Why Our Image Matters

One of the recurring themes in the post-election commentary is this: Now that we’ve elected Barack Obama, the U.S. has a chance to redeem itself in the eyes of the world.

Gail Collins, writing in The New York Times, put it nicely: “Today ... [we] can bask in the realization that that there are billions of people around the planet who loathed our country last week but are now in awe of its capacity to rise above historic fears and prejudices, that once again, the United States will have a president the world wants to follow.”

When I’ve repeated this sentiment to some anti-Obama friends, I’ve encountered a surprisingly harsh response: “Why do we care what the rest of the world thinks?”

Well, it does matter, and it matters a lot. On a personal basis, those of us who live and work overseas or in other international settings feel that we can finally poke our heads above the sand again. “I’m coming out of the trashcan at last,” one fellow said.

This is very different from wanting to kowtow to world opinion. For years, Americans have been ridiculed for all kinds of good things, such as respecting people who believe in God or refusing to ban free speech, even when it is abhorrent, or striving to protect unborn children. Most Americans I know bear that sort of criticism with pride.

But when our country is associated with the unspeakable shame of Abu Ghraib, the suspension of due process at Guantánamo or the practice of turning over suspected enemies to third-party interrogators who aren’t subject to U.S. law or media scrutiny, there’s good reason to be concerned about our image.

If the surge of enthusiasm for our newly elected president and the near-universal applause that we’re enjoying mean anything at all, it’s that the world really does continue to have high expectations for America. They truly want us to be the good guys, and they get seriously angry when we behave like everybody else.

“Germany wants to love America again,” a CNN correspondent in Berlin reported.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner put it more loftily: "American democracy has just lived through a marvelous moment, one of those major turning points that periodically demonstrates its vitality, its belief in the future and its trust in the values on which it was founded over two centuries [ago]."

And, from a civil servant in Caracas, Venezuela, where our name was mud even before the Bush administration, came this: “It’s nice, at least for a while, to think good thoughts about America.”

People the world over look to America because we’re one of the few nations that was explicitly founded on ideals of freedom and equality. The Founders of our country set the bar very high in 1776, and, incredibly, 232 years later, people are still holding us to it.

For many Americans, something's stirring inside that we haven’t experienced in a while. It feels vaguely like patriotism.

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