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America's apartheid mentality toward the world

Let's start treating the world's 6 billion non-Americans as equals.

By Helena Cobban / April 25, 2008


What kind of relationship do Americans want to build with the world's 6 billion other people in the years ahead? This question is urgent, since the past seven years have seen an unprecedented drop in our country's global favorability rating. In today's hyper-connected world, that has huge consequences for Washington's ability to protect American interests.

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To fix this problem, many experts – and even the presidential candidates – are promoting agendas to rebuild America's position of world leadership. They are right to try to repair our image abroad. But their focus on "American leadership" is misplaced. A smarter approach would be for us to build a new relationship with the world that embraces the key principles of human equality and mutual respect among all peoples.

Starting to see themselves as "merely" equal to everyone else may seem slightly scary to some Americans. But history should assure them.

I grew up in a Great Britain that was making a broadly similar shift: from the days of the globe-girdling "British Empire" to a situation in which it was just one, though still quite powerful, nation among many. That change was warmly welcomed by the citizens of the many countries that won their independence from London. But as I explain in my upcoming book, "Re-engage! America and the World After Bush," it ended up being very good for the British, too. As any recent visitor can attest, today's Britain is humming and successful.

Here's another imperfect (but also helpful) comparison. America's current relationship with the rest of humanity has much in common with that between South Africa's apartheid-era whites and their disfranchised non-white compatriots. Back then, most white South Africans argued that they were more civilized and more educated than the others; thus it was "best for everyone concerned" if they dominated national decision-making. A far-fetched analogy? Perhaps. But there are echoes of that mentality in the way some Americans still talk about Washington's role in global affairs.

And the end of the apartheid story really is a hopeful one! After fighting for centuries to maintain control, the whites finally sat down to talk with – and just as important, listen to – the African National Congress leaders. In the process, they found that those others were willing to work with them in building a new order built on equality and nonviolent problem solving.