Tuesday, 6 December 2016

After Trump’s election who is the new leader of the free world?

Since 1945 the unofficial title of ‘leader of the free world’ (free meaning liberal-democratic) has essentially belonged to the President of the United States of America. Following the election of Donald Trump as America’s next President last month, this is now in doubt. To be clear Trump could still lead the ‘free world’. But this would require him to govern in a quite different style, and with different policies, from those he pursued during the Presidential election campaign. During this campaign Trump questioned his commitment to a number of the key components of the liberal-democratic order. He suggested that his commitment to European security via NATO is incomplete, was openly friendly towards a number of autocratic leaders and suggested that Japan and South Korea should be less reliant on America for defence. He also refused to observe a number of the basic tenants of a democratic society, asserting that the election was rigged against him whenever it looked like he might lose and attacking certain journalists/media organisations with an unusual ferocity.

To lead the free world Trump would have to reassert his own commitment to the tenants of democratic government, and make it clear that America is still intends to protect the liberal-democratic order. It is far from clear that he is prepared to do this. So far, the signs are mixed at best. Admittedly Trump did appear to reassert America’s commitment to Asian security after a meeting with the Japanese Prime Minister, and to NATO during a telephone call with British Prime Minister Theresa May. But it’s too early to say if these commitments are secure, and Trump has continued to conduct himself in an authoritarian manner (for example launching strident attacks on TV show Saturday Night Live for mocking him, and the cast of Hamilton for lecturing his Vice-President). So if Trump elects not to lead the free world, what other candidates are available? Below I will go through the possible alternatives, and state which I think is most likely. The candidates are as follows:

Angela Merkel – Chancellor of Germany

Strengths: An experienced and respected politician, who had led her country since 2005. She is undoubtedly committed to liberal-democratic values and the Western order, and notably when congratulating Trump on his victory made explicit reference to her belief in ‘democracy, freedom and respect for the law’. Germany has the fourth biggest economy in the world, and is the most influential power within both the Eurozone and the European Union. Obama recently described Merkel as his ‘closest international partner’ and his recent visit to Bavaria was interpreted by some as passing on the liberal-democratic baton to Merkel.  

Weaknesses: Germany isn’t a permanent member of the UN Security Council, and doesn’t possess nuclear weapons. Moreover since 1945 Germany has behaved as a European, rather than world, power and its influence on events outside of Europe has been limited. Germany’s military capacity is weaker than the size of its economy would suggest, and due to the country’s history the German establishment and people are deeply reluctant to resort to armed force or deploy their military outside of Europe. Moreover German attention is currently focused on protecting the European Union and the Eurozone, and also on contending with the mass influx of (predominantly Syrian) refugees which took place in 2015.

Theresa May – Prime Minister of the United Kingdom

Strengths: The UK is the fifth biggest economy in the world, with the world’s fifth highest military spending and second largest overseas aid budget. The county has a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, is nuclear armed, and has both the capacity to, and a long history of, deploying military force around the world. Theresa May’s position as Prime Minister seems secure, and is unlikely to be challenged from within her own party any time soon, whilst the Conservatives enjoy double digit leads over the divided Labour opposition in opinion polls. In addition the UK’s soft/cultural power receives a substantial boost as the country speaks the world’s dominant language, English and the UK retains close relations with some of its former colonies.

Weaknesses: The UK recently alienated most of its liberal-democratic allies in Europe by voting to leave the European Union, and at present reformulating Britain’s political and economic relations with Europe dominates the thinking of British politicians and administrators. Following costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan support for engaging in future ground conflicts outside of Europe is questionable, and despite high levels of defence spending Britain’s military remains small in personnel terms. Britain’s economic strength, whilst strong, is considerably behind that of Japan and Germany. In addition British Government’s face an ongoing threat from Scottish nationalism, and from Islamic fundamentalism which has the potential to destabilize the UK’s political system by triggering a nationalist backlash.

Shinzō Abe – Prime Minister of Japan

Strengths: Japan is, by some margin, the third largest economy in the world. The country has a population of 127 million, around double that of Britain or France, giving it a considerable reserve of human capital. Japan is politically stable, with no obvious internal threats to its liberal-democratic system or serious secessionist movements. 

Weaknesses: Japan’s primary weakness is military, though it has the economic strength to resolve this if the political will exists to do so. Article 9 of the country’s constitution makes it very difficult to deploy the country’s military outside of Japan, and prior to this Article being amended in 2014 is was close to impossible. Moreover Japan is not nuclear armed, isn’t a permanent member of the UN Security Council and has relatively little track record of expanding its influence beyond Asia. In addition it remains somewhat culturally distinct to the rest of the Western world (which is more European influenced), and this may impact on its ability to form alliances.

