AMERICANS could be forgiven a little puzzlement as they celebrated July 4 this year. Across a beautiful and peaceful land there were the traditional festivities: the parades, the fluttering flags, the homemade floats, the fireworks, the picnics, to mark the nation's birthday.
There were the veterans, some a little paunchy these days, but proud, nonetheless, of having taken up arms in defense of values they believed in. Some fought in Europe to roll back Nazism, others in the Pacific to defeat Japanese expansionism. There were those who joined with men of other nations to enable the people of South Korea to live their lives free of communism. And there were those who sought to save South Vietnam from the misery of rule by Hanoi which, despite their efforts, has so tragically overtaken it.
War does not come naturally to most Americans. The United States is not a country steeped like some in the tradition of warfare. Peacemaking is a more instinctive American characteristic, a sometimes naive but often touching desire that other peoples should have the same sense of political order, and freedom, and opportunity which exists in the US and the world's other democracies.
All this is tinged with a generosity, both collectively to nations in need over the years, and individually to visitors from other lands, that is perhaps peculiarly American. One need only recall the food parcels to an embattled Britain in World War II; the massive contribution to rebuilding Europe; the swift American response to famine or catastrophe in far-flung countries; the kindness showered upon thousands of foreign students in American homes this Fourth of July.
Why then, many Americans might ask, have hate-filled Arab extremists been ranting this week against the US, which they call ``the Great Satan''? Why, despite the efforts of the US Information Agency, the Voice of America, and other agencies charged with projecting the true image of the United States abroad, is America a nation unloved by some peoples and nations? How, some Americans might have pondered over their Fourth of July apple pie, can a country with such good intentions be so misunderstood?
It is often the fate of rich and powerful nations to be unloved. In poorer countries observing American affluence, the tares of envy mingle with the blossoms of affection. Yet even some of the Amal militiamen who held Americans hostage in Beirut wanted money to buy American cars and spoke incredibly of visiting the United States.
And so, if affection comes, that is pleasant, but the pursuit of it should not be the foundation of American foreign policy. What Washington should be seeking is not love, but respect -- respect for the principles on which the US is founded. It is an attitude that has served us well in our relationship with the People's Republic of China. All too often, that relationship in the past has been on an emotional roller coaster, soaring from hate and suspicion in the '50s to an unnatural sense of blood-brotherhood in the '70s. Today the relationship is more soundly based on mutual respect and pragmatic national self-interest.
When President Reagan meets Soviet leader Gorbachev in November, that is the relationship we should be striving for. Beware any prophet who suggests that the Soviet leadership is made up of just plain folks, and that if we can simply sit down and talk with them, the divisions that separate two antithetical societies will fade away. What we should be looking for between two antagonistic powers is a lessening of tension in those gray areas between them where interests are mutual.
Those who see the United States as ``the Great Satan'' have not lessened in number this past week. The challenge of diplomacy is to see whether the United States can, without diluting strength or principle, find areas of accommodation with them.
John Hughes is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who was assistant secretary of state from 1982 to 1984.