To describe the general feeling about the United States in his country, the African leader offered a proverbial tale of a giant lion who led his pride in an attack on an antelope. When the prey was down, the large lion said the meat would be divided into quarters.
"I am the king," he said, taking the first quarter.
"I played the biggest role in the hunt," he said, taking the second.
"I have the biggest family," he said, taking the third.
"Now," he growled, "there is one quarter left. I dare any of you to take it."
Thus the origin, said this official, of the phrase "the lion's share," not meaning the greatest part but rather taking all, whether it's because you think you are entitled, deserving or just hungry and powerful. And such is the impression of the United States in much of the world, he said - the strongest nation, the acknowledged leader, an essential partner for any major venture and the most voracious consumer. Yet other nations dare not argue, only beg indulgence.
As Americans, of course, we don't see ourselves this way. We are powerful, yes, but fundamentally peace-loving - unless provoked. We assert our power, whether military or economic, only where necessary. We are the most generous nation in history. We do not seek global empire, but global democracy.
This Great Divide in perception here and abroad was among the subjects last weekend as diplomats, academics, public officials, assorted experts and a few journalists met for a conference on "America and the World," sponsored by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations. The council, an independent, nonprofit organization dedicated to further understanding of international affairs and foreign policy, invited me to the conference in Chicago and paid for travel and lodging.
It was plain from the discussions that much of the world is simply on hold - waiting to see what Americans will do in the November election. They want to know whether the world is going to change even more.
The U.S. assertiveness in waging war on Iraq took many nations aback. Few like the "with us or against us" excuse for a foreign policy under President Bush. But some nations do think it's about time America put some might behind its right.
But nobody wants to speak too loudly about the election, ostensibly because it's internal to America, but more candidly because they don't want to influence a reverse outcome. Many Europeans, for example, can't believe Americans would re-elect Bush, but are tempering their criticism lest resentful Americans do just that. Some Asian nations, meanwhile, are very comfortable with Bush, but don't want to say so because the job-outsourcing issue is politically sensitive.
These are very general impressions formed from a lot of conversations with a lot of people and in conference sessions where speakers were afforded anonymity to encourage candor. I will tell you that from here inside America, you don't have a sense of America's weight in the world until you hear speaker after speaker from nation after nation say, "we are waiting to see what the Americans will do."
Will it be four more years of Bush-Cheney, and if so, continued disdain for international accords that don't put American interests first? How would foreign policy change under John Kerry, the Democratic candidate for president?
"How will America use its power?" was a frequently asked question. The world, attendees said, wants a superpower that is predictable and operates under clear rules.
"Your constitution has checks and balances," said one Latin American official. "Why would you object to that with global institutions?"
"How do you stop a superpower that can do what it wants from doing a really bad idea?" asked one international expert. "Your ideas are probably going to get better if you have to convince other people they are right."
While no sane person condones terrorism, some at the conference saw America engaging in a futile struggle that is not the world's most pressing issue.
"Far more people are threatened or abused or killed on any given day from internal wars than from terrorism in a given year," said one veteran diplomat.
"You can wage war against Germany. You can wage war against Russia," said another attendee. "But how do you wage war against a strategy?"
"Is America going to remake large parts of the world to make itself safe?" asked one expert.
And there were constant reminders about the America that used to be.
"The United States has been a major author and promoter of international rules. But it is no longer playing that role. ... Somebody said the United States has lost its mind. But really it has lost its way. It's gone from being a model of how to go about doing things to an object of hatred."
"I would not mind America wielding the biggest Excalibur sword in the world," said the African official, "but for God's sake, put a King Arthur in the White House, with a good Round Table."
Most of the folks who gathered in Chicago won't get to vote in November. You do. And the rest of the world awaits your decision.
Ron Dzwonkowski is editor of the Detroit Free Press editorial page. Readers may write to him at: Detroit Free Press, 600 West Fort Street, Detroit, Mich. 48226, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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