It happened in the unexpectedly swift fashion that seems to mark all political developments these days. Big things are changing over night. You wake up and the FBI Director ignores the Hatch act and throws the election into a tail spin, undermining our democracy. Then we turn around and the Prime Minister of Canada steps up and becomes the new leader of the Free World.
What? Really? As Nicole Sedaca writes in her essay “Is Donald Trump ‘Leader of the Free World?’”
Since the early days of the Cold War, some have referred to the president of the United States as the “leader of the free world,” reflecting the country’s role in a world divided between free nations and those living under the domination of the Soviet Union. According to public perception, the U.S. president, as the commander-in-chief of the strongest military among democratic nations, is a protector of democracies, but also a moral beacon speaking on behalf of those fighting for democracy and advocating for democratic ideals globally. Although the Cold War ended long ago, the “leader of the free world” epithet persists amidst an international landscape of authoritarian leaders and lawless nonstate actors, and remains an idea foundational to American foreign policy.
Sedaca describes how all presidents since WWII have taken the role of “leader of the free world” seriously. This role did not undermine their political differences and it did not prevent them from addressing unique historical challenges, like 9/11. She quotes Bush after 9/11 describing the fight against terrorism and the fight for democracy as the same fight.
For as long as whole regions of the world simmer in resentment and tyranny — prone to ideologies that feed hatred and excuse murder — violence will gather, and multiply in destructive power, and cross the most defended borders, and raise a mortal threat. There is only one force of history that can break the reign of hatred and resentment, and expose the pretensions of tyrants, and reward the hopes of the decent and tolerant, and that is the force of human freedom.
Sedaca writes that Trump’s inauguration speech provides evidence he does not intend to serve in this traditional role as the “leader of the free world.”
From Jimmy Carter to Barack Obama, each president has used his inaugural address to embrace this role, expressing solidarity with those seeking freedom and articulating the United States’ clear commitment to leading the global fight for democracy and human rights. President Donald Trump’s inaugural address marks the first such speech in forty years to omit any reference to the leadership role of the United States in promoting freedom around the world. This is not surprising after a campaign in which foreign policy broadly, and the promotion of democracy and human rights more specifically, were underserved, and during which Trump regularly expressed disdain for conventional American foreign policy positions.
Then one week into Trump’s presidency he signed an executive order on Immigration. As The New York Times reported,
President Trump’s executive order on immigration set off a widening political and legal crisis one week into his presidency.
The order indefinitely barred Syrian refugees from entering the United States, suspended all refugee admissions for 120 days and blocked citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries, refugees or otherwise, from entering the United States for 90 days: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
The immigration ban unleashed chaos on the immigration system and in airports in the United States and overseas, and prompted protests and legal action. It was condemned on Monday by former President Barack Obama, at least 100 American diplomats and the acting attorney general, Sally Q. Yates, whom Mr. Trump quickly fired on Monday night.
Then, with that same frightening swiftness, a lone terrorist struck a mosque in Quebec City, Canada. Six people were killed and eight others were injured. The young prime minister of Canada rose to speak out against this act of terrorism. He looked right into the heart of Muslim-Canadians and he let them know — your are a part of us.
The contrast here in this moment between Trudeau and Trump is stark. Trump welcomed help from the Russians in order to barely win and electoral victory over Clinton in spite of losing the popular vote by over 2 million votes. As consequence of this election, The Economist Group downgraded the U.S. from a “full democracy” to a “flawed democracy.” After this “victory,” Trump sat down an penned an executive order banning people from seven Muslim countries from entering the United States. Chaos ensued.
Trudeau became prime minister of Canada in 2015 when his Liberal Party routed the opposition, winning 184 of the 338 seats in the House of Commons. After the terrorist attack on the Mosque, Trudeau did what leaders do — he put to words what the people in his country and around the world were yearning to say. He did it eloquently and sincerely.
While Trump is banning Muslim’s from coming to America, Trudeau is letting Muslim’s know they are welcome in Canada. He is reaching out to Muslims. Trudeau does not brag about sexually assaulting women. He does not imply women are being influenced by hormonal cycles when they ask him questions. He treats women with respect and he is pretty easy on their eyes. He is reaching out to women. He is reaching out to the free world.
Angela Merkel is one of the longest serving leaders in Europe. We should not overlook her role leading the free world. Her quiet diplomacy might provide a particularly constructive contrast to Trump’s ‘philosophy’ of leadership.
However, in this moment — on this day — the prime minister of Canada stepped up and took the mantel. He spoke the words the free world wanted spoken, the words that brought us together and helped us heal. He served as “a moral beacon speaking on behalf of those fighting for democracy and advocating for democratic ideals globally”– he led the free world. Donald Trump will never be able to do this; he makes us sick. Putin knew this all along; Trudeau is learning quickly.