The good news: Democracy is breaking out all over. The awkward news: The more that people freely vote, the more fervently they reject the global designs of George W. Bush and the America he projects.
In the Middle East, the people have freely chosen two governments that could not be more a repudiation of Bush's vision for the region, nor more alarming to broader hopes of peace and stability -- Hamas in Palestine and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran. Even in Iraq, whose election was held under direct American tutelage, our preferred henchmen were decisively ousted.
In Latin America, voters in Venezuela, Brazil, Bolivia, and most recently Chile, have chosen governments that are social-democratic at best and caudillo-populist at worst. Mexico, where a popular radical, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, leads all polls, is probably next. Some, like Chile's new president, Michelle Bachelet, are admirable, others less so. But none supports Bush's vision of corporate globalism.
America was once a universal beacon. Ever since America asserted global leadership in the mid-20th century, people around the world have expressed nothing so much as ambivalence.
They despised the US military might that frequently installed local dictators who served Washington and Wall Street, enriched themselves, and slaughtered domestic opponents; they continued to admire America's internal democracy and vitality.
They hated the economic imperialism that often made their local economies appendages of America's; they liked the consumer products and spread of advanced technologies.
They resented the universal projection of America's pop culture at the expense of their own; they wore the jeans, bought the records, and flocked to the movies.
The most effective of US postwar presidents deftly navigated this complex ambivalence. They maximized what people everywhere like about America -- the openness, the idealism, the dynamism, the support for universal human rights. American presidents sometimes resorted to force, but tried to do so after consultation and consensus. Until lately, global public opinion, on balance, respected America.
Enter George W. Bush. He offered the worst possible combination of strategies -- unilateral swagger, combined with loudly proclaimed promotion of democracy. Should anyone be surprised when the democratic elections produce a string of repudiations? Or that America dare not foment democracy in its faithful despotic allies, Egypt or Saudi Arabia, lest the people vote in two more radically Islamist regimes?
It used to be an article of faith that free elections and the American way of life went together. During the Cold War we reassured ourselves that no nation had ever freely voted in a communist government. But evidently the post-Cold War world is different.
Yes, the roots of this backlash go far beyond the presidency of George W. Bush. They date back a century, to the era of gunboat diplomacy in Latin America, and the imperial carving-up of the former Ottoman empire into modern Mideast states of convenience, ruled by instant dynasties created by Winston Churchill and western oil companies.
More recently, the backlash reflects local resentment of the ''Washington consensus" -- the imposition of one-size-fits-all economic policies that have shredded local safety nets and advantaged a global corporate class at the expense of ordinary people. But however complex their roots, the festering resentments are now deeply embedded in local cultures.
Some of those cultures have features that are truly odious by universal standards, like repression of women, brutal versions of summary justice, and religious fanaticism. But they become more deeply popular, precisely to the extent that America misunderstands them and attempts unilaterally to impose its own order.
Bush is not a widely read or worldly man. What's truly astonishing is that the neo-conservative cabal of advisers who got control of his foreign policy, many of them serious intellectuals, could believe that the United States could simultaneously promote disdainful imposition of its military might and expect that proliferation of democracy would yield popular governments that were also faithful US clients.
Given this backlash, some neo-cons have lately put in a kind word for empire. This, at least, has the virtue of consistency. But empire is not exactly attractive to the global public, much less feasible.
The world that Bush inherited was not an easy place in which to promote US-style civil society, or a civil world order. But Bush has poured oil on the flames (or in his case, flames on the oil).
It will take decades to undo the damage and restore a world in which pro-democracy again equals pro-America. In the meantime, we need nothing so much as an outbreak of democracy at home.
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect. His column appears regularly in the Globe.
© 2006 The Boston Globe