In 1985, pop stars Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie teamed up with producer Quincy Jones and three-dozen singers to record "We Are the World," an affecting if presumptuous song aiming to raise money for famine relief in Africa. The presumption -- that an almost exclusively American cast of characters could brand itself the world -- was innocent enough, and it raised some $60 million. Not bad for a night's work.
It's more disturbing when the presumption to be the world is motivated by power. Presidents have been assuming that America is God's gift to the planet since the founding of the republic, occasionally, let's admit it, for good reason: Compared to the sectarian, imperial, genocidal and totalitarian Europe of the past 500 years, the American experiment had its relieving contrasts. American presidents more or less have had the good sense to invite others to unwrap the American gift if they wished, but of their own free will. The impulse to invade or clear-cut cultures was limited to this continent and the one south of the border, which is more impressive restraint than can be said of other civilizations with chips for shoulders.
The difference since 2001 is as dramatic as President Bush's flip-flop on that very question. "If we're an arrogant nation, they'll view us that way," Bush said of the world in a debate with Al Gore in 2000, "but if we're a humble nation, they'll respect us." Then he went on to project more American arrogance on the world than William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson combined. (This is not out-of-thin-air hyperbole: Bush's wars will end up costing more than those fruitful warmongers' expeditions.)
The operative word of the 2008 presidential election is "change." But not in how candidates see America's role in the world. They all begin from the same Bushy presumption: America isn't just exemplary to the world (is it even that anymore?), but its only possible leader, its only hope. (See box below to read the candidates in their own words.)
The words sound harmless only if you're listening to them in the United States, where Number One-ism is taken so much for granted that it's not a matter of dispute. To ears overseas, the presumption, even the idealistic sort like Obama's and Edwards', is astounding. Who these people mean by "the world" isn't clear: The 50-odd countries of the Arab and Muslim world want American leadership? The European Union's 27 countries want American leadership? The 2.5 billion people of China, India and Indonesia want American leadership? The six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Saudi Arabia and the other oil-producing countries of the Arab Peninsula, which control almost $2 trillion in foreign assets alone between them) want American leadership? Not likely.
What these Democratic and Republican candidates mean is that 300 million Americans want the world to want American leadership. But that moment is past.
What the world wants, more likely, is a little less American leadership -- less unilateral Father-Knows-Best Americanism, less brutality, narrow-mindedness, intolerance, selfishness -- and more American responsibility: America as a member of the world community rather than its leader. An America that cuts its nuclear stockpiles instead of developing a new generation of nukes, that stops hiding behind the rising smokestacks of India and China to keep being the world's leading greenhouse-gas polluter, that cuts arms exports instead of militarizing the most dangerous parts of the world. Most of all, an America that stops presuming as a matter of policy (as the current administration's National Security Strategy dictates ) "to further freedom's triumph" as only the United States defines either freedom or triumph. That definition is on display in dismembered, demolished Iraq.
The world, in other words, can use a break from America's missionary strategy. Neither Americans nor a single one of the candidates vying to represent them seem ready to grant that wish.
© 2008 News-Journal Corporation