The United States has forfeited its rank as leader of the free world. It is not incongruous to propose that we may no longer have a seat in the entire free empire. This is not a sneaking suspicion or defamatory criticism. Unfortunately, it is a bipartisan fact, though that word does not hold much credence under our current administration.
During the Cold War, in 1948, economist Barbara Ward printed the term “free world” in The New York Times, suggesting a noble counterpart to the then-vile threat of communism. Ward and others expanded on the doctrine in various texts. In addition to liberal political connotations, “free world” came with economic strings attached. For example, in “The Rich Nations and the Poor Nations,” Ward advised that the free world must have a “sustained and imaginative strategy of economic aid by the wealthy to the poor.” In a press conference in 1958, President Dwight Eisenhower elaborated: “The reason we call it ‘free world’ is because each nation in it wants to remain independent under its own government and not under some dictatorial form of government.”
Commentators and world leaders offered their opinion of the country—or countries—“free world” sought to describe. For many, it was not a welcome or clear epithet for the U.S., and its usage after the Cold War—when other democratic nations in Europe were still scrambling to rebuild—now seems obsolete. Dictatorships and communist regimes still exist in specific realms, but so do powerful sovereign nations and thriving democratic republics.
Where does this progress leave the land of the free? Based on math and science scores, we are not the smartest: Singapore’s students lead the world, followed closely by Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan and Japan. Based on gross domestic product per capita—a broad measurement of a nation’s overall economic activity—we are not the richest: Qatar leads, followed by Luxembourg, Singapore (again) and Kuwait. The 2016 World Happiness Report confirmed that we aren’t the happiest: Denmark, Switzerland, Iceland, Norway and Finland are all smiles, possibly because these countries also lead the world in gender equality, according to the 2016 Global Gender Gap Report.
We do have some superlative titles left. The U.S. has one of the most powerful militaries in the world, if not the most powerful. We have the most prisoners, ranking first in incarceration.
We may be eager to offer defense for America’s lacking prominence on the world stage. But the inauguration of Donald Trump has given us little to look forward to in the way of improvements.
Trump builds walls like communist East German authorities did between East and West Berlin in 1961. He has vocalized his disapproval of NATO, touting instead the isolationist “America First” slogan with conflicting global implications.
He moves forward on executive orders without proper consultation or careful forethought: his recent signature on the global gag rule—which bars international women’s health organizations from receiving U.S. funding—actually prompted a concerned Netherlands to set up an international abortion fund to help families across the world.
On Jan. 30, Trump fired U.S. acting Attorney General Sally Yates for opposing his executive order to prevent people from Muslim-majority countries (including refugees and green card holders) from entering our borders. His chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, an extremist with a terrifying alt-right agenda, is credited with orchestrating the ban, which—for now—has been suspended, though a salvo of Bannon’s schemes are expected in the years to come. In the face of the ban, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took to social media and was quick to welcome “those fleeing persecution, terror and war” to Canada.
Trump’s refusal to embrace renewable energy sources—as well as his dismissal of legislation that has kept our streams and skies clean—not only threatens American wildlife and national parks, but also offers ample space for other countries to lead the way. China was the world’s largest producer of solar energy in 2015, followed by Germany and Japan. The U.S. was fourth on this list, but that rank is bound to drop with Rex Tillerson as the newly-appointed Secretary of State.
Trump is notorious for discrediting journalists and news outlets. He is quick to cry “fake news” when he dislikes headlines because to him, reporters are “the most dishonest people.” His absolute lack of self-reflection and his constant, conscious denial of nefarious exploits (either those committed by himself or his administration) bear the promise of a blind and selfish authoritarian regime.
When a country no longer wishes to be a safe haven for refugees, when it discriminates against immigrants based on religious background, when it prioritizes wealth over the wellbeing of its ecosystem and human populace, when it shuts down federal funding for national programs, when it dismisses any opinion that is not its own, when it aligns itself with the agenda of white supremacy, when other countries feel obliged to step in to support international women’s health and refugees fleeing terror, what is left that is moral or “free”?
We can forgive America’s less-than-stellar report card, our frightening principal and vice principal, even our divided student body. Part of being American is being imperfect, striving forward even in the face of seemingly impossible odds. One optimistic outlook on Trump’s questionable administration is that it has inspired millions of citizens to act, whether that is call representatives, organize protests and marches, run for office, vote, write letters and sign protests. No longer the apple of the world’s eye, our nation should take this time to heal, to organize, to preserve the rights guaranteed by our constitution, to protect our core ideologies, to reexamine our privilege and to reflect on our future. These years will carry with them the potential of a democratic renaissance which—if realized—will mean it’s not the end of the free world as we know it after all.