BOSTON — America: a light unto nations, streets paved with gold, a beacon to the world’s tired, its poor, its huddled masses, idealistic, defender of democracy; self-righteous, two-faced, aggressive, and bullying. These concepts jostle with each other for supremacy when people around the world consider what the great republic means to them.
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At first the idea of America in foreign lands was that of radicalism and rebellion. The new ideas of government “of the people, by the people and for the people,” as Abraham Lincoln would later put it, was radical and extreme in the 18th century.
In the early years, the world saw U.S. ships in Zanzibar, the China seas and upon the Spanish Main, but the new republic was not yet a player on the world stage. When my great-great-great-grandfather was ambassador to Russia in the 1830s, he wrote home that many Russians and European diplomats had never seen an American flag. His residence was a boarding house in St. Petersburg.
Absorbed as we were with our own continent, the United States did not really burst upon the world scene until 1898, when we took what was left of the Spanish empire. By then industrial production was eroding Europe’s supremacy, and, when Europe tore itself to pieces in World War I, America was emerging as the world’s paramount power.
That power reached its zenith when President Woodrow Wilson arrived in France just 90 years ago for the Paris Peace Conference. Wilson’s 14 points, his ideas about self-determination, were at the same time confusing and inspiring. To his critics he was impossible. His own secretary of state, Robert Lansing, wrote that Wilson’s idealism “will raise hopes which can never be realized. It will, I fear, cost thousands of lives. In the end it is bound to be discredited, to be called the dream of an idealist who failed to realize the danger until it was too late to check those who attempt to put principle into force. ”
To his wartime allies Wilson was an exasperation. Prime Minister George Clemenceau of France said of the 14 points that God himself had been content with only 10 commandments. But in that age of rampant nationalism, when polyglot empires were breaking up, when Africa and Asia were beginning to seethe under the yoke of European colonialism, Wilson’s words were shots heard ’round the world.
When Wilson arrived in France “the streets were lined with laurel wreaths and flags. On the walls, posters paid tribute to Wilson, those from right wingers for saving them from Germany, and those from the left for the new world he promised,” wrote Margaret MacMillan in her book "Paris 1919." “Huge numbers of people … covered every inch of the pavement, every roof, every tree. Even the lampposts were taken.”
The world would not see such expectations for an American until the rise of Barack Obama.
According to Richard Holbrooke, Wilson was “idealistic and remote, naive and rigid, noble and conflicted,” which might have served as a description of the United States.
What made America different was that it was a minor imperial power with nothing outside the Western Hemisphere other than the Philippines and a few small islands. The U.S. wanted no new territory from World War I, a stance that was unique among the allies. Of course, America had done very well out of the war and was the world’s largest creditor nation. But in the Middle East, the U.S. was known for its educators who created schools and universities — not as the guardian of oil and invader of nations it later became. But the ideal land of opportunity lives on in the shadow of perceived belligerence, exemplified by the old cliche: “American go home, but take me with you.”
From World War I to the present day, America stood for everything new. American jazz swept the globe from Paris to Shanghai, as did American movies and pop culture. That accelerated after World War II. More recently it was the revolution in technology.
Many European national groups got what they wanted out of Wilson. But even in Europe, and certainly elsewhere, his ideas were compromised, and most of Africa and Asia would have to wait until after World War II to achieve their goals.
World War II increased America’s prestige, and the Cold War cast it as the “leader of free world” against communism.
With the implosion of the Soviet Union, the U.S. emerged as the sole superpower, but at times its friends abroad thought it had lost its way. As with the Vietnam War, the invasion of Iraq — done in such a unilateral way — coupled with the horrors of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, brought respect and affection for America to a new low.
American exceptionalism, the missionary zeal to spread our way of life, rankles abroad. According to the British journalist Martin Woollacott, "The world regards America with a mixture of hope, fear, and resignation, the proportions differing from time to time, with hope uppermost at the moment. What the world does not share is America’s idea of itself, with the idea that it is a country with a special mission, with special rights and duties that make it different from all other nations. A powerful state, and still the world’s leading state, yes, but not set by God above all others. A fact, in others words, but not a sacred fact.
“One reason there is cautious hope among ordinary people around the world now is that Obama is seen as much as a citizen of the world as a citizen of America,” Woollacott says.
The near-universal exaltation around the world at the prospect of a new president shows that much of the world wants America to be great, wants to trust American leadership, or at least not be threatened by it, if only soft power can take its rightful place alongside hard power.
There is, of course, no way that Obama can live up to the present expectations. When Wilson returned to Paris later in the winter of 1919, there were no longer posters or crowds shouting his praise.

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