François Hollande – President of France

Strengths: France has the sixth largest economy in the world (effectively joint fifth), has a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and plays an important role within the European Union and Eurozone. In addition France has a substantial military capacity, including nuclear weapons, and a track record of deploying its forces around the world. France maintains significant influence in a number of its former colonies, and also possesses substantial soft/cultural power.

Weaknesses: Hollande’s ratings are spectacularly bad, with approval of as little as 4% according to a recent poll, and he’s announced he won’t be standing in the 2017 French Presidential election. There is a serious possibility that the Front National, an authoritarian nationalist party, could win the 2017 Presidential election and the French radical right is far stronger than in comparable European countries like Germany or the UK. France is also suffering from a stagnating economy, and faces a particularly severe problem from Islamic fundamentalists (which in turn increases the threat from the far-right).

Narendra Modi – Prime Minister of India

Strengths: India is by some margin the largest democracy in the world by population, with over 1.2 billion citizens, and looks secure. The Indian economy is already the seventh largest in the world, and is growing at a rate of around 7% per year, far above the rate in Europe or North America. India has a significant military capability, including nuclear weapons, and has a large diaspora around the world with some allegiance to the Indian state.

Weaknesses: India has historically focused its influence on South Asia, and has a limited global reach. In addition it borders a hostile nuclear armed power, Pakistan, and contains significant religious and ethnic divisions which could be exploited by an opponent. Furthermore whilst his attitude towards democratic norms can’t fairly be compared to Trump’s, Modi does subscribe to a form of Hindu nationalism which has clear authoritarian leanings.

Justin Trudeau – Prime Minister of Canada

Strengths: Justin Trudeau has, since his election, become an icon for the global liberal-left. Canada has the tenth biggest economy in the world, as well as a serious military capability which it has previously deployed around the world. In addition Canada gains from largely speaking the world’s dominant language, boosting its soft power and potentially allowing it to function as an English speaking counterpoint to an authoritarian United States.

Weaknesses: The small size of Canada’s population, at around 35 million, and her relative economic weakness versus other major powers significantly limits Canadian influence. In addition Canada does not possess nuclear weapons, and is not a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Canada’s military, whilst significant, is weaker than that of other major powers and Trudeau has been reluctant to support their use abroad, withdrawing Canada from the military coalition against Islamic State. Canada is also the nation most integrated in terms of culture and economy with the United States, meaning the country will need to retain cordial relations with President Trump, whilst there is a significant and longstanding separatist movement in Quebec.


When I go through the list of alternative ‘leaders of the free world’, other than the President of the United States, I’m struck by how reliant the liberal-democratic world has become on America for protection and leadership. This made the liberal-democratic world very vulnerable to any dramatic shift in the character of American domestic politics, as happened with the election of Donald Trump last month. Realistically, no liberal-democratic world leader, other than the American President, is strong enough to lead the ‘free world’ alone. Thus if Trump’s commitment to the security of the liberal-democratic world, and Western values in general, turns out to be incomplete a new alliance of liberal-democratic leaders will be required to protect and preserve the Western world. This is likely to embrace representatives from all of the above countries, unless France elects a Front National President, and many others.

However a particular duty to provide liberal-democratic leadership will fall to the leaders of Germany, Japan, Britain, India and (again assuming the Front National don’t take control) France. All of these countries have either a very substantial economic base, a strong international influence including a potent military or both. Germany will need to provide de-facto leadership of Europe, especially on economic questions, whilst European security will disproportionately be the responsibility of Britain and France. In this context it’s worth noting that if Le Pen wins the 2017 French Presidential election Britain will be both the only European nuclear armed power, and the only permanent member of the UN Security Council, not to be governed by an authoritarian nationalist. 

Japan, along with regional powers such as South Korea and Australia, will need to play a greater role in ensuring security in East Asia, and so far as possible they should persuade Trump to maintain a strong American presence in this area. One of the most important countries for the future of liberal-democracy, regardless of how Trump behaves, will be India. India is already the world’s largest democracy, and it’s rapidly growing economy and huge population mean the country is likely to have a substantially bigger global role in the future. If India retains its commitment to liberal-democratic values the country could become one of the key pillars of the international order, assuming it’s prepared to expand its influence and cooperate more with European and far-Eastern powers. If not, we’re all in trouble. Other than America itself I suspect India will be the most important player in the future of liberal-democracy as a system of government.

If you found this piece interesting you might like to follow me on Twitter @JBickertonUK. 


  1. Looks like an interesting article - but because of time I will have to come back to it later. However, in the meantime, I think you might want to check the spelling of a couple of words versus "tenets"..?

    (Happy for you to delete this comment!)

    1. Thanks! I'll freely confess that my spelling is a little ropy (and is always likely to be). Also I wrote most of this on a packed train which probably didn't help...


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