And now, with a much-needed word about humility, comes one of the nation's wisest old men, George F. Kennan -- scholar, historian, diplomat, statesman.
Kennan's counsel, in the current New York Review of Books, flies in the face of our current habit of sounding -- to friends and adversaries alike -- like schoolyard braggarts. "The indispensable nation," our president and secretary of state call us, assisting us in our ongoing national pat on the back.
In an interview with Princeton's Richard Ullman, the 95-year-old Kennan -- former ambassador to Russia and Yugoslavia -- recommends some stocktaking. "What we ought to do at this point is to try to cut ourselves down to size in the dreams and aspirations we direct to our possibilities for world leadership.
"We are not, really, all that great. We have serious problems within our society these days, and it sometimes seems to me that the best help we could give to others would be to allow them to observe that we are now confronting those problems with a bit more imagination, courage, and resolve than has been apparent in the recent past."
The gift for seeing ourselves as others see us is not the first trait that others associate with Americans. Take the fact that we are confident these days that we're seen by all as the benign superpower. On the contrary, Harvard's Samuel Huntington warned in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs, elites in countries representing two-thirds of the world's population -- Chinese, Russians, Indians, Arabs, Muslims and Africans -- see us as "the single greatest external threat to their societies." Not a military but a political and cultural threat -- intrusive, interventionist, hegemonic, hypocritical, engaging in "financial imperialism" and "intellectual colonialism."
One antidote for our lack of self-awareness is reading portrayals of us from abroad -- as in the "international papers" feature of the online magazine, Slate. An example is this mid-July editorial from the Straits Times of Singapore, urging greater understanding of Russia's plight:
"Russia means to be taken seriously, and the U.S. owes it that respect. American cockiness over its display of military technology in the Gulf and Yugoslavia, and smugness over its longest postwar prosperity streak, can blind it to a need to cultivate its relations with Russia beyond promoting democratization. Russians cannot eat democracy. The U.S. should snap out of its hubris over Kosovo -- or the world could become very dark indeed if Russian hurt turns to mischief-making."
A second antidote is to listen to wise old men such as Kennan. "This whole tendency to see ourselves as the center of political enlightenment and as teachers to a great part of the rest of the world strikes me as unthought-through, vainglorious and undesirable. If you think that our life here at home has meritorious aspects worthy of emulation by peoples elsewhere, the best way to recommend them is, as John Quincy Adams maintained, not by preaching at others but by the force of example," he says in the New York Review.
I first heard Kennan 15 years ago, on the eve of his 80th birthday. He and his wife had traveled by train from Princeton to Grinnell, Iowa, to speak at Grinnell College. Then, as now, he advised "a greater humility in our national outlook. . . . We must bear in mind that in interaction of peoples, as with individuals, the power of example is far greater than the power of precept."
Grinnell students, impressed with the courtly, soft-spoken man with a clipped mustache and statesmanlike demeanor, took to calling Kennan "St. George." But this saint would not appeal to the soft of heart. He is a very clearheaded pragmatist -- a type we see too little of in public life today.
"I would urge a far greater detachment, on our government's part, from [other nations'] domestic affairs," he told Ullman. Comparing China to France, Kennan said both are proud bearers of a great cultural tradition, and both like to be left alone. We should treat the Chinese "with the most exquisite courtesy and respect on the official level, but not expect too much of them. . . . They are not going to love us, no matter what we do. They are not going to become like us."
National humility, a foreign policy that respects our own limits and rests on a deeper understanding of friends and adversaries: Kennan has long counseled such a course. Now -- as the Russian prime minister visits Washington, Congress debates trade relations with China, and our nominee for ambassador to the United Nations remains stuck in the Senate -- would be a very good time to listen.