The Leader of the Free World is not Leading the World to Freedom

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America is Failing to Lead the World to Freedom

This ball of liberty, I believe most piously, is now so well in motion that it will roll round the globe, at least the enlightened part of it, for light & liberty go together. It is our glory that we first put it into motion.

                                                                                Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson made the comment above in the wake of the French Revolution, in part as an expression of confidence in the events in France.  He captured the American spirit as it relates to supporting freedom and democracy around the world.  There’s always been a messianic aspect to America’s devotion to democracy.  Spreading democracy is part of America’s purpose, core to the American character. 

Jefferson was wrong about France, just like the US was wrong about Afghanistan

Yet, it is relevant to point out point out that the revolution in France devolved into the Reign of Terror, largescale massacres, and prolific public executions, followed by not one but two Emperor Napoleons.  The fact is France didn’t see anything approaching real democracy until at least 80 years after the revolution.  If this is what Jefferson had in mind, he wasn’t setting the bar terribly high.  Now, more than 200 years later, we have Afghanistan.  Is that is the “glory” to which Jefferson refers?

Trying to spread democracy, the US has mostly had disappointment

While Jefferson’s comment is politically poetic, one could say that Jefferson inaugurated two longstanding American traditions—pride in helping to spread democracy and, ultimately, disappointment in the results.   


America has had great success when called upon to defend direct threats to democracy, as was demonstrated in WWI and WWII.  Certainly the US deserves credit for outlasting, outmaneuvering, and outperforming the Soviet Union during the Cold War.  However, when it comes to actually spreading democracy, or even anticipating when it will take root, the US legacy is mostly failure. 

After the Marshall Plan, there was great optimism

Note that this is not for lack of trying.  America has generally lived Jefferson’s words as it (along with its allies) have actively sought to spread freedom and prosperity.  This is particularly true in the Post WWII ear when, after the success of the Marshall Plan, there was great optimism we could spread the “American Dream” around the world. 

Foreign Aid programs didn’t deliver prosperity

That spirit is captured aptly by American Robert McNamara who, as president of the World Bank, promised, in 1973, that we would “end poverty within a generation.”  Foreign Aid programs, like the Alliance of the Americas, designed to boost Latin America, were launched with great hope.  Yet, in reality, we didn’t come close to McNamara’s goal.  In the post-war period, countries representing less than 2% of world’s population have climbed from the bottom half to the top half of the income spectrum.  Given that global growth has slowed since the Financial Crisis and China is no longer pursuing economic liberalization, it is unlikely that performance will improve in the near future. 

The end of colonialism didn’t produce improvements

Foreign Aid wasn’t the only idea to get attention.  Many thought that colonialism had held countries back.  Independence movements spread across Asia, Africa, and Latin America.  The have been a few successes, like Singapore.  But mostly, from India to Algeria, there’s been mostly disappointment as the newly independent countries have most remained highly impoverished and not very democratic. 

The “Third Wave” of Democracy didn’t produce much actual Democracy

There was also the “Third Wave” of Democracy, the result of a movement to get countries to transition to democracy.  Throughout the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s, more than two dozen countries, from the Philippines to Ghana, held elections for the first time.  Almost all become “ineffective democracies,” i.e., countries with elections but so riddled with corruption and political coercion that they don’t really behave like a democracy. 

The end of communism did not result in the beginning of democracy

Then came the fall of Communism. Since Communism had been Democracies main ideological adversary and alternative for decades, it was assumed the end of Communism has a practiced form of government would naturally lead to its alternative, Democracy.  It hasn’t.  Russia isn’t close.  China and Vietnam haven’t even tried.  While there was some decent progress in Central and Eastern Europe, there’s been backsliding of late.  The results are far from the wave of democracy some expected. 

America has lost credibility as democracy’s chief advocate

From Jefferson’s miscalculation after the French Revolution to the debacle in Afghanistan, America has a long history of failure when it comes to spreading democracy.  The implications are broad and dire.  See the essay on “The Democracy Crisis is Real” for more specifics are the implications.  For now, let’s consider the impact on reputation, specifically, that of democracy and America. 

Support and confidence in democracy is falling globally

Polling in 2021 revealed plummeting support for democracy in Latin America with 70% no longer having a favorable view.  Similar polling in India shows there are more people who would prefer a strong leader who actually fixes problems to democracy.  A Pew Research poll revealed that 73% of Americans say the US is no longer the role model on democracy it used to be.  The US military is experiencing its worst recruiting year since 1973 and disillusionment resulting from the failed efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan are cited as leading reasons. 

America’s recommendations aren’t even taken seriously

Lastly, we have the fascinating example of Haiti after its president was assassinated in 2021. The Haitian government has not been functioning for a while.  Parliament had been disbanded two years earlier and electoral authorities had been appointed unconstitutionally.  Acute hunger gripped the country and gangs had seized control of neighborhoods and fuel distribution.  Yet, when American officials showed up, their main recommendation was that Haiti should have elections as soon as possible.  Press reports indicate Haitians didn’t even take this seriously.  They considered a return to democracy to be a “pipe dream.”  From their point of view, the societal chaos at hand would not be addressed via elections. 

America’s prestige and influence will suffer

One conclusion to be drawn from these examples is that faith in democracy, and in the US as its main advocate, is withering.  For two centuries, America’s advice to the world is “Have an election.  You’ll be a democracy and then life will improve.”  Yet, experience has showed that this clearly isn’t the case.  As the Haiti example exemplifies most directly, on a global basis, people simply aren’t listening to the US message any more.  This is damaging to the future of democracy and also a blow to American prestige.  As a result of these failures, America will have less influence and that can have serious consequences for the US and the world. 

The impact will be felt at home as well

Yet the impact won’t necessarily stop at the border.  America’s failures are quite visible to Americans as well who, as indicating by the Pew poll and the military recruiting crisis, are also becoming disillusioned.  In the end, losing faith in democracy and America’s leadership will not help the US address its problems and become a better nation. 


The Leader of the Free World has failed to lead the world to freedom.  That’s the inescapable conclusion.  The consequences are frightening.  We need a new path forward.