The Fourth of July is an American holiday that goes uncelebrated in much of the rest of the world.
At home, the Stars and Stripes flutter. The pleasing aroma from backyard cookouts pervades the air. And as dusk descends, the skies explode with a crescendo of fireworks celebrating life, liberty, and happiness.
Abroad, America is seen as many things, not all of them complimentary. The US is rich and powerful, and that sometimes engenders envy, derision, and - as we have seen with the onset of terrorism - hatred.
America is not a perfect society, but it is truly a remarkable one. It is built on a desire for freedom, and a conviction on the part of most Americans that this freedom should not be hugged selfishly to themselves, but is a right to which all mankind is entitled.
It is a belief that has motivated Americans to fight against fascism in World War II, and for presidents like John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan to inveigh against the Berlin Wall and communism's "evil empire." It is a belief that underpins US attitudes toward the rest of the world even though US diplomacy is sometimes marred by missteps and miscalculations.
The desire for freedom is one of the great, driving historical forces of our times. I have watched it simmer, erupt, and surge in countries from South Africa, to Indonesia, to the Philippines, to Latin America, and to Russia and a host of countries in Eastern Europe. One of the most satisfying experiences in my life was a stint at the Voice of America during the bad old days of the cold war. From behind the Iron Curtain, notes and messages would trickle in, telling of Russians and other East Europeans who listened at some peril to VOA broadcasts, and who pleaded for continued broadcasts to keep the flame of liberty flickering.
People who have never known freedom still yearn for the freedoms that Americans take for granted - freedom to worship in the faith of their choice, to live where they want, to travel where they will, to work at a profession of their choosing in a free-market economy.
The good news is that the overall trend throughout the world is in a positive direction. The bad news is that there are still too many countries where such freedoms do not exist. The worst laggards are in the Arab lands of the Middle East. But even in some of the Gulf states there is movement. In Islamic Iran, there is a youthful stirring against a stifling theocracy. In Iraq, 23 million Iraqis, free from the despotic rule of Saddam Hussein, have a better chance than ever to make their own mistakes.
Iraq may be a good example for Americans impatient with the distance to be traveled from liberation to democracy, in the Western sense. In a new book, "The Future of Freedom," which has attracted attention in the foreign-affairs community, Newsweek International editor Fareed Zakaria reminds us that "spreading democracy is tough." Some liberated countries, he argues, citing East Timor and Afghanistan - and perhaps Iraq - need to wait for elections, perhaps for a five-year period of transition, until civic institutions, courts, political parties, and the economy have all begun to function. "As with everything in life," he writes, "timing matters."
The present unrest in Iraq must surely be succeeded by law and order before elections could be contemplated. Police - whether Iraqi, American, or international - must take the place of soldiers in full body armor. The US administration is moving to reform the court system. An unbridled free press is sprouting. But strong regional, ethnic, and religious tensions abound. Amid all this turmoil, an acute need is the transformation of the Iraqi economy. L. Paul Bremer, the top US official in Iraq, explained in a Wall Street Journal article last month that the birth of a vibrant private sector is key. This will require selling off fiscally inefficient state enterprises to private investors, the promotion of foreign trade, and mobilization of domestic and foreign capital. A free economy bodes well for the growth of democracy.
Though critics may harp, America remains for much of the world a beacon of liberty and opportunity. It is to America that every restless and politically dispossessed student in the underdeveloped world wants to flee - not to China, or even emancipated Russia.
America to them stands for freedom. It is that freedom, deeply cherished by Americans, for which they long.
• John Hughes, editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News, is a former editor of the Monitor.