, and a values-based world order. What matters, though, is that you did these things, and they helped everyone.

Maybe there were times when your self-congratulation went a little too far. That whole “shining city on a hill” shtick got old fast. America did not invent democracy. Your allies still have much to teach you about how to guarantee “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” for all men, regardless of their race or creed. You are not the freest country in the world. You never accepted the most refugees or immigrants. Ironically, the “American dream” of a house with a white picket fence and a two-car garage is more achievable in countries like Canada or Denmark.


But that is not why we are letting you go. During World War II, when America started calling itself the “leader of the free world,” we didn’t raise any objections. Frankly, we didn’t care if you called yourself “boss of the galaxy,” just so long as you brought your tanks to Europe. And, when the Cold War began, the label made sense. It was your military might that kept the Russians at bay for nearly half a century.

Then the Wall came down, didn’t it? But, instead of a peace dividend, you found new military adventures, like Iraq. Sure, we let you talk us into it — that’s on us — but you’ve literally dragged us through the mud for the last fifteen years.

You’re just not that special anymore. Did you realize the European Union now has a bigger population, and a larger economy than the United States? When people talk about human rights, and global development, they talk about countries like Germany and Norway. And while you pretend climate change doesn’t exist, China is leading the world in clean tech.

We’ve drifted apart in so many ways. I know you like to call yourself the “land of the free and the home of the brave,” but you jail more of your own citizens than any other country in the world, and your police shoot more unarmed people than even the worst dictatorships. You used to be a champion of democracy, but now you gerrymander your districts so badly it would make Robert Mugabe blush. And the country that brought the world civil rights is now trying to prevent minorities from voting.


The last straw, though, was electing Donald Trump. Your new president opposes everything the free world has stood for these last 80 years. Together, we invented global trade, but he is closing your borders. The western alliance was built around NATO, but your president calls it “obsolete.” The free world has always stood shoulder to shoulder against the Russians, but Trump is on Putin’s team.

We simply can’t go on pretending anymore. America, you are officially no longer the “leader of the free world.” Frankly, we haven’t thought about you in that way for a long time. And now, we aren’t sure you are even on our side at all. So, please stop calling yourself that.

Regardless, we wish you good luck. Looks like you’re going to need it.


The free world

Scott Gilmore is a senior fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs, the founder of the nonprofit Building Market, and a former Canadian diplomat. Follow him on Twitter @scott_gilmore.


Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified a Chilean leader. It was Augusto Pinochet who took power with US support.