The world should be thankful for the United States

Thank goodness for the United States. At his second inauguration yesterday, George W. Bush might seem to have gazed out at a world alienated by his unapologetic use of U.S. power. Certainly on his recent visit to Ottawa, jeering protesters tried to suggest he and the country he rode in on are uniformly despised here. But they aren't and shouldn't be. For without America we would truly be in the soup. Or die Suppe. In Oregon last August, a registered Democrat passionate about local self-government suggested to me that if the U.S. had split up during the 19th century, its national government(s) might be far less unwieldy and impersonal than Washington has become. Perhaps. But my immediate and enduring reaction is that no possible benefits could compensate for the horrors of a 20th century without the overwhelming, if sometimes tardy, power of the United States, and I expect the same will be true of the 21st. She declared it a welcome change from habitual America-bashing by foreigners, including Canadians.

This fall, newspapers worldwide highlighted polls saying people from Spain to South Korea far preferred John Kerry to George Bush. It seemed a bit odd, since most also claimed not to see much difference between Democrats and Republicans. But it's a proxy for resenting American exceptionalism, as is majorities everywhere liking Americans though majorities in Canada, Britain, Mexico and South Korea said American culture threatened their own (Canada's 60 to 38 took paranoid gold here). In at least four countries, people massively told pollsters the U.S. exercises too much influence in the world - in Canada 86-11 - while a majority in Canada, Japan and South Korea denied America was respected in the world or helped maintain peace.

Here lies the crucial inconsistency. For when asked is it important for your country to maintain good relations with the U.S., 90 per cent or more said yes in Canada, France, Japan, Australia, Mexico and South Korea. If menaced by a tyranny, they would run to Uncle Sam, confidently expecting help. Knee-jerk anti-Americans throughout the West, including here, are as aware of their dependence on the U.S. as I am. The difference is I don't resent it.

Of course some aspects of America bother me intensely. But I never expected to get through life without irritation, nor do I see how a person, place or thing could be complex enough to be interesting without having some annoying qualities. From Wall Street to Harvard to Hollywood, the U.S. has something to irritate, and delight, everyone. And this dynamic diversity accounts for its overwhelming power and its crucial impact, not just on what happens in the world, but on what conceivably might happen. Sure, America makes mistakes in foreign policy; so does Canada. But it is strong enough to crush those who wage war on freedom anyway, and that's what matters.

I wish I could share widely the most important book Osama bin Laden didn't read: Victor Davis Hanson's Carnage and Culture. It argues that the West has hammered its foes on the battlefield for 2,500 years because free men eventually outthink unfree men, that for 2,500 years the West has known its foes and they have not known us and don't even realize it, that it is not we but they who are boastful and brittle. If a U.S. divided internally and at odds with some major allies could flick the Taliban and Saddam Hussein from their dingy thrones at will, the last thing terrorists should want is to frighten the West into concerted, sustained action against them. Size matters. But free citizens matter more, which makes the free world one large, if often chaotic, endeavour. Cives Romani sumus; in that sense we are all Americans now.

The U.S. is an enormous reservoir of strength for liberty under law. The colossus may suffer major defeats from the Teutobergwald to the American Revolution to Vietnam. But new legions arise and George III loses at Yorktown not York as long as that star-spangled banner yet waves. That is how deep the well is from which one can draw Bible Belt revivalism and political correctness, Michael Moore and Mel Gibson, Starbucks and McDonald's.

So I'm not bitter about being protected by the U.S., envious of its cultural vitality or ignorant of the connection. If Americans make me look bad, I should pull my socks up, not criticize the cut, fabric and design of theirs. The U.S. proves right makes might, which helps me sleep peacefully in both senses.

So I welcome a second term for President Bush. And I say thank goodness for America.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson