Last week a reporter on the BBC news referred to the President of the United States as ‘the leader of the free world.’ The phrase was used somewhat derisively, but nevertheless, to my mind, betrays some fundamentally flawed assumptions that date back to its first use in the years following World War II, and, I suspect, remain quite widely held assumptions in many democratic, capitalist societies.
Assumption 1: Leadership is something conferred by virtue of position
I accept that the president of the United States, by virtue of his position, holds some leadership responsibilities within the United States. There are some things which only the incumbent of the White House can do. However, holding such responsibilities does not necessarily make that person a leader, and it certainly does not confer any leadership status beyond the United States. True leadership is earned, not conferred.
A leader is only a leader if others follow. And to achieve that the leader needs to be a person of integrity, vision, courage, compassion, and humility. To the extent that the president of the United States demonstrates any of those qualities, I would be prepared to attribute some leadership to them. Without such qualities, no matter what he, or anyone else, claims, he is not my leader nor a leader beyond those in his own country who have chosen to follow him.
Not the cry, but the flight of a wild duck, leads the flock to fly and follow. —Chinese Proverb
The same would apply to whoever sits in the Oval Office, as indeed to any other head of state or other prominent person. Unless and until other nations, heads of state and individual citizens of the so called free world choose to follow the US president, he is not, and never can be, ‘the leader of the free world.’
Assumption 2: Leadership is conferred by size, power and wealth
While the issues around assumption 1 have been thrown into sharp relief by the character of the current incumbent of the White House, this assumption is far more subtle, and I suspect more widespread.
According to the World Bank, the United States of America has a population of just over 320 million, exceeded only, but quite substantially, by China and India. Its Gross Domestic Product is 18 trillion US dollars, over 60% larger than the next highest country (China), and greater than the whole of the European Union put together. In terms of military strength, the USA has 1,381,250 military personnel, again only exceeded by China and India, but closely followed by North Korea and the Russian Federation. According to the Arms Control Association (www.armscontrol.org) the USA has 6,800 nuclear warheads, 45% of the world total and only exceeded by Russia.
So on population, wealth and military strength, the United States ranks within the top 3 countries of the world, and far exceeds all other countries in terms of its GDP.
But does that make it the leader of the free world?
Are size, wealth and military might really the values to which we look for our leadership?
Or, to put it another way, domination, greed and brutality?
It seems to me that, without even recognising it, we have bought into a mentality that assumes that might is right, whether that is in size, wealth or strength. And in doing so, we legitimize bullying and a disregard for the rights of others.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth – Jesus Christ
Assumption 3: We (those purportedly in the ‘free world’) determine who is and is not part of the ‘free world’
As far as I can tell, the concept of ‘the free world’ was introduced during the Second World War to refer to those countries fighting against the fascist ‘Axis’ powers (Germany, Italy and Japan). During the Cold War, the term shifted to refer to non-communist countries. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, the free world refers to ‘those countries whose governments have been chosen in free and fair elections and whose people have full human rights.’
But who are we to determine which countries truly are or are not part of that ‘free’ world? Would that include a country with a democratically-elected communist government? Does it exclude countries where religious prerogatives determine the course of government?
Perhaps, though, one of the biggest difficulties with this assumption is the implication that all peoples living in our self-determined ‘free world’ are free and enjoy full human rights.
I wonder how many of those now to be denied health insurance would say they enjoy free and full human rights, or those 2 million or more incarcerated in US prisons, or the residents of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation?
And perhaps there is an even deeper, more subtle assumption here. Even without flagrant disregard for human rights, am I, in my country, surrounded by advertising, my choices controlled by corporate giants, constrained by a culture that values wealth and aggressive ambition, also truly free?
An alternative view of leadership
In an interesting twist of words in different contexts, the BBC made a policy decision to refer to the group that calls itself Islamic State as ‘So called Islamic State’. In a similar vein, perhaps the president of the United States could be referred to as the ‘so called leader of the so called free world.’
But rather than acquiesce even that far to these flawed assumptions, I would much rather see all of us thinking in terms of the whole world and all humanity, not just our own little, self-defined corner of it. And I want to be someone who helps create an alternative view of leadership: one that respects all those who truly embody values of integrity, compassion, justice and humility.
So how about a movement to identify those values we truly want to promote that will lead to all people being free? And how about starting with recognising and affirming those people in whom we do see those values?