The term free world originated from the Cold War, when it was used to distinguish between democracies, specifically the United States and Western European countries, and the communist Soviet Union and its allies. As the United States led the war against communism, the President of the United States came to be known as the “leader of the free world.” This term is often used today because of the hegemony exercised by the United States and the power of the presidency itself. As president, a leader can begin a war, overturn legislation, and build diplomatic relations among countries.
Much of the power inherently understood within the term revolves around the president’s role as commander-in-chief of the military. The US army currently has over 1.4 million personnel on active duty. US bases are found in Japan, South Korea, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom.
The US also has the largest military budget in the world, which, as of 2012, is $680 billion US Dollars. This budget is much larger than that of China, the country with the second largest military budget in the world. The number of troops within the US military is not as high as that of other countries, simply because conscription is no longer used.
Referring to the president of the United States as the “leader of the free world” is debated by other countries that also fought for democracy during the Cold War. There are also concerns about the use of the word "free." During the Cold War battle between ideologies, African, Asian, and South American countries, which cannot clearly be defined as democracies and therefore "free," supported the United States and Western Europe. Currently, countries with non-democratic governments can be considered free.
Nevertheless, the term is still associated with the United States, although the international use of the term “leader of the free world” often refers to the country rather than the presidency. In addition to the military power that the United States has, the term also applies to the values and ideals for which the country stands: equality among all, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the right to pursue happiness. Therefore, the phrase refers not only to the president, but also to the people who maintain America’s loftier ideals, such as Martin Luther King, Susan B. Anthony, Ralph Nader, and Hillary Clinton.