Even during the four years that Donald Trump inhabited the White House, the US president was occasionally referred to as the “leader of the free world”. It was a habit, a lazy one, still occasionally indulged in by the western media, even though Mr Trump was clearly and defiantly not leading the world, free or un-free. (If anything, he was being mis-leading, conflating fact with fiction, truth with lies, honesty with dishonesty and all the rest of it.)
Anyway, the term “leader of the free world” belongs to the Cold War era and basically refers to the western bloc and its allies (free or not).
I’ve always thought “leader of the free world” was a rather ridiculous term. As the millennium neared its end, it became increasingly ludicrous and then when Mr Trump took the helm, it became a joke. Trump’s America was patently unfit to lead and had no manifest desire to do so anyway. The “free world” too was a bit of a myth – where, on the map, was it be found? Countries that were still part of the free world were no longer as liberated from fear and doubt as in years past.
So the term “leader of the free world” is ripe for retirement. But what, if anything, should take its place? As an accomplished and evocative writer (and former leader of the free world) it is fitting that Barack Obama has come to the rescue.
On a recent episode of ‘Pod Save the World’, a political podcast laid on by Mr Obama’s former aides (Jon Favreau, Jon Lovett, Dan Pfeiffer and Tommy Vietor) Mr Obama suggested that America must re-invent its engagement with the world.
“At least during my presidency what was still true,” said Mr Obama, “and I think this is what was lost during the Trump presidency and I think will be a necessary challenge for the Biden/Harris administration to confront — we still set the agenda” at summits and so on.
He continued: “And if we didn’t set the agenda, nobody else had the combination of technical skill, bandwidth, diplomatic experience, relationships, trust and power to be able to stitch together various interests to arrive at something like a Paris accord.”
Ok. That was then. What happens now?
In a multipolar world, said Mr Obama, the US can’t walk into a room and demand everyone fall into line. Instead, it has to understand the interests of the key players, lead by example, and play the roles of “convener, agenda-setter, persuader.”
So America’s 46th president, Joe Biden, can be convener of the free world then?
Sounds about right.