Bully of the Free World

HABITS OF HEGEMONY

"Foreign policy leadership" has become an ambiguous phrase. It once meant leading the American people in the formation and execution of national policy. But some now use it to state a less obvious idea: the United States leading other nations in the international arena. Why should other nations follow U.S. leaders rather than their own? Leadership involves some common stake between the leader and the led, some basis for agreement on goals to be sought and prices to be paid. The more recent meaning of foreign policy leadership has thrust itself to the fore because of America's claim to be "the leader of the free world."

That claim arose during World War II, when the United States was the de facto leader of the Allies. It made sense to have a dominant partner in the military alliance for the duration of the war effort, and even after 1945 there have been military alliances, such as NATO and the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, in which the United States could properly be called the leader. But the term "leader of the free world" came to have a more grandiose meaning, extending to nations with no formal alliance with the United States. In the global struggle between two ideologies, only the capitalist nations could be described as free. We aspired not only to lead them all but to entice socialist countries to join us as well.

There has never been a more universal agenda. America was the champion of freedom anywhere freedom was valued or challenged or losing -- covering all situations for all peoples. The United States considered itself not only a legitimate leader but actually more legitimate than indigenous leaders who did not meet the U.S. definition of freedom-loving behavior. Washington "led" people by removing inauthentic leaders -- the enemies of freedom -- even when the people had chosen them. Over time, American leadership substituted for that of Muhammad Mossadeq in Iran, Jacobo Arbenz Guzm‡n in Guatemala, Patrice Lumumba in the Congo, Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam, Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, Salvador Allende in Chile, Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, Maurice Bishop in Grenada, and Manuel Noriega in Panama.

Register for free to continue reading.
Registered users get access to three free articles every month.

Or subscribe now and save 55 percent.

Subscription benefits include:
  • Full access to ForeignAffairs.com
  • Six issues of the magazine
  • Foreign Affairs iPad app privileges
  • Special editorial collections

Latest Commentary & News analysis