Hurricane Katrina has raked a vivid scar across America's image abroad -- and left its marks on President Bush's ambitious foreign policy agenda as well. Overcoming these setbacks will require a demonstration that the United States under Bush is not an irrevocably weakened and divided nation about to turn inward on its own problems.
The stories and images of lawlessness, refugees dying of deprivation or mayhem, and the desperation of befouled human sanctuaries in New Orleans have at times resembled dispatches from Darfur or Afghanistan. The initial shock abroad comes not from the sights of such human misery but from the fact that it occurred in the United States, which has always been quick both to help and to lecture those swept up in natural and man-made disasters in foreign lands.
The feet of clay of a nation that has regularly vaunted its standing as the world's only remaining superpower have been in plain view in recent days.
Here in the Russian capital and elsewhere abroad, the focus is shifting quickly to take in political consequences as well as relief efforts. European embassies in Washington are already reporting back to their capitals on how the disaster may further impair Bush's effectiveness as he slips toward lame-duck status. Diplomatic cables raise the key question of which America will emerge from this harrowing test of national resolve and compassion.
Will post-Katrina America be humbler, more cooperative and more understanding of other nations' problems and failures? Or will the United States let its active engagement in the world's human and political crises become another casualty of Katrina's winds and floodwaters -- and of the political turmoil they have triggered?
"I look at this and cannot believe my eyes," Russian President Vladimir Putin said when I asked him Monday evening about Katrina's damage. "It tells us however strong and powerful we think we are, we are nothing in the eyes of nature and of God Almighty. . . . We are all vulnerable and must cooperate to help each other."
Putin reeled off details of the emergency aid that Russia has offered to airlift to Louisiana. But remarks by Putin and others at the annual Valdai conference, which brings together Europeans, Russians, Asians and Americans for discussions on Russia, seemed to reflect an expectation of a fairly quick return to the world stage by Bush, to whom Putin referred at one point simply as "George." The two leaders are due to meet in New York and then in Washington next week.
But the Russian will find that Bush has his hands full at home as he tries to cope with the angry complaints of residents of Louisiana and Mississippi who feel they have received little or no immediate help, while the victims of Asia's tsunami were lavishly aided and taxpayer money was flowing to Iraq.
The anger over their deplorable conditions and the incompetent reactions by federal and local authorities that contributed to those conditions is more than justified. And no one can doubt that there will be some lessening of U.S. capacity to alleviate suffering abroad when there is so much of it at home.
But the kind of deprivation and peril that Americans have witnessed in New Orleans in recent days is roughly what people in much of the Third World experience every day of their lives -- with no hope of a National Guard ever arriving, or an escape route being opened, unless there is significant outside help, especially from the United States.
Our own needs should not drive Americans farther away from other peoples in distress or cause us to abandon them to their own fate. To the contrary. This crisis -- like those in Darfur and elsewhere -- underlines the common humanity and the common destiny that all nations share.
Bush will go to New York next week to address the U.N. General Assembly, the symbol of "the international community" that his administration has regularly derided. This is the moment for the president to show the humility he once promised to bring to America's world leadership, but which he largely abandoned once in office.
For all its horror, Katrina could yet hold a political silver lining if the disaster reminds both Bush and his harshest critics that America's role in the world is not defined just by the personalities and policies of the current occupants of the White House. America is big enough in heart, resources and intelligence to recover at home and be active abroad -- if it shows national unity in the face of national disaster.