To President Clinton assures his people again, at the start of the 21st century, that they are the guiding light of the world. But the world does not invariably think so.
The president doubtless draws his inspiration from President Abraham Lincoln, whose birthday we celebrated Saturday, and who famously described his America as ``the last, best hope of Earth.'' It was certainly Lincoln who ensured that, so long after his time, an American president still can make so lofty a claim. For it was the 16th president who decreed the United States should become the greatest power history has ever known by restoring its political unity after the divisive Civil War and by bestowing upon it the aura of unexampled virtue that has served it so well ever since.
Served the world, too, for as even the most restless of foreigners must admit, American democracy has rescued us from many a calamity. The unity that Lincoln preserved, the vast strength that was based upon it, often has been a blessing to all humanity. The democratic system really has proved, on the whole, the best system we have; as Winston Churchill thought, it is wretched enough, but better than anything else. The idea that every human being is entitled to the same rights and opportunities, still fresh and bold in 1865, now is universally accepted (if not universally practiced).
However, Lincoln was not quite the immaculate prophet his hagiographers used to claim, before political correctness crept in. He was crafty as a politician, he was as equivocal as the next 19th-century man on matters of race and, like nearly all his contemporaries, he was not immune to the temptations of nationalism. He seemed to present the maintenance of the American union as some sort of mystic purpose, but what was it really but a dedication to power?
Slavery was dying anyway -- Lincoln knew that better than most -- and allowing it to die a natural death would have saved hundreds of thousands of men's lives, black and white. If the South had been allowed peacefully to secede, it only would have meant the emergence upon the American continent of two separate states of different cultures but similar political values, the sort of development dear President Wilson, with his devotion to the idea of self-determination, would have approved.
That would not have done, though, for President Lincoln. To offer a last, best hope to the world, to be its guiding light, the United States must be powerful enough to impose its example on everyone else. In Lincoln's day, this might well have seemed an honorable intention, in a world still dominated by antique despotisms. Today, the example is not so compelling to many of us. We don't so often think of America as a matchless model of public liberty. So many of us live in democracies now and have given up such barbarities as the death penalty or such anachronisms as the right to carry guns. From far away in Wales, where I live, your country seems to us an increasingly unattractive exponent of capitalist neoimperialism.
When I say ```us,'' I mean, of course, as all aspirant pundits do, ``me.'' To millions of people everywhere, America still is a kind of lodestar. Even now, most of mankind probably would prefer to be American, and the glamour of America still enlivens the gaiety of all nations. But President Clinton surely must have noticed the uneasy stirring of the peoples before the prospects of global corporationism, of genetic engineering or of the insidious domination of the Internet or of the ubiquitous influences of Disney and McDonald's. They are all threats to the individuality of lesser states, even to their sovereignty, and all of them, every one, are symptoms of that American dominance that once seemed the last best hope of Earth. It is one of the grand historical ironies that a republic whose individual citizens still are so wonderfully free of xenophobia or arrogance should be represented by such images and that Lincoln's benign kind of nationalism should have come to this.
But America's evident contempt for the United Nations, its public air of self-righteous know-it-all-ism, its willful interference in almost any political or military dispute, anywhere across the globe -- all these are, 191 years after Lincoln's birth, the legacy of the old boy's vision.
Happy birthday, Abe, all the same, from the other half of the world. You could not have foreseen it all. We are truly grateful for much that the Great Republic you made has done for us all, and most of us love you still, with your big feet and your old American kindness.
Morris is a Welsh author whose new biography, ``Lincoln: A Foreigner's Quest,'' is being published this month. Distributed by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service.
© 2000 PioneerPlanet / St. Paul (Minnesota) Pioneer Press