What we do know is that the time has come to retire the term "leader of the free world" when speaking of President Trump. It was a title once bestowed upon -- and earned -- by the men who held the presidency. Perhaps it will be again under another president.
To be sure, American leadership has never been perfect. The country has long struggled to balance its ideals, its interests, and the realities of a complicated world. It has often made grievous mistakes. But until Donald Trump moved into the White House, American presidents made a genuine effort to lead not only the country but the world in a direction that was generally consistent with its values. No more.
It's not just Trump's latest decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement -- a pact that 194 other nations have signed. That was only the latest in a continuing stream of decisions by Trump and his top deputies to turn aside our nation's place as a beacon of progress, stability, and global stewardship.
No, besides Trump's move to isolate the United States from the rest of the planet on the climate issue, he has weakened the alliance that was born back in the days when the term "Free World" referred to the part of the planet not under communist rule during the great contest between communism and democracy.
Indeed, from the moment Trump was elected, German Chancellor Angela Merkel made it clear
that the close relationship between the two countries was contingent on respect for common values. Now, America's European allies, particularly after Trump's recent meetings with NATO and the G7, say they are not sure
they can trust Washington. Instead of strengthening this key alliance, Trump has sharpened its divisions.
If America's allies are openly questioning US leadership, how can our President claim the title of Leader of the Free World?
The United States (and its President) first became the leader of the so-called Free World
during the Cold War, when President Harry S. Truman decided that the country would stand for more than its own narrow interests and work to support freedom. But the philosophy that turned America into a world leader dates much earlier, to the founding days of the republic, a time when individuals with a daunting sense of history grappled with profound questions. This new nation would become a torch-bearer, a beacon to peoples everywhere, who would see their aspirations come to life in America's daring experiment in democracy.
The whole world was watching and the young United States became a global leader, a trend-setter, a shaper of ideas that resonated across continents.
The notions of individual freedom, a free press, true democracy, have not always been easy to defend in a world full of threats. But US diplomats have sought to bring them into the equation. Now Trump's diplomats have been instructed to move away from that. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently told his diplomatic staff
that US foreign policy should separate "the way people are treated," from US foreign policy. Here we are talking about human rights.
It was a dispiriting declaration, announcing to the world that Washington won't much care about them, nor democracy and the rule of law. And it was a sharp turn from the trends of the past few decades.
When Russian propagandists started disrupting elections in the US and Europe, Trump didn't object. It fell to French President Emmanuel Macron to stand up boldly for a free press. This week, with Russian President Vladimir Putin by his side, an undaunted Macron called out
the Russian "news" agencies RT and Sputnik as "agents of influence and propaganda."
In the aftermath of the two great wars of the 20th century, Washington also took the lead in developing international institutions, creating groupings, such as the United Nations, that aimed to bring together every country on Earth to tackle common problems, such as climate change.
Under Trump, "America First" seems to mean goodbye to that kind of global leadership.
How isolated is the US becoming in this new abdication? This week offered a stunning accounting: In the entire world, only two other countries are not part of the Paris Climate deal. One is war-ravaged Syria. The other is Nicaragua, whose government refused to sign in protest because
it found the pact too weak in its protection against climate change. What a club: Syria, Nicaragua... and the United States!
As CNN's "GPS" host Fareed Zakaria put it Thursday in a discussion of Trump's abandonment of his presidential mantle of "leader of the free world": "For a young presidency, it is already the single most irresponsible act that this President has taken."
By moving America out of the Paris deal -- a process that could take years, an intriguing prospect considering the investigations dogging the Trump administration -- Trump is tapping the brakes on what had been America's surging leadership in clean energy innovation. He's doing it under the pretext of saving American jobs. But the argument does not stand up to scrutiny, and evidence is all around. Consider, for one example, the technological and manufacturing leaps of companies such as Tesla,
the electric car maker, now the country's most valuable car manufacturer.
Now, instead of supplying key government support for the technological developments that have dazzled the world as American individuals and businesses have reached toward the future, under Trump, the government will act as an impediment to progress.
Trump claims he will work to come up with a better climate deal. That is a doubtful proposition. So far, he has not even managed to establish leadership in the global nationalist movement, which his campaign had flirted with so alarmingly. Since he was elected, the far-right in Europe has instead gone on a losing streak, with voters troubled
by what they see happening in America. That is good news.
If there is any consolation in all of this it is that, while Trump is no longer leader of the free world, America -- the country and its people -- has not fully abdicated. American institutions are still working to promote individual rights, democracy, rule of law, freedom of expression, and protection of the environment through innovation.
The President is moving in one direction, but the entire country is not following. Quite the opposite. Trump's reversal of US policies has energized those fighting to preserve them. Trump has lost the title, but many Americans are still determined to promote the values that made the United States a global leader.