In well-justified revulsion at Trump’s post-Charlottesville statements, several commentators I’ve seen in the past week have uttered variations on the idea that Trump’s stance was unfit for the leader of the free world. I can’t help wincing a bit on hearing this invocation of a shibboleth that should long ago have been relegated to the dustbin of history.
“The free world” of course was the catchphrase employed by the United States in its long Cold War struggle with communism. The boundaries of this free world were never precisely defined, for good reason, but it was generally understood to be comprised of those countries of the world not under communist rule. It was always a highly problematic usage, to put it mildly, because so many of our “free world” allies were in fact oppressive regimes of varying magnitudes of nastiness. So, the free world presumably included fascist Spain and Portugal, Apartheid South Africa, the genocidal Suharto regime in Indonesia and a wide variety of right-wing dictatorships around the globe that enjoyed US patronage. “The free world” thus conveniently elided the US role in abetting global unfreedom. It served to reduce the complexities and ambiguities of Cold War politics to a struggle between good guys (us, of course) and bad guys. It was, in short, propaganda.
The Cold War is long over, so what are people doing talking about the “free world” today? I suspect that most people who use the term are doing so more or less mechanically, without any real thought. They assume, and thus imply, that of course the US promotes freedom around the world. But some of the problems of the old usage remain. There are fewer truly horrible regimes than there were at the height of the Cold War, but there is still plenty of oppression in the world, and much of it lies within the American global sphere of influence. Is Egypt free, under the US-sanctioned dictatorship? How about the Persian Gulf autocracies? What about the millions of Palestinians under Israeli captivity in the West Bank and Gaza? And then there’s Hungary, slipping into authoritarianism under its Trump-admiring leader, Viktor Orban.
My point is, even if innocently intended, “free world” talk today still has the effect of whitewashing the dark sides of American foreign policy. It fosters a blinkered, uncritical view of this country’s role in the world. Once and for all, let’s drop this relic of the Cold War lexicon.