GIG HARBOR, WASH. — American power and America's decisions about the use of that power are often on the mind of people all around the world. Desperate citizens in Liberia, caught between warring rivals, plead for US intervention. Whether it is Indonesia's counterattack on terrorism, Middle East progress on the road map, Colombia's drug war, or any of a dozen other issues, "what Washington thinks" is often a key factor in local debates about policy.
The depth of this attentiveness came home to me in Jordan during the last US presidential campaign. Jouncing in a pickup truck across a roadless stretch of desert en route to a village development project not far from the Iraqi border, I commented on my Jordanian host's nuanced insights into the Bush and Gore campaign strategies. "Remember, he is our president, too!" he responded, as he outlined how the future of the Middle East might turn on the US election.
Americans harvest immense benefit from this stature, built as it is on universally attractive qualities. Our feisty democracy illustrates how a diverse society peacefully harmonizes divergent interests; our impartial court system proves that justice - missing from the lives of so many of the globe's people - is a practical dream; our wealth verifies that skill and hard work are a better route to prosperity than joining a warlord's robber band or selling opium.
America's example helps catalyze local trends toward a more peaceful, democratic, and prosperous world; in turn, those trends nurture America's own global economy and political clout.
However agreeable, there is nothing inevitable about these relationships. Naturally tribal and territorial, we humans align more to local urgency than distant precept. It is almost as certain as gravity that admiration will flip into hostility the instant outside example hardens into pressure.
Alarmingly, the "sole superpower" school of thought now ascendant in Washington seems to prefer pressure and confrontation over the subtler arts of collaboration. Republicans and Democrats alike seem oblivious to the consequences of the present dissipation of America's most vital international asset: its example. I am not the only international traveler reporting a sea change in attitudes.
A few years ago, one could expect an automatic welcome in a developing country. Nowadays, Americans abroad must be prepared to work through initial suspicion. Some even claim to be Canadian.
Make no mistake, much more than our national image or an individual traveler's comfort is at risk. The long-term well-being of American as a truly globalized country and culture depends much more on the perception of our national character than on the vigor of our military deployments.
Set aside the struggles in Iraq and Afghanistan to impose order en route to the birthing of two transformed nations. Even if America somehow turns those headstrong adventures into success, American stature in the world will still be put at risk by some very doubtful habits.
Example: the US economy. We benefit hugely by the world's choice of the dollar as its standard currency. Yet our budget deficit, trade imbalance, and energy practices reflect a careless profligacy that could easily tilt confidence elsewhere.
Education: The absolute heart of our international success has been our schools. Our children have been well educated, our universities the world's top schoolhouse for advanced study. Not any more. Sham reforms leave vast numbers of young Americans uneducated, permanently locked out of productive careers. Partisan posturing over pseudo counterterrorist measures is locking out tens of thousands of fine young foreign students. The American example of how to design a nation-building education system is fading into third-world disarray.
At heart the problem seems more arrogance than policy. We are too quick to dismiss the peoples of other countries as backward natives, too ignorant of how closely we are studied by people no less interested than we in peace, justice, and prosperity.
Is there a remedy? For starters we might expect more of our leaders and our media-star journalists. Both profit from hyping military adventures. Their public trust demands a more careful examination of the whole balance sheet of America's power - including the garbage being shipped overseas by our infotainment industry - than they have been delivering.
In this media-rich world, nothing is more visible than America and Americans. Our future depends less on how we push people around in our various wars on terrorism, drugs, and so-called weapons of mass destruction than on how successful we are at the endless work of translating our democratic principles into a credible example for those billions in the world whose lives are not as fortunate as ours.
For many, we are their democracy, too.
• Larry Seaquist, a former US Navy warship captain and Pentagon strategist, designs conflict prevention and community-building campaigns in the developing world and American cities.