The title “leader of the free world” is up for grabs. Traditionally used to describe the American president, President Donald Trump, with his cozy relationships with foreign dictators and nativist politics at home, does not quite fit the bill.
But the options to replace him are slim, and they could get slimmer still. Four of the most plausible candidates — the leaders of Britain, Canada, Germany and France — are mired in scandals and political problems. They are all destined for the exit, some sooner rather than later.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is the latest to take a hit. Young, handsome and eloquent, Trudeau was once the international community’s golden boy, a welcome contrast to his brash American counterpart south of the border. “Canada may be one of the world’s more boring countries, as yawn-inspiring as sensible shoes — wake up, reader, I know you’re snoozing! — but it’s also emerging as a moral leader of the free world,” Nicholas Kristof wrote last month in the New York Times.
But this week, a swirling scandal has rocked Trudeau’s government, raising the prospect that his Liberal Party may lose its majority in a federal election in October.
The trouble engulfing Trudeau is complicated but serious. My colleague Emily Rauhala describes the accusations piling up against him: “At the heart of the scandal are claims that Trudeau’s team pressured Canada’s first indigenous attorney general, Jody Wilson-Raybould, to cut a deal with an engineering firm from Trudeau’s home province, Quebec, and the implication that he demoted her to veterans affairs when she refused.”
The revelations have prompted two prominent members of Trudeau’s cabinet to resign.
“The problem is that this particular scandal goes to his carefully crafted image,” Christopher Sands, director of the Center for Canadian Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, told the Washington Post. And it may be a scandal too far for Trudeau, whose slick public persona has been worn thin following a number of controversies, including one over allegations of groping.
The Canadian prime minister may be running the risk of losing his next election, but German Chancellor Angela Merkel has pledged to not run in hers at all. In October, Merkel said she would not be a candidate in the 2021 vote and would step aside as chair of the center-right Christian Democratic Union, the party that has helped her dominate European politics for the past 13 years.
Though Merkel comes from the country’s right wing, she fits into the same sort of liberal mold as Trudeau. Merkel is a believer in multilateralism, the need to combat climate change and the responsibility of governments to give sanctuary to refugees. In the age of “America First,” she assumed a new kind of global mandate.
Merkel has presided over a fraught era of European economics and immigration. Her announcement last year reflected broader fatigue with her consensus-driven, centrist politics.
Her greatest ally in Europe, France’s Emmanuel Macron, faces colossal problems, too — most clearly the yellow-vest protests, known in French as gilet jaunes, a movement that has risen up against what it views as an elitist, centrist government. “To some extent, the French always turn against their presidents, but the anger Macron elicits is unique,” our Paris correspondent James McAuley wrote for the New York Review of Books. “This is less because of any particular policy than because of his demeanor and, most of all, his language.”
Macron’s international policies have been fraught. His attempts to play Trump at his own game, one firm handshake at a time, have produced few positive outcomes.
British Prime Minister Theresa May also thought she could court Trump, but her rush to meet the incoming U.S. president in January 2017 ended up being a weight around her neck, making her look subservient and weak.
May’s biggest problem is Brexit — still unresolved and perhaps impossible to repair. She has not been forced from office yet, but that’s hardly a good thing. “The reason May was not immediately sacked?” The Post’s William Booth and Karla Adam wrote in January. “Nobody wants her job.”
There’s no sign of anyone angling to be the leader of the free world, either. Maybe the role itself ought to be retired: The phrase was born in the battlegrounds of the Cold War era, bringing with it a dated idea that the Eastern bloc could not be free and the developing world would never lead.
There does seem to be a looming global crisis in democracy. In recent years, groups such as the watchdog organization Freedom House have consistently logged a decline in political rights and civil liberties worldwide. Autocratic countries such as Russia and China have continuously cracked down on freedoms and worked to expand their influence beyond their borders. Democratic norms in other countries appear to be eroding as well.
Under Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, militant Hinduism has flourished, with sometimes deadly results. After a recent clash with Pakistan following a terrorist attack in Indian-controlled Kashmir, many observers expect nationalist rhetoric to be a feature of upcoming elections. “With little to show in terms of economy or development, Modi’s only remaining platform is nationalism,” political analyst Tanweer Alam told the New Yorker.
In Brazil, the world’s fourth-largest democracy, far-right President Jair Bolsonaro has praised the country’s history of military dictatorship, warred with the press and vowed to purge his political opponents from the state’s institutions. Bolsonaro has long courted controversy with his vulgarity and harsh talk about minorities; this week he tweeted a sexually explicit video with the aim of sparking outrage over the debauched nature of the Rio Carnival.
But there is still reason to be optimistic. Smaller European nations such as Sweden and Ireland have taken on a bigger role voicing support for multilateralism, while unpopular and corrupt governments in South Korea and Malaysia have been overturned in recent years by liberal movements.
The “free world” may be without a leader — but some members seem capable of leading themselves.