Over a raclette meal in Germany nearly four years ago, a man was interested in learning about America, Americans, and our view of the world.
I had to admit that when it came to our perceptions of the world, we Americans are a bit like the hippopotami occupying the baby's inflatable pool. In our minds, we take up so much space that there's little room for the rest of the world. We generally only see ourselves and so, we hardly notice Not-America.
I know, I know. We Americans wrote checks for the victims of the tsunami. We've done a lot of great things. I don't buy the argument that Americans are chintzy or cheap.
But let's be honest, the average American doesn't know the difference between Mogadishu and Mannheim. Some Americans' only notion of sound foreign policy is to hate the French.
But even conceding that the average American ignores the world, I told my dinner companion, one reason behind this indifference is that Americans are peeved, legitimately hacked-off, at being derided even by our friends.
Recalling circumstances in which the Europeans first wanted us to refrain from military intervention and then complained that we hadn't sent troops, I said, "We feel damned if we do and damned if we don't. We feel like the husband or wife whose spouse is never pleased by any of our actions, who gets criticized for doing one thing and then gets criticized for doing the opposite. It's enough to make some Americans want to throw up their hands and say, 'We'll just keep to ourselves.'"
Catching wildly changeable criticism is clearly something that any major power must endure. The millionaire's heir is always surrounded by a hundred people who condescendingly figure that they're more deserving and would use the fortune more wisely. Among the Lilliputians there certainly must have been some who wished that they were gigantic and thought that they would be better at it.
Of course the corollary to this giant-envy is that a giant can get awfully arrogant and near-sighted. For many Americans, the world is and ought to be an American playground.
Though all we Americans are pretty much the witless heirs of divine blessings, worldly circumstances, and the achievements of our forebears, we tend to see the comfortable life styles most of us in the US enjoy as our due, as something for which we worked.
Speaking for myself, I don't even understand things as simple as how electricity gets to my house or what makes a nuclear weapon do what it does. I am the undeserving beneficiary of God's blessings and the work and sacrifices of generations of brave and clever people.
But if it makes my international readers feel any better, I will tell you that in spite of appearances, we Americans temporize about the use of our power, too. Sometimes the hippopotami notice that the pool is not an American lake and wonder how best to use--or not use--our power. Sometimes, we are our own inner-spouse, giving ourselves the business, first condemning ourselves for one course of action, then lambasting ourselves for taking the opposite approach to things. I even sense that President Bush gets introspective on this score from time to time.
I just thought that you might like to know that.