COVID-19 further confirms: The position of ‘Leader of the Free World’ is vacant
On Aug. 8, 1990, President George H.W. Bush gave a rare Oval Office address announcing America’s response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait just days earlier. In the days leading up to the speech, Bush had worked tirelessly with his national security team to build a coalition of nearly 40 leading nations to condemn Iraq’s illegal invasion and to build support behind the critical UN Security Council Resolutions that fall.
In the speech, President Bush made special mention of his administration’s work to rally the world, “We are working around the clock to deter Iraqi aggression and to enforce U.N. sanctions. I’m continuing my conversations with world leaders. Secretary of Defense Cheney has just returned from valuable consultations with President Mubarak of Egypt and King Hassan of Morocco. Secretary of State Baker has consulted with his counterparts in many nations, including the Soviet Union, and today he heads for Europe to consult with President Ozal of Turkey, a staunch friend of the United States.”
Nearly 40 countries would contribute troops, weapons, and resources to the effort that would become Operation Desert Storm. In one of the shortest wars of the 20th Century, coalition forces overwhelmed Iraq’s military, and — just one hundred hours after the ground campaign started — President Bush declared a ceasefire to active hostilities.
That was 30 years ago. Today the world is facing an even more dangerous foe than Saddam Hussein and his Republican Guard. COVID-19 is a global pandemic that has wreaked havoc on both the health infrastructures and economies of every leading nation.
This is a global crisis that will have generational ramifications.
Unlike his predecessors, who united the countries of the world against a common enemy, President Donald Trump has taken an inward, nativist approach in his speeches and actions. Writing in Foreign Affairs, former Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns noted Trump’s lack of international outreach. “Beyond individual phone calls with world leaders, he has made just one attempt to organize countries to band together — a single conference call with European, Canadian, and Japanese leaders in the G-7 forum he currently chairs.”
Whether President Trump likes it — or even comprehends our role in the world — the United States is the last and only indispensable nation when it comes to a global response to a global problem.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, China was on a course for rising economic parity with the United States on the world stage, but not now — at least in the short term. We have no idea how this pandemic will reshape the international economic order in the coming months and years, but China’s rise will likely continue. Right now, however, the United States enjoys a singular, unique and leading role in international affairs, and Trump is actively redefining and expanding the notion of “leading from behind.”
More than 39,000 people have died from the COVID-19 virus worldwide, and nearly one million have contracted the disease around the globe. This is a human tragedy, and we cannot understate the profound sadness at the loss of life as a result of this deadly pandemic. The economic ramifications are devastating as well. This past week, a record 3.3 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits according to the Labor Department, making it the largest surge in benefit applications in American history. According to the Washington Post, “many economists say this is the beginning of a massive spike in unemployment that could result in over 40 million Americans losing their jobs by April.”
Perhaps the clearest recent example of a similar global economic calamity occurred during the 2008/2009 financial crisis, bridging both the end of the Bush Presidency and the start of the Obama Presidency. Both leaders and administrations recognized the need for American leadership on the world’s stage to reassure international markets and stem financial loses. As former Under Secretary Burns noted, “Both Bush and Obama understood that the United States, with all its power and immense credibility, had to lead if the world was going to prevent the Great Recession from becoming a Great Depression.”
During this COVID-19 pandemic, America’s credibility is being tested as never before. In direct contradiction to the very tone and message of President Bush’s speech 30 years ago addressing the invasion of Kuwait, President Trump spoke from the same Oval Office on March 11. Rather than speaking as the leader of the world’s only indispensable nation, Trump’s nativist tone called the European Union’s response to the pandemic a “failure” and sought to boast about America having “the greatest economy anywhere in the world by far.”
Historians differ on the origins of the phrase “Leader of the Free World,” but it is widely accepted that its use as a colloquialism for the president first started during the early years of the Cold War. Since the end of the Second World War, presidents of both parties have assumed the tremendous domestic and international mantle of leadership, with varying degrees of success, but always united in the primacy of the United States on the world’s stage.
The “free world” is desperate for American leadership during this global pandemic, but unfortunately for them — and us — that position is vacant.
Kevin Walling (@kevinpwalling) is a Democratic strategist, Vice President at HGCreative, co-founder of Celtic Strategies, and a regular guest on Fox News and Fox Business and Bloomberg TV and Radio.
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