A recent cartoon showed a flying saucer on a suburban street with a googly-eyed space alien asking a man to “take me to your leader.” To which the man replied, “You’ve come at a bad time.”
The honorific “leader of the free world” was automatically applied to U.S. presidents for decades whether they deserved it or not. With President Biden in the White House, the free world is currently leaderless.
Mr. Biden has always been a follower, never a leader. His foreign policy has consisted of mistaken beliefs resulting in bad decisions that culminate in one failure after another. From giving Mr. Putin a five-year extension of the New Start Treaty entirely on Mr. Putin’s terms to the Afghanistan withdrawal debacle, Mr. Biden has failed consistently. His threats of and imposition of sanctions against Russia neither deterred nor slowed its invasion of Ukraine, another major failure. Mr. Biden is obsessively pursuing a renewal of former President Barack Obama’s nuclear weapons deal with Iran, which would be worse than anything he’s done so far.
There are many contenders for the “leader of the free world” title, but you can’t claim to be a leader of nations if none are persuaded to follow.
French President Emmanuel Macron would like to be a global leader but, though popular at home, he can’t get his European Union allies to sign up to a common foreign policy, far less an EU armed force, both of which he advocates strongly. Germany’s Olaf Scholz hasn’t been in office long enough to lead anyone else. He’s already backing off his earlier promise to boost German defense spending. Japan’s Fumio Kishida doesn’t appear to have the ambition to be a world leader.
The only remaining contender for the LOTFW title is United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson who has been working as hard at achieving the LOTFW status as Mr. Biden has been at forfeiting it.
Mr. Johnson has many domestic problems, some self-created, but his foreign policy has been very strong.
He ensured that the U.K. began supplying weapons to Ukraine even before the Russian invasion began in February. Mr. Johnson was the first Western leader to walk the streets of Kyiv with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the first to address the Ukrainian parliament.
In contrast, Mr. Biden is looking for convenient ways for Mr. Putin to avoid embarrassment if Russia withdraws from Ukraine.
Mr. Johnson has said that Ukrainians cannot “negotiate sensibly with someone who is in the process of trying to devour their country,” adding, “so everyone is then forced into the same logical position, which is the only answer is to keep going until Putin is back to the status quo ante of February 24 at least.”
Mr. Johnson has also been surprisingly strong on Sweden and Finland joining NATO.
Sweden has been neutral since 1814 when Napoleon ruled most of Europe. Finland, which was part of Russia from 1743 until 1917, has been neutral since 1956. Finland shares an 830-mile border with Russia.
As a direct result of Russia’s Ukraine invasion, Sweden and Finland have abandoned their historic neutrality and formally applied to join NATO.
Both fear Russian attacks using conventional forces and Mr. Putin’s “hybrid” warfare which encompasses cyberwar, incursions by Russian aircraft and Mr. Putin’s “little green men” who invaded Crimea. Russia has threatened Finland with “retaliatory steps” if it joins NATO and Mr. Putin has threatened new nuclear deployments if either nation joins.
Mr. Johnson has done more to thwart Mr. Putin. On May 11, Mr. Johnson visited both Sweden and Finland. At each stop he signed “solemn declarations” with those nations that each signatory would respond with military aid if the other were attacked. This is short of the NATO Article 5 mutual defense obligation and a direct endorsement of both nations joining the NATO alliance.
In sum, despite his domestic problems, Mr. Johnson is now the leader of the free world.
NATO’s treaty requires unanimity among its members before any nation can join the alliance. Turkey, which has been a NATO member since 1952, objects to both Sweden’s and Finland’s applications to join the alliance.
NATO would, at this point, be better off if it could boot out Turkey and enable both Baltic nations to join immediately. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is an Islamist who has turned a formerly secular Turkey into a quasi-Islamic state. He has objected to both nations’ membership because too often he sides with Russia (and sometimes with Iran) and because both nations have supported the Kurds who have fought Turkey for independence. Mr. Erdogan accuses both nations of being “home to many terrorist organizations,” which is nonsense.
Several NATO members believe Turkey’s objections can be overcome and that the Swedish and Finnish applications for membership approved quickly. That remains to be seen. Mr. Erdogan, like Russian President Putin, will interfere in NATO’s affairs whenever he is able to do so.
Nature is not alone in abhorring a vacuum. Unless there is a leader of the free world, the West cannot meet the threats it faces. Mr. Biden clearly hasn’t made the grade. If Mr. Johnson can help overcome Turkey’s objections to Finland and Sweden joining NATO, his status as leader of the free world will be, at least temporarily, clearly established.
• Jed Babbin is a national security and foreign affairs columnist for The Washington Times and contributing editor for The American Spectator.