Does 'leader of the free world' still accurately describe the U.S. president?
TORONTO -- President of the United States is one heck of a job title.
It comes with some strong informal titles, as well: "Leader of the free world" and "most powerful man in the world," to name two.
After four years of Donald Trump in the Oval Office, though, do those titles still fit? Or have the outgoing president's distaste for long-lived global alliances, harsh treatment of allies and cozying up to dictators irrevocably reframed how the rest of the world sees the U.S.?
History will be the final judge of that. Three international relations experts who spoke with CTVNews.ca on Tuesday say whatever long-term effects Trump's presidency may have on his country's place in the international order, they will pose a challenge for president-elect Joe Biden.
"The last few years have certainly challenged the way we understand and perceive U.S. leadership," Leah Sarson, an assistant professor of political science at Dalhousie University in Halifax, said via telephone.
However, that shift in thinking may have been a long time in coming.
LOOKING FOR LEADERSHIP
Rohinton P. Medhora, president of the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Ont., describes the "leader of the free world" moniker as "neither fair nor appropriate" – but that, he says, has been the case since well before Trump took office.
"It's been some time since the U.S. was, in its foreign policy, a champion of liberty and democratic values the way the mythology holds," he said via telephone.
Medhora argues that the formation of the European Union and the rise of China knocked the U.S. down from its peak dominance of global affairs long before Trump's election.
"The underlying global trends are what they are, and they are what will cement what happens in the next two decades – the rise of Asia, the rise of populism," he said.
For U.S. President-elect Joe Biden, that means the challenge doesn't stop at reversing four years of Trump-inflicted damage. He has to grapple with a world order in which the reality of his country's clout falls short of the perception of that clout.
John Kirton, director of the G7 research group at the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, said in a telephone interview that even if U.S. influence has waned, traditional allies are still looking to him to signal an American return to the liberal international order.
"It's not just that Biden has wind in his sails; he's got a gale pushing him," Kirton said.
"I think all of the democratic allies … are really willing to give America the benefit, give Biden the benefit of the doubt. They can't afford to let Biden not succeed."
That's true when it comes to the novel coronavirus, an issue which Kirton expects to see a major commitment made on at next month's virtual G7 summit. It's true when it comes to climate change, which Biden has promised to address by returning the U.S. to the Paris Agreement. And it's also true when it comes to attempting to restore belief in democracy.
EXPECT 'LOTS OF RHETORIC'
Promoting democracy will likely be a major part of Biden's initial domestic agenda, which in Kirton's view will mean delaying some of the global efforts he may have been planning. A few months down the road, though, he expects Biden may back democracy abroad in the face of growing concerns about authoritarianism in countries including Belarus, Hungary and Poland.
"It's common cause to defend democracy. It's not just everybody else pointing fingers at America," Kirton said.
Biden might not carry the global authority U.S. presidents did in the past, but it seems perception still matters – and no matter how miffed some world leaders might be about the last four years, longtime U.S. allies will be happy to welcome Biden back into the fold, so to speak.
"I think we'll see lots of rhetoric, similar to how we saw the 'Canada's back' rhetoric when Justin Trudeau was elected," Sarson said.
This symbolism may reach its apex at the "Summit for Democracy" Biden has said he will hold within the first year of his presidency.
The question, then, is whether that symbolism and rhetoric will measure up to reality. While Biden might not have Trump's "bluster," Medhora said, the two do share some similar notes of skepticism around international trade and globalism. Biden's economic platform included vows to create a "buy America" strategy and return international supply chains to American shores.
"He may be a more polite version of 'America first,' but every U.S. president is 'America first.' That's their job. We shouldn't be surprised," Medhora said.
'MOST POWERFUL MAN IN THE WORLD'?
When Biden does choose to line up behind other liberal democracies, he might not expect to always play a starring role. Kirton said he thinks the U.S. under a Biden administration will likely gravitate toward "co-leadership," which he said fits Biden's style and has been effective in the past.
That approach could start to reveal itself at the virtual G7 summit, Kirton said, and become more obvious at the next full G7 summit, which is currently scheduled to take place in the United Kingdom in June.
"The Brits have basically handed Biden a time and a place and the right people to allow the U.S. to lead in its co-operative, co-leading way," he said.
As for the "most powerful man in the world" epithet, Medhora and Kirton said they cannot think of anyone more powerful than the U.S. president; as Kirton put it, he has not worried once over the last four years that somebody else might launch nuclear weapons.
Sarson sees it differently, arguing that the greatest power is wielded outside of politics – money talks, essentially.
"I don't think that tomorrow, Joe Biden will be the most powerful person in the world, and I don't think that today, Donald Trump is," she said.