Confidence in America

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By Madeleine K. Albright
Monday, January 7, 2008

I believe the most precious gift the next president could bestow upon America is an end to the politics of fear.

Fear, of course, has its place. Seven decades ago, the world did not fear Hitler enough. Today, Iraq remains a powder keg, Afghanistan a struggle, Iran a potential danger and North Korea a puzzle not yet solved. Pakistan combines all the elements that give us an international migraine. Al-Qaeda and its offshoots deserve our most urgent attention, because when people say they want to kill us, we would be fools not to take them at their word.

Still, we have had an overdose of fear in recent times.

We have been told to be afraid so that we might be less protective of our Constitution, less mindful of international law, less respectful toward allies, less discerning in our search for truth and less rigorous in questioning what our leaders tell us. We have been exhorted by the White House to embrace a culture of fear that has driven and narrowed our foreign policy while poisoning our ability to communicate effectively with others.

One manifestation of fear is an unwillingness to think seriously about alternative perspectives. America's standing in the world has been in free fall these past few years because our country is perceived as trying to impose its own reality -- to fashion a world that is safe and comfortable for us with little regard for the views of anyone else.

I love America deeply and I believe our country is still the best in the world, but I also believe we have developed a dangerous lack of self-awareness. No nukes, we say, while possessing the world's largest arsenal. Respect the law, we demand, while disregarding the Geneva Conventions. You're with us or against us, we declare, while ignoring the impact of our actions on Turkey and the Middle East. Hands off Iraq, we warn, while our troops occupy Baghdad. Beware China's military, we cry, while spending as much on defense as the rest of the world combined. Honor the future, we preach, while going AWOL on climate change.

We need to do a better job of seeing ourselves as others do. It strikes the world as ludicrous that we -- with all our wealth and power -- seem so afraid of terrorists, rogue states, illegal immigrants and foreign economic competition. People put themselves in our shoes and expect us to act with confidence, and so we should, but true confidence is shown by a willingness to enter into difficult debates, answer criticism, treat others with respect and do our share or more in tackling global problems. Confidence harnessed to purpose is what America at its best has been all about.

We are 4 percent of a planet that is half Asian, half poor, one-third Muslim and by and large far more familiar with recent American actions than with our country's past accomplishments. To many, the Bush administration is America. Our reputation is in disrepair. We will not recover by acting out of fear but by educating ourselves about the world around us, learning foreign languages, appreciating other faiths, studying the many dimensions of historical truth, harnessing modern technology to constructive ends and looking beyond simplistic notions of evil and good.

I pray that the next president, when taking the oath of office, will have uppermost in mind not the need to scare us but, rather, the need restore our faith in the American idea. That idea is based on our sense of unity and our commitment to one another. That idea is grounded in belief in democracy and burnished by our sense of responsibility to generations past and still to come. This is the glue that enabled us to overcome partisan political differences in earlier decades and to keep our nerve in the face of adversaries far more potent than those we face today. Combine faith in our traditions with the confidence to search for value in others, and we will have a far stronger platform for American leadership than any appeal to fear.

The writer was secretary of state from 1997 to 2001. She is the author of the forthcoming book "Memo to the President Elect: How We Can Restore America's Reputation and Leadership."


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