The presidency of Donald Trump, and the prospect of a new and radically different vision of U.S. foreign policy, has raised the question of whether the United States is still the leader of the free world. The commentator Anne Applebaum, for example, concluded that the West might be nearing the end of its shelf life, and that “Under President Trump, we cannot assume that America is still the leader of the free world.” But what does the term even mean—and is it still useful?
Let’s start with the idea of a “free world,” which implies a divide between a democratic and a non-democratic bloc. This Google Ngram chart shows how frequently the phrase “free world” was used in books from 1945-2008.
It was first widely employed in World War II to describe the countries resisting the fascist states. In 1941, the internationalist, and strongly anti-fascist, Free World Association published a monthly magazine called Free World. During the conflict, Frank Capra directed a series of U.S. government propaganda movies, Why We Fight, designed to explain the campaign to the American people. One of the films quotes Hitler: “Two worlds are in conflict … two philosophies of life … one of these two worlds must break asunder.” With animations produced by Disney studios, Why We Fight depicted in stark black a Nazi-Japanese slave empire in Eurasia, and in white, a free Western Hemisphere.